Last week, I got an embarrassing shock: Some of my prized music and videos were missing. Lost forever were my unwatched Battlestar Galactica episodes, bought from iTunes and downloaded over many hours. Also gone, my bootleg of Shriekback’s Big Night Music, an out-of-print CD that goes for $70 used, and my live DJ set from a 2002 dance party. Laugh it up if you must, but it had sentimental value.
I’d lost these files, and many more, while shuffling between multiple offices, moving to a new apartment, and stuffing my four computers with beta versions of software I’d meant to write about. Never again! I needed a backup system that ran without me having to think about it. Because I don’t stick to one computer, I also wanted a fix that would work for desktop and laptop computers, PCs and Macs, USB and FireWire. I’d need a lot of disk space, too. I already made the mistake of buying a 20-gig drive that couldn’t hold my MP3s. Then I screwed up by getting a 120-gigabyte drive that ran out of room when I started watching videos. This time, I needed to go big.
My solution: Maxtor’s OneTouch III Turbo Edition, which comes with a minimum of 1 terabyte—1,000 gigabytes—of storage. OK, it costs $500, but if you’ve got loads of videos and music you don’t want to lose, that amount is worth it. Maxtor has a reputation for reliable drives at reasonable, if not rock-bottom, prices. The thing certainly looks reassuring—it resembles a metal and plastic vault and has the heft of an oversize brick.
The OneTouch III’s guts are heartening too. It contains two separate hard drives, configured to run in parallel. This is called a RAID configuration, something that’s common in professional data centers but not on desktop computers. The dual drives offer an extra layer of security. By default they’re interleaved as one super-fast device that reads and writes data from both drives at the same time, sort of like drinking soda with two straws. But you can also configure them as mirror copies of each other. That way, if one copy gets damaged, the other will work as if nothing happened. If you’re really worried about your BitTorrent trove, this is the way to go. (No, Maxtor won’t give you a pile of cash if the OneTouch loses your backups. But they do warranty the drive, and “go with the Maxtor, end of discussion” was a typical response when I asked my IT pals for advice.)
Most important for my needs, the OneTouch remembers to do backups even if I forget. It can be scheduled to run a backup job every week or every night. It keeps track of old checkpoints, so you can restore your files to what they looked like on a specific day. Still, all those features are standard on most backup drives. What makes the OneTouch stand out is the single big button on the front of the machine. If you’re having an ultra-paranoid moment, just push the button and you get a fresh backup on the spot. Hence the OneTouch name.
Setting the thing up is easy enough, so long as you stick to the default configuration and use a PC. When I tried to reconfigure my OneTouch as a dual-disk setup on a Mac, I hit one hurdle after another. The page numbers in the Table of Contents weren’t quite right. Maxtor’s instructions told me to format the disks using Apple’s built-in software but didn’t give me the necessary settings to do that. Configuring the actual backups was a lot easier—click, click, click, done. I asked the OneTouch to make an instant backup of my entire entertainment archive, then to add any new or changed files again once a day at 3 a.m. The box whirred and hummed, slowing my computer to a crawl for other work. A couple of hours later, though, a perfect copy of all my data was in the vault. My one gripe: It’s kind of noisy. While it’s working, the OneTouch drones loudly like a second desktop PC. (After it’s done, it goes completely silent.)
You can back up your entire hard drive, to boot from it if your main drive goes bust. Or, if you’re a purist, you can skip the automation software—just plug the OneTouch into a computer, drag your important files onto it, then unplug. The first backup will take an hour or two, but the incremental nightly updates only copy new or modified files. If you’ve got multiple computers, like me, you can back them all up by hooking the OneTouch into a single computer that’s part of your home network. (Or you could splurge a little bit for Maxtor’s Shared Storage II drive, which plugs directly into the network so its terabyte can be shared by all your computers.) I mix scheduled backups with ad hoc offloads, in which I move big files from my laptop to free up disk space. I’ve got a terabyte, might as well use it!
Restoring lost, corrupted, or accidentally erased files is pretty easy, as long as you can remember when you last had them. Select a “restore point,” for example last Thursday at 3 a.m. The OneTouch compares your current file system to its copy and lists all the files that are in the vault but not in the current system. You can select which files to restore, and select whether to put them back where they came from or into a new folder.
The only way this could be easier is if you could search your restore points directly, or flip through them to see old copies of your desktop on-screen. What was that file again? I know I downloaded it and put it in the upper right corner sometime last week. The next version of Apple’s Mac operating system will have exactly this feature, which Apple has modestly dubbed Time Machine. You can see Time Machine in this demo video, but don’t let it convince you to skip buying a backup disk. The most common cause of permanent data loss isn’t forgetfulness; it’s what’s called a catastrophic head crash. The disk physically smacks itself and breaks, taking your data with it for good.If, like most people, you keep everything, including your backups, on a single drive, you’re tempting fate. If you drop your laptop at the airport tomorrow, you’ve lost everything—only a real time machine will save you then. By comparison, a $500 metal brick that holds a copy of all your precious data is pretty cheap insurance.