The Practical Mac

Low-Cost Backup Solutions

- 2002.10.29 - Tip Jar

How much would you pay for a good, easy to use backup solution for your Mac(s)?

Imagine that you are on a flight from Atlanta to Dallas. You reach under the seat in front of you to take out your trusty iBook, and you suddenly realize that your iBook is not under the seat in front of you. It is back in the terminal at Hartsfield-Atlanta International - only by now it is no longer in the terminal, but on a flight to Tampa with its proud new owner.

Now how much would you pay for a good, easy to use backup solution?

Tape Drives

When most of us hear the word backup, we think of a tape drive. Tape drives are the most prevalent backup method currently in use. However, tape drives are not generally a cost effective solution for the home user.

A quick look at the MacMall website reveals that tape drives range in price from $389 for a Seagate Tapestor 10/20 GB (the number before the slash refers to the native capacity; the number after the slash is the maximum capacity of compressed data; tapes rarely hold their full compressed capacity) USB 2.0 Tape Drive up to $2,799 for a Lacie DLT 8000 40/80 GB External DLT Tape Drive. Add to that price about $150 for a copy of Dantz Retrospect Desktop Backup 5.0 (check the product description - it may be included for free) and you can see that tape drive backup solutions quickly rise beyond the low cost category.

If you need to perform daily backups in a business environment, the cost is well worth it. The flexibility and power of a nightly automated unattended backup is unparalleled.

The typical home user does not usually need all the bells and whistles provided by tape backup and would be paying for features they would not use.

Zip Drive

The MacMall website also offers an Iomega 100 MB external USB VL Zip drive plus five 100 MB disks for $79 or a 250 MB USB Zip drive for $129, no disks included. A four-pack of 250 MB Zip disks will run about $45. Software drivers are included. Later versions of the Mac OS include native support for Zip drives and need no additional drivers.

Zip drives are very convenient to use. They appear on the desktop, and you can simply drag and drop files you want to backup. Eject the disk, take it with you, and you have instant offsite storage!

Iomega makes software that allows you to automate the backup to a limited extent, but I have never used it other than for testing purposes. I actually find it easier to do the backup manually. I have a single directory where I store most of my work, and I just drag this entire directory to the Zip drive.

If/when disaster strikes, it will probably take me two solid days of reinstalling software to get up and running again, but at least my documents and other work will be saved. For many users, a Zip drive may be the answer. For some, the relatively limited capacity will be a drawback.

I fondly remember my Mac SE/30, which I used until 1998, and its 40 MB hard drive. I get a chuckle from the fact that, only four years later, I refer to a 250 MB capacity as limited. Those of you who had even earlier Macs with smaller hard drives (or even no hard drive!) probably get even more of a chuckle from this.

My iMac DV has a 40 GB hard drive, and I have used almost 10 GB. What is on it? To be honest, I could not tell you any single space hog. In fact, there is probably less than 250 MB of stuff I would actually miss. This just proves that given enough space, we will eventually use it all up.

Do-It-Yourself FireWire/USB Hard Drive

For the ultimate in speed and storage capacity, choose an external FireWire hard drive for your backups. Own an earlier model PCI Power Mac with no FireWire connection? Try the Sonnet Tango PCI adapter, which gives your older Mac FireWire and USB capability in one card.

Have a pre-FireWire iMac? You can get a similar hard drive with USB (it just won't be nearly as fast) or you can get Sonnet's Harmoni G3 upgrade, which boosts your Rev. A-D iMac to either 500 or 600 MHz and adds a FireWire port.

UPDATE: The Sonnet HARMONi card was incompatible with early versions of Mac OS X 10.4. The FireWire port would tie up 100% of CPU resources. This problem was fixed in version 10.4.7 (if not earlier). If you have a HARMONi card that's had this issue, be aware that updating to 10.4.7 or newer should fix it.

A 120 GB FireWire hard drive will typically cost between $260-$280. Using Price Watch, you may be able to find one for less.

However, if you have an extra hard drive you are not using, you can buy a FireWire drive enclosure for $60-90 and put your old drive in it. This makes use of your extra hardware and saves money as well. If you outgrow your backup capacity, just buy a larger hard drive and put it in the enclosure. When I upgraded the hard drive on my iMac DV from the stock 10 GB to a 40 GB drive, I put the old one in a FireWire case and now use it for backups.

The two main qualifications for me to consider a backup solution "good" are that It must be affordable and easy to use. If it is not affordable, the user won't buy it. If it is difficult to use, they won't bother performing backups.

For most consumers, either a Zip drive or external hard drive fit both categories nicely. Many of us routinely put off these purchases, using the rationale that we just don't have the money right now.

A good low-cost backup system will pay for itself if you need it and use it even once. Coming from someone who can say, "Been there, done that," trust me on this one. LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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