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Saved by the Box

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Dropbox cartoon

When I posted on LinkedIn that I was looking for subjects for this week’s Backup Reminder, David Battino pointed me to a blog post over on O’Reilly Digital Media. The post dates back to January of this year and recounts the hard drive failure the author, Darwin Grosse, suffered at Christmas—whereupon he discovered his most recent backup was four months old.

Ouch.

Since that time, Darwin decided to save himself from himself by using Dropbox. I’d used Dropbox only once before, in the course of co-hosting the For Immediate Release podcast back in May, so I thought of it mostly as a file-sharing tool, a way to synchronize documents across computers. This is certainly handy, but synchronization is not, by itself, backup.

But it turns out that Dropbox does backup, too. “It stores two months of revisions online,” David said, “So when a file went corrupt, I could backtrack. And backing up takes zero effort. You save your current projects in your Dropbox folder on your PC and they get uploaded automatically.”

In order to see how this worked, I downloaded Dropbox for myself and installed it both on Enna (my main laptop) and Mena (my netbook). Once you install it, Dropbox creates a “My Dropbox” folder that automatically copies any files you put in it first onto your Dropbox account (free for up to 2 GB storage, with plans starting at $4.99 month thereafter) and then onto any other computer you install the program on.

I can see how this will save me from crushed-USB-stick syndrome as long as I create and store any notes I take on Mena in the My Dropbox folder, and that’s great.

I’m learning, however, that instantaneous/continuous/copy-even-as-you-create-the-file backup is not a particularly good idea for all kinds of files. For instance, don’t try to make a backup of a Skype recording while you’re recording it. Bad things will happen. (In my case, it froze up my entire machine after about 15 minutes. If you have more RAM than I do, it might take longer for that to happen. Or not.) Create the recording first, save it, and then put it into the Dropbox. If you’re using something like Memeo Instant Backup that doesn’t restrict itself to one folder, turn it off or pause it until you’re making the recording.

But back to Dropbox and its backup-specific tools. Once you’ve installed Dropbox and put some files into your My Dropbox folder, you’ll notice their icons are overlaid with little green checkmarks. This appears to mean they have been successfully uploaded and synced. When you right-click on an item in the Dropbox, you see a new option, “Dropbox,” which gives you the option to see previous versions of the file. If you click on the link, it takes you to the web interface, where you can choose to either preview or restore earlier versions of the file.

On the plus side, Dropbox is easy to use and has multiple applications. It’s instantaneous as long as you’re connected to the Internet; if you aren’t, it will sync as soon as you have a connection again. And it really does provide for backup as well as synchronization, because, although it replicates changes across all the computers you have connected to it, it saves those previous versions.

On the minus side, only files in the “My Dropbox” folder get backed up. I suppose you could tell Outlook to store your .pst file in there…but I’m not sure you’d like the results, given what I said earlier about the potential negative effects of attempting to back things up while they’re in the process of changing. Outlook’s .pst file is one of those that doesn’t take well to being copied while it’s open. So if you want to use Dropbox for e-mail backups, you probably have to do it manually, and it’s not going to provide true e-mail synchronization anyway. Likewise, you’re going to need to remember to put certain other kinds of files into the Dropbox in order to get them backed up.  You’re probably safe enough letting things like Office docs just live there.

I don’t know that I would recommend Dropbox as a replacement for a dedicated online backup solution. I think too much is likely to get left out, and at least some of the online backup providers can handle backing up your e-mail. But I definitely recommend Dropbox for people who want to share and sync files and provide themselves with some extra backup redundancy in the process.

Finally, Dropbox hired CommonCraft to make their “tour” video, and I can’t resist including it here even though it doesn’t really address the backup features of the product.

P.S. If you use this link to sign up for Dropbox, you and I both get an extra 250 MB free storage space. It’s part of their campaign to get more users. I don’t know whether that quite counts as an affiliate link, but I’m pretty sure the arrangement is something the FTC would want me to disclose under their new rules.

I can’t see that anyone loses by it, though. I genuinely like Dropbox and think it’s going to be helpful for me. If you need to keep documents synchronized between computers or in a workgroup, you’ll probably find it useful, too.

Backups on the Run

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I spent last week bouncing around between conferences and meetings, which meant there was no time to review any new backup software, but all that zipping back and forth with the netbook and the iriver (does anyone else hate it as much as I do when companies refuse to capitalize their brand names) gave me plenty of opportunities to make backups and to think about backups.

Normally when I record something, I leave the original recordings on the iriver until I’ve finished my editing on the computer. This week there was too much too record, and too little time to edit. Tuesday at the Social Media Strategies conference I recorded 8 hours of combined sessions and interviews; that’s as much as the iriver can hold. When I got home (well, when I could move again), I copied them onto Mena (the netbook) and backed them up onto the Rebit. Then I copied them onto Enna (the HP Pavilion laptop) and backed them up onto the Metro drive, the second internal hard drive, and the Quattro. I still haven’t had a chance to edit them, but boy are they backed up.

Friday was the BACN meeting, which meant another four hours of recordings. These are supplementary, since we don’t use most of them in audio form, so I settled for copying them onto Enna and from there to the D, Q, and R drives. (They actually go to the R drive twice because I still have Memeo Instant Backup running.)

Yesterday I had another all-day event to record; I still need to transfer those files onto Enna and edit them, but this time I can leave the originals on the iriver until I get my editing done, unless I take a really long time to do it. It’s almost a month before my next conference.

Cruzer Micro by fsse8info Anyone who goes back and forth between computers is familiar with USB sticks. That’s probably why they hand them out as swag at conferences. (Though one of the ones I got at AWSMS09 was defective, and the other overheats awfully quickly.) I’ve been in the habit of keeping data that needs to go back and forth on one or another SanDisk Cruzer Micro U3 USB sticks instead of on Mena’s hard drive. Under normal conditions, a SanDisk Cruzer Micro looks like this photo by FSSE.info. The white part is a switch that retracts the USB plug; it flashes orange when the drive is connected and working.

Back in August, the BACN board was having a special meeting. We were moving the chairs around the boardroom table when one of them ran over Mena’s cord and yanked her off the table. The USB stick took the full force of the landing; the two halves of the black case snapped apart and flew all the way across the room. They were far too warped to fit back together. (The netbook, miraculously, was all right.)

crushed cruzer Here’s the kicker, though. The stub of the Cruzer was still in its socket—and the light was on. It was still working. You know that thing about solid state drives being more shock-resistant? it’s true. (Mena actually has ordinary hard drives that spin, but I guess they weren’t doing anything critical at the time of the fall. I do keep her in a hard plastic shell, but mostly I think I was bloody lucky.)

After I got home and copied the files I needed onto Enna, I tossed the remains of the Cruzer into the drawer I usually keep it in. Though I’d already been wondering vaguely about getting some kind of case for it, I hadn’t really thought about proper storage for the poor thing. (Nor had I thought about the fact that it could pose electrical shock danger, as the Ur-Guru pointed out to me.)

I happen to keep my count-up, count-down timer in the same drawer. And guess what the timer has on the back of it? Yep. A magnet. So of course the next time I reached into the drawer to pull out the timer, the memory stick was stuck to it.

I was sure the data would be completely wiped out. Anyone in my generation has been warned about magnets and floppy disks, hard drives, etc, etc. I was curious to see just what kind of mess would be left, so I plugged the Cruzer in.

Everything was fine.

I swear, this thing is indestructible.

I would never advise you to mistreat your equipment this way. And the injuries my Cruzer Micro suffered are just one example of how easy it is for USB sticks to come to grief, so you should always make sure to copy any information on them to your computer right away.

But I would definitely recommend SanDisk if you want a tough, reliable USB stick. And I’ve been pretty happy with their MP3 players, too.

Just Add Water? Memeo Instant Backup

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

When I first heard about Memeo Instant Backup, I objected that no program that backed up your entire hard drive could possibly be “instant.” Hard drives are getting bigger and bigger, so copying them takes longer and longer.

Robert Phillips explained to me that the “instant” part refers to the fact that the backup process starts instantly: as soon as you install the product, it begins backing you up. You don’t have to tell Instant Backup anything except where you want it to put your files. It’s designed to be easy enough for your grandparents to use, and the author of the press release tried it on hers to make sure.

I was expecting something designed to compete with Rebit, but that’s not quite what I got. Memeo Instant Backup is simple, yes. It’s got a colorful, friendly user interface, and it gets right down to work. It even works pretty quickly, and after the initial backup, its continuous monitoring doesn’t put too much drain on the system. But it’s got a little truth in advertising problem that you need to know about.

The reason I was expecting a software version of Rebit was this statement: “Protect your entire computer instantly. All files on your C drive will be included in the backup plan.” As I found out after running Memeo Instant Backup, this is simply not true. Let’s walk through it and see if you can spot what’s missing.

One minor but early irritation was the inability to choose which directory to install the program to, but that’s because I’m a “power user” type. The people this product is aimed at don’t care about things like that, if they even know they’re an option. There are very few options available in Memeo Instant Backup, but that’s a deliberate move to avoid confusing the user. In essence, there are two things you can do: back up everything, or restore everything. Oh, and you can pause a backup while it’s running if you need to, say, move or rename a file you just downloaded.

The interface is attractive and easy to understand. An illustration of a computer monitor shows the relative proportions of the different kinds of data you have on your machine, while a progress bar shows how much of the available space on your backup device is occupied.

Memeo Instant Backup's backup window

(In case you’re wondering, I chose the new Metro drive from Buffalo as the backup destination.)

Those colorful icons and the size of the completed backup should be your first hint that Memeo Instant Backup is not really backing up the entire C drive. Enna is a fairly old laptop, so my C drive is only 80 GB, though I have a second 80 GB drive built in, as well. Right now my C drive is about half full: I’ve used 40.2 GB. The size of that backup is 15.4 GB.

Contents of backup folderWhat’s missing? The obvious answer is “program files.” Memeo refers specifically to documents, pictures, music, videos, and “others.” If you look at the actual backup destination folder, that’s even more explicit. Instant Backup avoids operating system folders and default program installation folders, so the “Program Files” and “Windows” directories are conspicuous by their absence, are many of the subfolders from “Documents and Settings.”

Leaving out the system files is fair enough, though I don’t think you can make a truthful claim to back up an entire drive if you skip them. But there’s something else missing here, and it’s a pretty big oversight.

Not one of those folders contains my Outlook PST folder. For the uninitiated, Outlook stores all its data in a folder called Outlook.pst that’s stored in Documents and Settings\User Name\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook. You will notice there is no such folder here. That means that my e-mail, calendar, and contacts are not backed up. (Well, not by Memeo. I am, of course, backing them up.) Maybe the assumption is that everybody’s grandparents use Yahoo! or Gmail or Hotmail.

instant-restoreAt least the fact that these files and folders neatly replicate the structure on your C drive means that it’s possible to restore a single file via drag and drop, because you can’t do it through the Memeo Instant Backup restore interface. The only option there is to restore all your files, though you do get the choice of whether to restore them to their original location or an alternative location. Whether you will ever then be able to delete them from that alternative location seems to be an open question.

Memeo Premium Backup lets you restore individual files and has other features that the less expensive Instant Backup lacks. I’ve written about its predecessors before if you’re interested.

Instant Backup seems to do a pretty good job at the things it does. I do think the lack of e-mail backup is a serious drawback for anyone who uses a POP mail client, and that the claim to back up “your entire drive” should be adjusted to something more factual. Nevertheless, I like the program as a tool for technophobes who need to back up their photos, documents, and music. It’s friendly, easy to use, and unobtrusive. It will also probably improve in subsequent versions, the way Memeo’s other products have.

Buffalo Goes Metro in San Francisco

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

A few days ago I got a phone call from my BFF Jay Pechek at Buffalo Technology, apologizing profusely for not responding  immediately to my initial queries about Raid Troubles in Europe and his DriveStation. It turns out Jay was on vacation in Colombia and completely without Internet access for a few weeks. But no sooner had he landed in New York than he was off on a product launch tour and headed, in fact, for San Francisco.

So on August 27th I found myself back in the Market Bar with Jay and his boss Oliver Kaven, drinking artisanal diet cola, admiring the new toys, and dropping broad hints about my availability to do freelance writing.

Prior to yesterday, I had three Buffalo drives, two of which I acquired during my last meeting with Jay, in May of 2008. They are all solid, well-made drives that don’t give me any trouble. (Well, I seem to remember that Lachesis, the baby NAS drive, wanted to speak Japanese to me after a power outage once.) Lachesis could properly be described as “cute,” in the same way that my netbook is cute: she’s a miniature but fully-functioning version of something larger. But this is still a long way from “sleek” or “sexy.”

Buffalo MiniStation DataVault Buffalo MiniStation Metro

MiniStation DataVault

MiniStation Metro

The words “solid” and “workmanlike” are far more apt to come to mind. The Quattro frankly looks like a safe, and as for Vesta, the little DataVault, she looks downright virginal. Heck, she looks armored and virginal. Maybe I should have called her “Minerva,” but I already had an M drive.

But this year, in addition to upgrading its technical specs, Buffalo has recognized that electronics consumers care about aesthetics. As Engadget recognized in January, 2009 has been the Japanese storage maker’s year to get colorful. First there was the Cobalt (which Jay somehow never mentioned to me), and now there’s the Metro. Both are 2.5-inch drives. Both come with hardware disk encryption, Turbo USB, and Memeo backup or sync software. But the Cobalt is noticeably skinnier than the Metro or the DataVault, because it lacks the extra layers of cushioning that protect those drives from the hazards of portability.

Buffalo expected the Cobalt to be more popular than it was. After all, competitors Seagate and Western Digital have slim, colorful 2.5-inch drives. But Buffalo’s customers wanted security. They wanted to know that if someone knocked their drive off the edge of a table, it would still work. So the Metro was born, and it manages quite well to be tough and sexy at the same time.

First, it’s voluptuously red. A deep, rich, glossy, metallic, fingerprint-attracting shade. (All right, so it does clash with my hair. So what? I’m not wearing it as an accessory.) Second, the Flex Connect USB cable fits so neatly around the outside edge that it could almost be decorative flashing. In fact, it’s a good thing that the quick start guide provides instructions on removing the Flex Connect cable from its pocket. It’s also a good thing that Buffalo provides a matching extension cable, because that is one short USB connector. (You can remove the Flex Connect cable entirely and replace it with an ordinary USB mini cable, but that does expose the interior of the drive to dust.

Metro flex connect cable and serial number

The drive’s serial number is tucked neatly under the cable. The back of the drive is outlined in red anti-skid treads.

Naturally, I was eager to get this sweet piece of equipment home and check it out, especially since I need a replacement for Freya, my FreeAgent Go drive. Freya is the only hard drive in my collection that I actually paid money for, and she’s getting wonky on me. Fortunately, she has a 5-year warranty, so I just need to dig up my receipt and get the data off her. (The Metro only has a 1-year warranty, but does promise 24/7 tech support.)

Most of the data on Freya is backed up to Lachesis anyway, but I think that Ruby, the new Metro (unoriginal, I know), will probably replace her as my main backup drive anyway. Not only does Ruby have greater capacity (250 GB vs 160, though actually the encryption and other software take up about 20 GB), but she only needs one cable. Seagate’s portable hard drives have an unfortunate requirement for two USB ports, one to provide power and one for transferring data, and ever since one of my USB hubs died a couple of months ago, USB ports are at a premium. (And the problem with Freya is precisely that of getting enough power, whether she’s connected to a hub or directly to my laptop.)

So I plugged Ruby into my USB hub and got the Drive Navigator prompt, which offered to set up my password, install Turbo USB, and install Picasa. (I didn’t bother with that last.)

Passwords do not matchAnd here I ran into a little glitch. Not just the frequently-encountered glitch wherein Buffa
lo has failed to hire a proofreader to go over the user interface (ahem, HINT), but a more serious problem with the password setup.

If you make a mistake, you get an appropriate error message. For instance, the first password I entered contained non-alphanumeric characters, and I got an error message to that effect (except longer, and in poorer English, HINT). Then I chose a long password, and mistyped it the second time I entered it.

The third time, I typed everything correctly, clicked “OK”—and got a message that said “Failed.” So I did it all over again. Same message: “Failed.” So I clicked “Cancel” and went on to the next step, installing Turbo USB. That required disconnecting and re-connecting the drive. When I re-connected the drive, I was prompted to enter my password.

Failed error message The password worked, but I was decidedly puzzled. I took a look in the manual (included in PDF form on the disk) and checked out the program called, I kid you not, “SecureLockManagerEasy.” (I ask you. How about “Easy Secure Lock Manager”? Or even “Secure Lock Easy Manager”? It’s bad enough calling a pocket-sized drive a “Station” when it’s not meant to be stationary and doesn’t broadcast, but “SecureLockManagerEasy” has a sort of Third World warez sound to it.) This is what you use to change your password, and also to tell the Metro to log on automatically if it recognizes your computer. And it’s where you reset the drive to factory settings if you can’t remember your password, but you’d better remember it, because that reset wipes all the data off the drive.

I went through the password reset process just to see whether it would actually work if I did it there, but no. Or rather, it did work, but instead of a confirmation, I just got that “Failed” message. I turned on the automatic authentication, so now when I connect the drive, I get a notice saying the drive has authenticated. There’s a little white light under the red panel on top the Metro to indicate that encryption is on, just under the lock-and-key symbol (which is almost too small to identify). There’s also a little blue light across from it to indicate activity on the drive. It looks slightly purple through the red, just as the white looks slightly pink.

I also ran into some hangups when trying to copy files directly from Freya to Ruby. I’m not sure why this happened, but I ended up having to reboot my machine. I ended up reformatting Ruby as NTFS and plugging her directly into the laptop, and I’ve been copying files from Lachesis. So far there have been no more problems, so the root issue may have been with Freya, or it may have been with the FAT32 format the drive came in. (What is it with FAT32? Does anyone with Windows actually use it? Don’t Mac users have to reformat the disk anyway?)

Since the folks over at Memeo are pestering me to review their latest full version software when it’s ready (it’s in beta right now), I didn’t install that. Once I’ve finished the file transfer, I’ll revise my settings in Karen’s Replicator so that my on-startup backups go over to Ruby. I’ll probably move her back over to the USB hub, as well.

Now, to dig up that receipt for Freya…

GFI Makes Titan Backup Free for Home Users

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

In the course of investigating Memeo for last week’s Backup Reminder, I discovered I had a problem. I’d been using Memeo to back up my F drive, Freya (a Seagate FreeAgent Go USB drive) to my L drive, Lachesis (a Buffalo LinkStation Mini). However, I was not letting Memeo run in the background, because I had previously had problems with that. Memeo sends out little warnings if you turn its background agent off, but I never paid much attention. What with needing to see whether my version of Memeo would back up from a network drive, however, I opened it up, checked it out, and thought maybe I should investigate the state of the backups.

I discovered that there were some recent files—and whole folders—that had not been backed up. This puzzled me, so I ran the backup verification to update things, but somehow it didn’t seem to work. I tried deleting that backup routine and re-creating it, yet still, the size of the backup didn’t match the size of the directories I was backing up.

Baffled, I decided to try setting up the backup job in Titan Backup instead. This time all the files got copied—except a few that were corrupt. But it took a long time. And it still takes a long time every morning, even though there aren’t that many new files on the F drive.

In the midst of all this, I got a message headlined “Important Information about Titan Backup.”

Dear Titan Backup user,

We would like to inform you of some important changes to Titan Backup.

GFI Software has been working with Titan for some time and has made significant investments in the technology, which it has now re-launched under GFI. GFI will continue making major investments in this technology.

We would like to inform you that GFI Backup 2009 – Home Edition has now been launched. This version is being offered as full-featured FREEWARE for PC home users.

GFI Backup has retained all the functionality you are accustomed to in Titan Backup and also includes additional feature and improvements*. We invite you to try out GFI Backup 2009 – Home Edition, which you can download from: http://www.gfi.com/backup-hm.

Please note that you cannot back up with the Titan Backup version and restore with the GFI version. Also, you cannot import your settings from Titan Backup to GFI Backup, as there have been major changes to the configuration file formats.

You therefore need to install GFI Backup and reconfigure, as follows: Download and use GFI Backup 2009 – Home Edition, and run a new back up of your existing files, re-creating your backup and synchronization tasks as needed. We highly recommend this option.

“Well!” I thought to myself. “Something is definitely going on here.” So I downloaded GFI Backup 2009, but also decided to ask Flavius Saracut, my contact at Titan/Neobyte, what was up.

Flavius explained that GFI had been working with Titan for some time and made “significant investments in the technology,” and then pretty much recapitulated the information I’d already received from the sales team. I pressed him for more details. First, why make a previously paid product available for free?

At GFI Software, we believe that in hard economic times, vendors should work both with their channel partners and companies in general to assist them in sustaining their business until the economy bounces back. Apart from ensuring that we offer the best pricing possible to benefit small and medium-sized businesses, without scrimping on product quality and performance, we are also launching a number of initiatives to do something TANGIBLE to help.

As part of this, we have launched a We Care program and our first initiatives include:

That’s a laudable motive—even though I’d guess that neither product was a big money-maker in the first place. I’m always in favor of good, free tools.

My second question was about the differences between the two products. Despite the name change, the interfaces proved pretty much identical:

Titan Tasks
Titan Task Pane.

GFI Tasks
GFI Task Pane. (Advanced view would show same tree.)

Flavius kindly listed the following improved features in GFI Backup 2009 – Home Edition:

  • No need to be logged on to the machine for the backups to take place
  • Improved memory management
  • Improved logging mechanism, status product messaging and task view
  • On-demand check for product updates from GFI
  • Support for Windows 7 RC build 7100
  • Enhanced execution speed for tasks that include many files
  • Single plug-in restore options
  • Internationalization support for custom time and date formats.

So I set up the identical backup job and compared the two jobs. Interestingly, GFI objected to a few files on the F drive that Titan had not. And while it appeared to be slightly faster at completing the initial backup, the later incremental backups actually appeared to be slower than they were with Titan.

GFI Backup 2009 is easy to use and fairly versatile. It has a good feature set for a free product. But it doesn’t seem to be ideal for copying data from an external USB drive onto a NAS drive, for some reason. I’m not sure what the bottleneck is there, but its search for changed files seems slower than those performed by Karen’s Replicator and SyncBack and by Memeo. I much suspect that after the reinstall (which the Ur-Guru, who arrives for his annual visit today, has promised to help me with), I will go back to using Memeo to back up the F drive.

Nevertheless, GFI has some features I really like, and its speed is considerably better when copying from an internal to an external drive. For one thing, it handles both backup and sync. It also lets you do either incremental, differential, or “stacked” backups (the last take up both the most time and the most space, but save several complete versions of all your files). You can compress or encrypt your backups (either or both). And you can schedule the backup to run on Windows shutdown instead of Windows startup. This is a much more logical time to back up your machine, and also less likely to fill you with impatience while you wait for your backups to finish so you can actually start using your computer.

So if you’re looking for a good free file backup tool, check it out.

FileSlinger Backup Blog at Blogged

 

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