Technology March 2007

Crash Insurance

New programs back up everything you do— in real time, online, and automatically.

In essence, FolderShare is a way of synchronizing files. You revise a document at work, and you want to see those changes when you open it on your laptop at home. You create a new spreadsheet at home, and you want it to be available on your office desktop. File synchronization programs have been around for years—the best known is Laplink, which I’ve used since the 1980s—but Folder­Share represents a big step forward. You choose which directories on one computer you’d like to have match with another, for example, the “Documents” and “Photos” directories on each machine. Then, whenever both of the computers are connected to the Internet, Folder­Share automatically updates the older version. (If you have edited the same file on two machines, it will back up both versions.) Its operations are calibrated to happen “in background,” and they place no detectable drag on your normal computer work or Internet activities.

This system is easier and more automatic than carrying a memory stick or portable hard drive for transferring files. I like it better than Laplink, since Laplink works best when two machines are in the same place, connected by physical cables or a local WiFi network. (Laplink can operate over the Internet too, just not as easily.) Folder­Share has one pitfall I am aware of. If you have set it to mirror files as soon as they have changed, then any destructive change you make on one machine—deleting material you meant to keep, accidentally corrupting a file’s format—can show up quickly on the other, overwriting a previously good backup. But you can choose settings that delay synchronization before files are changed.

You can see other valuable, if slightly less polished, online sync systems at BeInSync.com and GoodSync.com. Any of them can make modern working life easier—with minimal effort, you can have the same information on all your machines—and each of them provides an extra element of backup protection for your files.

Mozy illustrates the other elegant approach to backup. Like Carbonite, mentioned here briefly last year, Mozy mirrors your computer’s data not on a detachable drive or another machine but somewhere in the galactic cloud of Internet storage. There are many contenders in the online backup field, with new ones appearing constantly, and constantly changing price plans and features. Mozy, Carbonite, SOS Online Backup, and Xdrive, with different strengths and limitations, are among many worth checking out.

What the programs have in common is automatic, round-the-clock, online backup. You indicate the data you want protected. Carbonite, which offers unlimited storage for a flat rate of $49.95 per year, has as its default setting copying all your documents, videos, pictures, music, and similar irreplaceable information. You can also choose which folders or files you want it to store (it’s pointless to back up program files, which usually require fresh installation to work properly). The systems can take hours or days to perform the initial backup, but from that point on, whenever you’re connected to the Internet, they constantly update the stored version to reflect what’s on your computer. Then if trouble arises—flood, fire, mere disk crash—you can reinstall your programs and download and restore the data you have lost.

The programs have been racing to introduce new features. An important one is fine-grained “incremental” backup. This is the ability to analyze specific differences between old and new versions of a file, and save only what has changed, rather than copying the entirety of a new file over the old one. “Version tracking” is the ability to keep a running record of specific changes, so a user can re-create previous versions of a file. The best programs can back up an “open” or “locked” file—for instance, an Outlook file containing e-mail—even while you are using it.

SOS is the most expensive of the backup programs, at $1,000 or so per year, and generally offers a complete range of advanced features. Mozy has incremental and version features; Carbonite says it will have them soon. These programs and SOS can back up “open” and “locked” files.

Carbonite, made by a company based in Boston, is notably easy to configure and use, and its flat-pricing scheme for unlimited storage, which it pioneered (and which Mozy now offers), will be the best deal for many people—and will encourage them to back up everything.

Carbonite, Mozy (from a company in Salt Lake City), and Xdrive (from a subsidiary of AOL) differ in numerous subtle ways. Carbonite and Xdrive are on the whole simpler to set up and use— Mac-like, if you will. Mozy can be more specifically tweaked to your own tastes, like a PC. Xdrive works on both PCs and Macs; Carbonite and Mozy are for now just for PCs, although both say a Mac version is in the works. All of the programs have free versions or free trials available. Find the one you like best—and then remember to use it.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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