Backing up a computer is money, time spent well

Process: Protecting your data can be tedious, but more options are making it easier.

March 11, 2004|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

There are two kinds of computer users - those who've lost some irreplaceable files and those who will. There's only one defense - backing up the data. Too bad it's one of the most tedious tasks in computing.

Still, it's getting better, thanks to cheaper CD burning, better backup software and the spread of broadband Internet services.

A decade ago, it took a patient soul to back up a 100- megabyte hard drive onto a stack of 1.4-megabyte floppy disks. The coming of the CD burner would have made our lives easier, except that hard drives have gotten a lot bigger. A modern PC has 120 gigabytes or more of drive capacity, reducing a 700-megabyte CD to the relative size of an old-style floppy.

You run into the problem when you use the backup software that comes with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP operating system. It's called NTbackup, because it was created for XP's predecessor, Windows NT. The program works quickly and well. But it suffers from a serious handicap. What happens if you need to back up, say, 10 gigabytes of stuff?

To be sure, NTbackup can handle the job. It even compresses the data so it'll take up less space. But you'll still end up with a backup file that's several gigabytes in size, much too big for copying to a 700-megabyte CD-ROM.

It helps to be choosy about what you back up. Just save the unique, irreplaceable stuff - digital photos, e-mails, financial records, the manuscript for the great American novel. Some people are annoyed that Microsoft Word puts all word processing files in the same folder, but it's a godsend at backup time - you know where things are.

On the other hand, if you've got lots of MP3 music files, you needn't back up the ones you ripped from your CD collection; you can always rip them again. The same goes for software, just keep the original CDs and reinstall from them. But even after editing your backup, the resultant file might still be too big for easy burning.

For a relatively cheap solution, consider plugging in an external hard drive. You can buy 80 gigabytes of external storage for slightly more than $100. The drives plug into a computer's high speed USB 2.0 or FireWire interface and work nearly as fast as an internal drive. Not enough space for you? LaCie Ltd.'s new external drive, the Bigger Disk, holds a terabyte of data - 1,000 gigabytes - for $1,200.

You also can cope with big backup files by installing a DVD burner in your machine. A burnable DVD disk can hold up to 4.7 gigabytes, making it a far more practical backup medium than the standard CD. And the prices of DVD burners have fallen into the $100 range, with blank disks selling for $1 apiece, compared to about 25 cents for blank CDs.

But even if you stick with a humble CD burner, you can use software to cut backup files into manageable slices. Instead of Microsoft's NTbackup, check out Zip Backup to CD, a $19 program created by programmers in Denmark and available for download at It lets you do the backup in CD-sized chunks, which can then be burned onto disks. And unlike other backup products, which use proprietary compression systems, Zip Backup to CD uses the standard Zip compression system. This means you can open your backup files with any Zip utility program.

For the 20 percent of home users with a broadband connection to the Internet, there's another backup option - you can outsource it. That doesn't mean sending your files to India. Framingham, Mass., will do. That's the headquarters of Connected Corp. (, which will sell you 500 megabytes of remote storage for $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year. The service comes with software that will automatically update your backup at regular intervals.

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