There's no way around it: Malware happens, drive failure happens, natural disaster happens. If your data isn't backed up, it's gone -- or it will require an extremely expensive, not-certain-to-succeed recovery operation.
If all you have on your system are scribblings and unimportant downloads, you might not care. But you probably have something of value: scanned pictures of ancestors, wedding videos, a presentation you worked all week on, the song that's going to make you famous.
It pays to back up, and it has never been easier to do so. No matter what method you're most comfortable with, be it traditional file-based backup, image backup, or continuous data protection, one of the following 15 tools will do the trick.
Traditional backup (also called file-based backup) programs read and write data at the file level, and are the oldest type of backup available. The biggest distinctions between products lie in their ability to back up open files (files being edited by apps, or locked by the operating system), support for professional hardware such as tape drives, and disaster recovery -- namely, the ability to boot from a CD and restore the system as well as data.
(Note: Roxio is releasing a new version of the venerable Backup MyPC, but it wasn't available in time for this review.)
CyberLink PowerBackup 2.5
If you're searching for easy-to-use traditional backup but you don't need disaster recovery, look no further. PowerBackup has the friendliest user interface in this roundup. Its approach helps you get up to speed quickly without unnecessarily shielding you from the concepts you need to understand to form an effective backup strategy. The program also has all the features that average users need, including full/incremental/differential backup, files comparison, and versatile scheduling.
What's missing are tape-drive support (not an issue for most users, who back up to hard drive or CD/DVD) and true disaster recovery -- it gives you no way to create a boot disc. However, PowerBackup does create self-restorable backups: Simply click on your latest backup (it'll have an ".exe" extension), and up pops a little dialog box asking if you want to restore the files to their original location or a new one. Since reinstalling Vista isn't that painful, disaster recovery isn't the issue it once was, though it would behoove CyberLink to look into adding a boot-disc option in version 3.
Price: $40; 30-day trial
Download PowerBackup 2.5
EMC Retrospect 7.5
Retrospect is unquestionably the most powerful consumer backup program on the market today. Its features are second to none, covering full/incremental/differential backups, disaster recovery, automatic updating, open-file backup, and even plain file copying. You name it, this program has it. You even get a scripting tool for creating complex backup jobs.
Alas, Retrospect is neither easy to learn nor easy to use. It's conceptually complex (sometimes needlessly, calling jobs "sets," for example), and it has an overall layout and workflow that only a tech geek could love. It's also expensive: The $129 price tag ($119 download) alone will drive most home users into the arms of the competition. Still, if you want the ultimate in control over your backups, as well as support for tape drives and remote backup (invoking backups on other machines on the network), it's the way to go.
Price: $129 box, $119 download
Download Retrospect 7.5
NovaStor NovaBackup 8 Standard
Before the advent of Vista, NovaBackup gave even Retrospect's feature set a run for its money. It doesn't have scripting, but non-IT types rarely employ such functions anyway, and -- unlike its pricey rival -- NovaBackup is easy to use. The tabbed navigation, well-designed windows, and easy-to-understand language and concepts are a comparative joy.
Unfortunately, NovaBackup's disaster recovery features extend only to XP. If you run the program on Vista, the option to create a recovery disc isn't available. NovaStor has developed a Vista restore function but is currently hammering out the distribution agreement with Microsoft.
Aside from the aforementioned omissions, NovaBackup has a full bag of tricks: full/incremental/differential backup, open-file backup, scheduling, plain file copying, and support for a wide variety of tape drives in addition to the usual hard-drive and optical-drive support. One feature that sets it apart from the crowd is an integrated virus scanner that helps you make sure all your files are uninfected before you back them up.
Price: $50; 15-day trial
Download NovaBackup 8 Standard
Genie-Soft Backup Manager Pro 8
Version 8 of Genie-Soft's Genie Backup Manager Pro is a substantial improvement over previous versions. It has the open-file backup function that was formerly a separate $40 module, and it adds disaster recovery to the full, incremental, differential, and mirror backups already offered. Put bluntly, Genie is playing with the big boys now.
Genie Backup Manger Pro is simple to use, with a versatile interface that has both normal and easy modes. The former features standard restore and backup panes presented in a step-by-step format with access to advanced features; the latter employs the same wizard-based workflow but with a cleaner look, and no tools or advanced options.
The new self-booting disaster recovery boot disc uses Vista Pre-installation Environment (Win PE 2.0), but unlike others of its ilk it offered no opportunity that I could find to add drivers ex post facto, and in my tests it failed to connect to my network. The program has some minor cosmetic and language glitches as well, such as too-tiny text in a dialog box on the disaster recovery disc, but I've never experienced a problem backing up with Genie.
Price: $70; 30-day trial
Download Genie Backup Manager Pro 8
NTI Backup Now 5
NTI's design philosophy is to keep things simple. Unfortunately, simple isn't always easy to use -- take for example the buttons labeled with numbers instead of their function. Still, you'll have far less trouble getting up to speed with this program than with a product like Retrospect, and the look of the Backup Now interface is substantially improved for version 5.
Backup Now 5 offers the usual basics: full and incremental backup, scheduling, and a compare function. It also has a nice set of utilities that display information about your drives, network, and system. Unfortunately, in my testing it failed to back up some open files (files in use by the OS or other programs).
At $50, Backup Now is pricey for a program with no disaster recovery. However, combined in the $60 Deluxe Suite with the Drive Backup imaging component, which does have that feature, it's a much better deal. Drive Backup 5 and Deluxe Suite 5 aren't available at this writing; according to NTI they should ship in November.
Price: $50; 30-day trial
Download Backup Now 5
Backups based on imaging
"Imaging" is the copying of the entire contents of a hard-drive partition -- the boot sector, operating system, and data -- to a single file. The beauty of an image is that creating or restoring one takes only a single step -- backup and disaster recovery just don't get any easier. That said, the line between traditional-backup programs and imaging apps is blurring. Programs such as Norton Save & Restore and Acronis True Image now have the ability to back up individual files and folders in addition to full partitions, and can even perform incremental and differential backups.
Norton Save & Restore
Symantec has taken great pains to make Save & Restore user-friendly by removing the concept of images from the interface -- you'd hardly know this program created them, for all the talk about recovery points. But it is indeed an imaging program, with a wide range of features such as full/incremental imaging, file and folder backup, scheduled backups, encryption, and compression. It also has a unique (among imaging programs) housekeeping function that automatically culls previous backups to keep scheduled jobs from failing due to lack of space.
Advanced users might find tunneling down for options such as raw imaging (copying all sectors) a tad wearying, but such options do exist. Unfortunately, tunneling down also reveals a pane with a download link to Google Desktop, completely integrated with the options dialog box. I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but I don't want to spend $50 on a program and find ads in my options dialog box. Symantec should be ashamed.
But the real fly in the ointment is that you can't create an image using the install/boot disc, only restore one. You do get a file-copy utility, but it's a much slower process that leaves room for user error when you're trying to save data from a failed Windows installation. The boot disc is Win PE 2.0-based, though, so you can load drivers as needed; it also provides a virus scanner, an extremely handy item in case of a malware attack.
Price: $50; 30-day trial
Download Norton Save & Restore
Acronis True Image Home 11
In breadth of features, True Image can't be beat. It runs from within Windows or from a Linux-based boot disc, creates full and incremental images, and also backs up single files and folders. It offers the usual compression and encryption options, and if you opt for the more expensive Workstation version you can also purchase a Universal Restore module that will restore images to a PC with a different hardware profile from the one that the image was created on.
Version 11's interface is friendlier than past editions, though still unintuitive at times, and it presents some very useful new features. Try & Decide mode, for example, works like a proactive Windows Restore, writing changes to the program's Secure Zone hidden recovery partition and committing them later only at your discretion. Turn it on before you install unfamiliar software or browse to suspicious Web sites. In my gold beta it caused a noticeable performance hit, but it's a nice safeguard to have.
In addition, you can now restore individual files and folders from a full image within the main program, as well as perform a quick system-state backup; you also get improved filtering and masking for file and folder backup. The interface may be befuddling in spots, but True Image is the best all-around backup software on the market.
Price: $50; 15-day trial
Download Acronis True Image Home 11
Runtime Software DriveImage XML
How can you say anything bad about a program that's free? Even if it weren't, I wouldn't. I've used DriveImage XML a number of times over several years, and for basic imaging from within Windows, you can't go wrong. It creates images with or without unused sectors (images of the former type are larger, but great for transferring a partition from a rapidly failing drive to a good one for data recovery), and it restores them whole or retrieves only selected files and folders.
The program is unique in writing header information about the data being backed up (sector locations of files, etc.) in XML format so that it can be read by numerous programs, including Web browsers. This feature may not be useful for the average user, but it does allow us geekier types to process the data in other ways. A module for the popular Bart's PE boot disc is available so you can restore images even when Windows won't boot, though creating a custom Bart's PE disc isn't for technophobes.
DriveImage XML does have limitations. You can't back up individual files or folders, it offers no encryption, and you can't restore an image to a partition smaller than the one it was created from even if the data will fit. But for the price, we're not complaining -- the program is the perfect complement to traditional or continuous-protection programs that lack disaster recovery.
Download DriveImage XML
Active @ Disk Image
Though the imaging module is only part of the attraction of this handy boot disc, it's a component I've employed often, and it's both straightforward to use and reliable. All the basics are there: You can create compressed, encrypted images and restore them in their entirety or just retrieve selected files and folders. Additionally, you get a raw write mode that copies all sectors regardless of status, plus a drive clone function. Alas, the product has no Windows-installable component, so you can create images only if you boot from the disc, making it more suitable for disaster recovery than regular backup.
The boot disc is based on Vista PE (Pre-installation Environment), so you can install drivers at any time in case you need to attach some esoteric outboard gear like a tape drive. While not as powerful an imaging product as Acronis's True Image or Norton's Save & Restore, the Active @ Boot Disc has some attractive disaster recovery utilities, including partition recovery, deep file recovery, disk wiping, a backup-to-CD/DVD program, a password changer, a Web browser (Vista PE offers network connectivity), and more. They're not weak throwaways either, but industrial-strength applications.
Download Active @ Disk Image