Backing Up Your Mac

2000 – What do you recommend for backing up the data on your Mac?

There are many answers to this question; so the reader has to decide what is best. There are a few categories I will look at

Removable Small Storage

  • Zip and Zip 250: In terms of availability and sheer numbers of drives, the Zip is by far the winner. Unless you plan on sharing your backed up data with coworkers or simply do not have much to back up (more on this later), then the Zip drive may not be the best choice.
    If you do have a rather small amount of data to backup and do not plan on storing anything large in the future, the Zip may prove to be the best choice. Before deciding on this storage device, remember that you should tier your backups. That is, do not overwrite last month’s backup. If the last month backed up is January, make a new set for February. This not only allows you to revert to previous saved changes, it also protects you a little more against data corruption.
  • SuperDisk, Syquest, and other devices: These devices may be slightly better in different ways, but in terms of reliability they do not match up well to Zip drives. 120 MB SuperDisks are very slow and extremely flimsy, since they fit their storage media into a floppy case. Syquest devices may be fast, better built, cheaper, and larger than even the Zip drives, but they are not a good choice because Syquest went out of business. Other devices are much to young to make a decision on. You do not want to buy a backup device and find our, a few years from now, that you cannot recover your data because you put it on media that cannot be read anymore.

Medium to Large Storage

  • CD-R and CD-RW: Should you use CD-Rs or CD-RWs? It depends on what you prefer and how long you want to store your data. If you are looking at long term storage, definitely go with CD-R. Drives and disks are cheaper and last for a long time (reportedly some last longer than pressed CDs). CD-RWs are good if you plan on frequently updating data on the backup. Remember not to use oil based pens for writing on CD-Rs. Use water-based pens, or stick on labels. The chemicals in certain pens can eat the coating on your CD-Rs and make the backup worthless.
  • Jaz: This is the expensive alternative to CDR. The disks may be as large as 2 GB, but may cost as much as a hundred times as much as CD-R. Consider a Jaz drive if you are backing up information that you need to access more quickly than CD-ROM allows (say you need to play videos off of a backup without copying them to your hard disk). Remember, frequently using the data off a “backup” is not really keeping a backup.
  • ORB: I shy away from this drive for a few reasons. First it is new and unproven in both reliability and long term use. Second, it comes from a company that does not make any other storage products and could suffer the same fate as Syquest. My third reason comes from personal experience. During tests, many of the ORB disks stopped working after no more than a drop on the ground from three feet up. One minor accident could become a disaster if you have only one backup copy. In similar tests, Zip disks and (obviously) CD-Rs/CD-RWs worked fine.

Unlimited/Large Backup

  • Network drive space: This is often a great choice because of ease of use, available space, and reliability. It is easy to set up a network backup in your own home if you have an extra Mac. All you need is an ethernet hub, some cables, and an ethernet card (if your Mac does not already have ethernet.) A simple Macintosh II would work fine with a new hard drive. Everyone in your house or office could back up to it. If you were really worried about the data, you could then get a tape drive for the backup server and back it up each weekend. Setting up a network backup system would not be a good choice if you only backup a few MB of data each month (Zip, CD-R, or similar device would be just fine.)

Final Note: Remember a “backup” is just that – a copy of something already have somewhere else. Placing data on a Zip disk and deleting the data from your hard drive would make the Zip disk the primary storage device and you would then need to back that up to truly have a backup of the data.

Publisher’s Comments

Be sure to read Charles W Moore’s articles on backup (Backup Basics and More Backup Basics) for an overview of backup software available for the Macintosh.

Other alternatives to consider:

  • Optical disks. In my experience, magneto-optical drives are very slow. If you already have one, it’s a good solution, but I wouldn’t invest in the technology.
  • DVD-RAM. Not fast, but good capacity at a reasonable price. A double-sided DVD-RAM stores 5.2 GB of data. DVD-RAM is highly archivable.
  • Tape drives. There are lots of alternatives here: Travan, DAT, DLT, and AIT among them. For network backup, you’ll want a high capacity solution like AIT or DLT. For a single computer, DAT should be adequate.

In choosing a solution, look at how much data you want to back up. Zip 100 disks were fine with my 270 MB hard drive, a pain after I moved to 540 MB, and way too small for my 2.1 and 15.2 GB drives. See how much data you have on your drives, double that, and plan on backing up weekly.

With removable disks, try to avoid using more than 4-6 sides – or you’ll learn to hate backup quickly. With tapes, choose something that will allow a full backup without swapping tapes. You may want/need a second tape for incremental backups.

– Dan Knight, publisher, Low End Mac

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