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Backing up to CD: Is it wrong?

CD-RWs take too long to format to be much good for backing up.

OK, I have a confession to make. I use a CD-R drive to back up my PCs. I played the backup field for years before settling on my current drive, and I know that there are better and more efficient ways to back up my data up than what I’m using. But I couldn’t use any of the others to create workout disks for my Sony Discman, so inevitably I settled on the one that could give me Moby tracks to go.

My main data squeeze is HP’s $249 CD-Writer 8230e. It’s portable and uses a fairly speedy interface. It comes with backup software. And it’s genuinely easy to set up, use, and share among PCs running Windows 98, Me, and 2000.

Oh, and of course it uses cheap, nonproprietary and readily available media: You can get spindles of CD-Rs and CD-RW disks at office supply stores for as little as 50 cents per disk.

At least, that’s the way I describe it to justify it as a business expense. The deeper truth is that backing up data to recordable CDs is like using a disk drive to hammer nails. It works after a fashion, but it’s not the right tool for the job. But it got a lot more suitable when I discovered some great software called 1Safe that does backups right–even to unsuitable media like CD-Rs. More about the software later … first, on to the drive of my dreams.

Love fest

I fell for the HP CD-Writer 8230e after testing it out on one of my notebook PCs. It is an external rewritable drive that writes to CD-R and CD-RW media at 4X speeds and reads at 6X. Its 2MB buffer and USB connection make for a fairly speedy data transfer and writing (at least for an external drive)–a sustained 10MB to 13MB per minute in my tests.

The drive comes with Adaptec’s DirectCD software, which enables you to drag and drop hard disks to recordable CDs using Windows Explorer or other software (a useful feature, though such discs can’t be read in regular CD drives without reformatting the disk or using DirectCD software). The drive uses a variant of Veritas’s MyCD software to create data and audio CDs. It’s simple to use, though it lacks the ability to create a playlist of files to save and reuse (something that’s useful in a business setting for making a portable or backup version of a project’s working files). The backup software doesn’t help in this respect either; this is clearly geared to making one off disks.

The box comes with a few extras too–CD-labeling software and a doohickey for putting the labels on straight, MusicMatch Jukebox software (which can record playlists of MP3, WMA, and .WAV files direct to CD), and the marginally relevant Corel Print Office. And there’s one jewel-cased sample each of 650MB/74-minute CD-R and CD-RW media.

Installing the drive was utterly painless on my three test systems–running Windows 98, Me, and 2000. But because of the USB factor, you can rule out using it on any system running Windows 95 or NT 4.0. A single drive is easy to share among lots of machines–a handy way to add a CD drive to a notebook, and to make DirectCD disks readable on PCs that don’t have a CD-R drive of their own.

The backup routine

So much for the hardware. On to the task of backing up. The best backup strategy starts with making a complete archive of your entire disk drive. Whenever you install new software, make another. And in between times, make smaller incremental backups of any data files (including e-mail messages) that have changed.

These three rules are the core of any backup strategy, and can be applied to any backup hardware and software you use. Of course, there are other techniques to make the process go quicker–such as only backing up what you need to. Many folks back up trash when they do a full backup. An hour’s surfing on the Internet can stuff your cache folder with a couple of megabytes of temp files. Deleting dozens of files using Windows Explorer just throws tens of megabytes into a folder called Recycled. Why waste time backing up this junk? Under Windows 98 and above, double-click on My Computer, then right-click on your main hard drive and select Properties. Click the Disk Cleanup button and have Windows throw out waste bytes from Temp folders, caches, and other disk-drive trash cans.

This is where the drive showed its failings–though to be fair to HP, they’re the same failings that LaCie and other CD-R drives suffer from. CD-R disks are write-once media, and not every backup needs to be permanent (unless you’re as fastidious as Howard Hughes or have a legal reason for keeping every backup). Even at 50 cents a disk, CD-R backup is still wasteful.

CD-RWs aren’t the solution, either. Though they are by definition rewritable, they’re very time-consuming to format. I inserted a used CD-RW disk for use with HP’s Simple Backup, and a skimpy 400MB folder took more than two hours to archive, with two-thirds of that time spent wiping the disk clean. Although Hewlett-Packard’s DirectCD app has a “fast format” option that takes a couple of minutes to prepare a disc, it isn’t a full format–it just prepares the disk for copying a few files. The software still takes an hour or more to finish off the format in the background.

And then there’s the software. HP’s Simple Backup software covers only the basics. Sure, it provides full backup of your hard drive (suitable for a full restore later on) and selective backup. And the Full Backup solution is simple; it can compress 2.2GB onto three regular CD-R or CD-RW disks. But forget about scheduling incremental backups. And forget about making selective backups of only files that have changed. Good backup software tracks this and doesn’t waste a byte of backup media; Simple Backup doesn’t track anything. With it, you have to select folders to back up every time you perform a partial backup, and that’s a pain.

Better backup software

So are people like me, who were lured by the siren song of CD-R, doomed to regret it every time they perform a backup? I thought so until I visited 1Vision Software’s Web site to download a trial version of 1Safe. This $69 backup software works with all kinds of backup hardware–my CD-Writer 8320e included. In addition to performing full backups, it performs scheduled incremental backups of changed files–at any time interval you choose. It can be programmed to erase the contents of CD-RW disks before backing up (a feat it performed with remarkable speed in my tests), and it has an optional compression feature for crunching up backups.

In these respects, it sends most bundled backup software to the canvas (and floors Simple Backup). But its real talent lies in restoring backed-up files. Sure, it has a standard restore program, but it goes a few steps beyond that. Installing 1Safe creates a virtual drive with its own drive letter, accessible by Windows and all Windows software. In my test, it was the V: drive, a letter my network and drives had left unused. By visiting this drive in Explorer or other Windows software, you open 1Safe’s backup database and can single out any backed-up file you want.

But 1Safe’s biggest contribution is to my conscience. Now I can look bean counters square in the face and say “Yes, I use an external CD-R drive for backing up my hard disks. And it works just fine.” I’ve been waiting for years to say that without a twinge of guilt.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake has racked up experience in three major corporations and one branch of the government. He currently operates and helps nonprofit organizations develop a Web presence.

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