After the big Michelangelo virus scare a few weeks back, I decided it was time to practice what I'd been preaching and buy a tape drive to make consistent backups of my hard disk.
I hadn't been attacked by the virus. Hardly anyone was, despite the most hysterical press hype since the great Comet Kohoutek. But the episode made me realize that I was vulnerable to much more common threats, including simple hard disk failure.
There I was, sitting with almost 300 megabytes of files that represented thousands of hours of work as a journalist, programmer and small businessman. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I ever lost my hard drives, it would take weeks or months to restore the information and cost thousands of dollars in lost time -- and even then, I probably wouldn't be back where I started.
The problem was that my computer's hard disk capacity had outstripped my willingness to sit down and perform the simplest backup chore -- copying files to floppy disks.
Luckily, the cost of tape backup equipment has come down to the point at which almost any serious home or small business user can afford a tape drive.
Tape backup has some major advantages over using floppy disks. It's virtually automatic. Slip a tape cartridge into the drive at bedtime, run your backup software and go to sleep. When you wake up in the morning, the backup is complete, and you're left with one small tape that will fit in a shirt pocket instead of a boxes full of floppies.
If you should ever lose a hard disk, you can fix it or buy a new one, load the tape backup software from a floppy, and restore any or all of your files in an hour or so. Tape backups are also good for restoring previous versions of files or critical material you've accidentally erased.
Internal tape drives that slip into a disk drive bay and connect to your floppy disk controller are available for as little as $250 to $300 on the street. External units, which don't occupy space in your computer, are available for $100 to $200 more.
You can also hook up a tape drive to a dedicated controller board that fits in an expansion slot in your PC. This setup provides faster backups, but it's also more expensive, since you have to buy a separate controller. People usually perform backups when the PC is otherwise idle, so the extra speed probably isn't worth the expense or the sacrifice of an expansion slot.
Most tape drives are designed around something called the QIC (quarter-inch cartridge) standard. They use small cartridges of quarter-inch magnetic tape that cost $20 to $30 apiece. A single cartridge can store anywhere from 80 to 250 megabytes of data, depending on the capacity of your tape drive and the length of the tape itself.
Drives are generally rated by their capacity. You'll pay more for a higher-capacity drive -- but not much. Most buyers today opt for newer, high-density QIC-80 drives. These can read tapes created by older QIC-40 drives, but the reverse isn't true.
When I went shopping for a tape drive, I had a couple of things in mind. I wanted enough capacity to back up my biggest drive -- 211 megabytes -- on a single tape. I also wanted a drive that would back up my kids' computer, too. That meant an external unit. Finally, I wanted to do all this with as little hardware hacking as possible.
I settled on a MicroSolutions Backpack 80, which turned out to be one of the niftiest little pieces of hardware I've ever used. While the unit lists for $669, it's available on the street for as little as $450.
Unlike other drives, the Backpack attaches to the parallel port of your computer, which your printer normally uses. You don't have open the case or mess with the floppy disk controller. This makes Backpack ideal for use with more than one computer.
Installation took almost 90 seconds. I unplugged the printer cable from the computer, plugged the Backpack cable into the parallel port, and plugged the printer into a pass-through port on the back of the tape drive. Then I plugged in the Backpack's power cord and turned it on.
The backup software was just as painless. In an age of programs that eat up megabytes of disk space, Backpack comes with a single, 64K backup program. It isn't fancy, but it's menu-driven and easy to use.
The first step is formatting a blank tape to prepare it to record data. You only have to do this the first time you use a tape. It takes about an hour -- a good chore for the computer to perform while you're eating dinner.
Then you tell the program to back up your disk and walk away. There are plenty of options, if you want them. The software will back up selected directories, individual files, or groups of files. It will compress your files on the fly, which uses less tape but takes a little longer. You can also schedule a backup to run automatically while you're somewhere else.