The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

Great to be Back

October, 2008

Arguably the simplest, most important and least-used application for computers is backing up. Time was that this title went to anti-virus checking, but that now comes fairly automated and more people are covered than in the past. But with backing-up, people tend to live in a blissful Computerland that doesn’t actually exist – where no computer crashes and data is never lost. Well, computers crash and data is lost. It’s a Really Good Idea to Back Up. There are a lot of easy, basic backup programs out in the world. But here are some other, uncommon options for addressing the situation.

BOUNCEBACK PROFESSIONAL

BounceBack Professional is a comprehensive backup program that largely designed for full-system protection. That’s its core – yet it’s another, smaller aspect that provides a particularly beneficial (and seemingly unique) feature hard to find elsewhere. And one that’s specifically appropriate in this column’s context, which we’ll look at.

Many people use their USB Flash drives for backing up important files that they want to carry with them all the time – either for protection, or because they things they may need immediate access to. That brings up a couple of issues –

First, when using a backup program, they almost universally work with proprietary compression. This saves space, but it makes it literally impossible to access the files without the original backup program. And that makes your files on the USB drive useless in case you need them on the road. Or if you home is destroyed, along with that original backup disk.

Second, if you do then decide to manually backup your files, it can be a time-consuming process, picking and choosing each folder or even individual file every time you do a backup.

That’s where BounceBack comes in. Though its ideally suited for full-system backing up, as mentioned, it can also create “backup sets” in which you decide what individual folders and files you want backed up. You then run that pre-defined back-up set each time. So what?, I hear you cry. All backup programs do that. But – what sets BounceBack apart is that it doesn’t use proprietary compression. In fact, it doesn’t use compression at all. When BounceBack makes a backup…it does so using native formats. In other words, if you back up a .doc file – it’s backed up as a .doc file! Similarly, a .jpg graphic file will be backed up as a .jpg file, and so on.

And so, if you use BounceBack to create a back up set onto your Flash drive, everything backed up there will be instantly accessible wherever you go, the same as if the files were on your hard disk. Because they are exact copies of the files on your hard disk.

BounceBack is reasonably easy to use. It runs through a “Wizard” that allow you to choose default backups (like a full system, My Documents or My Music) or manually select your files. And where you want them backed up to. A few other questions are asked about options, such as if you want the back up verified. And then you hit “Backup” in the Control Center and go.

A few things aren’t completely clear. For instance, under Options, it implies that the program will do a Background Backup at pre-set times – but in reality, this will only occur if you later select Background Backup in the Settings areas. Also, the registration process is a little longer and more annoying than most. But all in all, the program run smoothly, and you can of course change options at any time.

So, even if you don’t use BounceBack to its fullest, you might find that another, smaller aspect of program might wind up being much more to your needs.

OWC MERCURY ON-THE-GO

To back up, you obviously need something to back on. The options are many -- from DVDs to external hard drives and USB Flash drives. Other World Computing offers a choice that combines the best features: capacity with size. It’s an ultra-portable hard drive, small enough to fit in your pocket (provided you have a big and sturdy pocket).

Measuring 5.5”x3.5”x1” and weighing under 12 ounces, the 2.5-inch drive comes in a variety of flavors from 80 gigabyte up to a massive 500. It also is available in numerous compatibilities for both Mac or Windows – connecting either by Firewire, USB 2 or eSATA. In fact, some units are double or even triple combo. (The device tested was 250 GB, 5400 RPM, with an 8 MB cache, connecting via USB.)

Use is simplicity itself – almost. In theory, you plug in, switch it on and go. An external drive shows up on your computer, and you’re set. The one issue is that the device seemed to arrive unformatted and not partitioned. This meant that, although it installed easily, Windows was unable to recognize where it is. Contacting the company, it turns out that the unit is formatted for a Mac, and a wizard is supposed to pop-up to automate the Windows formatting process. It didn’t in my case, and there was no manual included. In fairness, I received an evaluation unit that simply left the manual out by accident. The manual comes with the retail product and is also available online as a PDF file.

The process to format and partition is brain-dead simple…once you know how. A handful of easy clicks gets you set up. To be clear, this is not an issue with Macs.

Once installed, the drive appeared blazing fast. No intricate benchmark tests were run, however copying my entire, huge My Documents folders took only one minute and 50 seconds. (Fast as the unit is, OWC has several even faster, up to 7200 RPM and 16 MB cache.)

The device is extremely solid, with “shock-isolation” technology inside impact-resistant casing, ideal for portability. It’s runs impressively quietly. Additionally, the Mercury On-the-Go is bus-powered, so no AC adapter is required, though one is available as an accessory. It comes with a carrying case, USB connector and backup software.

A few minor issues. The cord is very short. If your computer is on the floor, you probably wouldn’t be able to set the drive on your desk. Longer cords are available for purchase. Also, on one occasion when attempting to eject the drive from my system, I was continually denied because a program was reported still accessing it. Eventually I just turned it off, which is not recommended. But this happens occasionally with most USB devices, and every other time the drive ejected perfectly.

The glitches aside (all of which are problematic, but easily addressable), the OWC Mercury On-the-Go is a terrific answer to one’s back-up needs. At the time of writing, a 120 GB drive sells for just $90, the 250 GB is only $125. Fast, huge capacity, ultra-portable, rock-solid construction and (basically) easy to use – and, very reasonably priced.


CLICKFREE HD701

Clickfree may be among the more intriguing backup options available. It’s backup for people who don’t backup, or are bewildered by backing up. At its simplistic explanation, Clickfree is a small, 120 GB portable hard drive: you take it out of the box, plug it into a USB port on your computer, and it automatically backs up your system.

As I said, Clickfree is for people who are bewildered by backing up. It doesn’t get simpler than this.

There is backup software built into the hard drive. It automatically launches itself when plugged in. At its default, Clickfree searches your hard disk for basically all known file types that might be some form of data, over 350 of them – text documents, data files, music files, video, photographs, spreadsheets, email, presentations and more, even Windows system folders and zipped archive files. You can accept its default settings, or configure it any way you like – adding files and folders, or removing them from Clickfree’s configuration. (To re-configure, Clickfree bundles options by the aforementioned types – this is for ease of use. But for people more adept at file management, you can click through to a Windows Explorer-like tree and pinpoint specific folders and files.)

Clickfree isn’t perfect in finding all files, but it’s comprehensive. Some slightly-obscure files got overlooked, but it was simple to add them to the list – either as a file type (ie, all “*.jnx” files) or as a full folder. One quibble: I couldn’t find a way to back up just a single file.

After loading, Clickfree gives you 30 seconds to decide whether you’d rather change any settings or access your files before backing up. If not, it searches your hard disk for files, which takes a few minutes, and then it backs up only the changes made since the previous back-up. The initial back-up will take a lengthy period of time – in my case, around an hour – but all subsequent are respectable fast. Once everything is back up, you can search for files either by browsing (in a “tree” format, like Windows Explorer) or searching a list. From here, by right-clicking with your mouse, you can restore any files back to your hard disk. You can also view photos with thumbnail images, a nice touch. Another bonus, though not significant, is that you can easily make desktop wallpaper and burn photos to CD using the backup software.

I was going to mention that an annoying negative was that the backed-up files only were accessible through the backup software, not using Windows Explorer. But not believing this possible, I did further exploring – and found them, though they’re inexplicably well-hidden. All the backed up files are there, not in the root directory of the H:\ drive, but rather (are you ready?) – H:\s\s\s\s\s\ClickFree Backup\1\C\. Why this bizarrely hidden? Who knows, but it’s easy to get to, as long as you click and click and click and…

Clickfree will allow you to back-up up to 10 unique computers on the drive (as long as there’s space, of course.) It recognizes each computer, and you just select which system you want to access.

I have a few quibbles. When backing up, there’s no running indicator, so you have no idea how far along you are in the process. When changing back-up configurations, there are “back” and “forward” arrows as you move through the screens…except when you get to the final panel. If you change you’re mind at that point, you have to go back to the beginning. There’s no carrying case – not a necessity, but it would be nice. And as mentioned, there are some files that do get overlooked, but these are few and more obscure, and it’s easy to add them. Also, there’s no way to back up a single file.

The Clickfree HD-701 weighs about two pound, and is very compact, 4-1/2x3x2/3 inches. It runs at 5400 RPM with an 8 MB cache – not the swiftest on the market, but it moves very quickly. Back-ups (after the initial run) are respectably fast. It retails for $170, but generally can be found in the $125 range. At the moment, it’s only available for Windows.

Clickfree would be good for anyone, though users more adept with their computers don’t need the simplicity of the product, and might prefer their own back-up solutions. But for many, and especially the back-up phobic, Clickfree could be a Godsend. Worrying about whether it backs up every file you want is a moot point for people who don’t back up anything, and leave themselves at full risk. This takes all the worry out of backing up – plugging the device in and leaving it alone for a few minutes is about as easy and helpful as it gets.


THE TORNADO

Having two computers for the home and road is a huge aid for working (some may even consider it a necessity), yet it brings about one eternal back-up challenge trying to keep them synched up: transferring data files, whether documents, music, photos or indeed anything. The Tornado, makes a noteworthy entrance for inclusion among the options.

The competition is strong, though each bringing their negatives. LapLink-type connections are fast, though require having the software on both systems; as a result, you can’t transfer between your computer and second-party one. A wireless network is near-ideal, but will only work for transferring where the wireless connection exists. USB Flash drives operate under any condition – though transferring can be slow, copying from one system and pasting into another, as well as requiring a slow install/uninstall of the device each time.

The Tornado has its own limitations, but far more advantages. In essence, it’s a mini-file transfer computer with retractable cords, compact enough to carry with you in a pocket. Operation is simplicity itself: you connect the cords to USB ports on each Windows computer and within seconds its software and drivers auto-load, and you’re ready to go.

For each computer, a split-screen appears, one half displaying all the files on the system you’re working on, the other showing the entire contents of the connected computer. You just find whatever you want to transfer – a single file, or multiple folders, whatever – and drag-and-drop it from this “source” computer into the “destination.” (You can transfer in either direction, regardless of which computer you’re using.) When you’re done, just unplug and retract the cords. No drivers will be left behind, the interface disappears.

The Tornado is extremely fast, up to six times faster than a USB Flash drive. As added protection for the wary, you can also set up an option that will make one of the connected computers “read-only,” so that nothing can be written over.

Though the device is small, it’s not nearly as transportable as a Flash drive. You’re also limited by the length of the retractable cables, however this shouldn’t be a problem most of the time.

At the time of writing, The Tornado retails for $60. It comes bundled with PC Eraser, a very strong program for protectively wiping files from your system that you want to ensure can’t be recovered. It’s easy to use, allowing you a choice of levels of erasure (from one, fast pass up to 35 defense-grade “Guttman” passes), and offers its own protections to make sure you don’t accidentally get rid of something you intended to keep. It’s a $30 value, should you have need for it.

All in all, The Tornado is a terrific option for transferring data between computers – not only for backing up, but transferring data after upgrading to a new computer – and well-worth considering.


CRUZER TITANIUM PLUS

An interesting backup option comes with a twist on the venerable, basic Flash drive. SanDisk’s Cruzer Titanium Plus is a very good, 4 gigabyte drive that comes with U3 capability – the twist is an automatic online backup service. When you plug the drive in, it will immediately begin backing up your files to an online server, with no effort on your part. (If it any time you don’t want it to back up, you can tell the software not to.) When your drive is plugged in, files are password protected, and hardware encrypted for safety.

This backup service allows you to access your files either on the Flash or online. If you accidentally delete a file on your Flash drive, you can restore it wherever you are with a computer, generally up to 30 days. Another safety option is “BoomerangIt,” a lost and found subscription service, though probably not as valuable as it sounds. If you lose your Flash drive, there’s a pretty darn good chance it’s gone.

The online backup service is best with a broadband connection, at least for your first backup which will likely be the biggest. Testing it with dial-up was painfully, profoundly, earth-shatteringly slow. The first six months of service are free, and after that it’s $30 a year.

The aforementioned U3 is a protocol which allows programs to be installed on Flash drives in much smaller configurations – and won’t leave any footprints behind on the outside computer you’re connected to when working. For instance, you can install a very good word processor, Firefox browser, Thunderbird email reader, and anti-virus program, among many U3-compliant applications available – many of which are free. U3 is very good and works well, though I prefer a competing standard, Portable Apps, largely because it will work on any Flash drive, while U3 requires a U3-enabled product.

The Cruzer Titanium Plus is very solidly made and quite small, just over 2-inches. It has a retractable USB-connector, so there’s no cap to lose. In a speed test, I copied my test files in 5:35, which is quite fast, comparable to the Lexar Jump Lightning at 5:10. Other devices took over 7 minutes, with one at 15 minutes.

It’s generally not a good idea to use a Flash drive as your primary source for files, and they should exist elsewhere, like on your hard drive. This means, of course, that you’d already have a backup and don’t need one online. However, if you’re on the road often, or regularly using your Flash drive away from your primary source, then it might be worth considering the SanDisk subscription to have your backup online and always accessible. The drive retails for $50.


TWW Notes

  • If you use Flash drives, here’s an easy suggestion, in case yours gets lost. It’s a way to add your "owner information" to the drive.

Open Notepad (a standard Windows program) and create a document with whatever information you want. I put my name, email address and phone number. (This is because Notepad automatically saves documents as a “.txt” file, which is a generic format readable on all Windows systems. If you use your favorite word processor instead, just save the file as “plain text” or .txt.)

When you save the document, give it a file name like: "! -- OWNER INFO.txt." The reason for the "!" is that this will ensure that the file will be at the top of the file list, should someone find the device and open it.

If you prefer, you can also set the file as "read only." This isn't necessary, however, but it just protects you in case you accidentally try to erase the file. It's easy to do -- find the file in Windows Explorer and right click on it. Select "Properties." Then, just click on the "Read Only" box at the bottom of the pop-up box.

Finally, just copy this file to the root directory (the main directory) of your Flash drive.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.

Copyright 2008, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He also writes writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. A screenwriter, he served for five years as a member of the WGA, West Web site editorial board and Editorial Advisory Committee.