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.