Save your data with one of these top backup programs

We tested five new apps that make saving -- and restoring -- your vital data a lot easier than tools you've tried in the past.

Saving files on your hard drive is the easy part; choosing how to back up those files can be more difficult.

And why do you need backup software? If you ever have a hard drive fail, or get hit with an impossible-to-remove virus, you'll find that a complete backup -- including your files, drives and operating system -- is the simplest way to get things back to normal. Not having backups is like flying in a combat zone without a parachute.

Traditional backup programs help you organize, schedule and maintain your backups, and their newest versions make doing so easier than ever. However, tradition is quickly accommodating new realities. Two of the products we tested -- NovaStor NovaBackup and EMC Retrospect Professional -- recognize the increasing role of online backup in users' backup strategies.

Online backup is easy, secure and safer than local backup (by virtue of being off-site, and being stored on drives that are themselves backed up regularly by your online service provider). Nevertheless, it isn't appropriate for everyone. Most users have relatively slow upload speeds over their online connection, so online backup can be considerably slower than backing up to a local or Ethernet hard disk. With a large collection of digital photos or multimedia, you're talking several days, literally.

Ideally, all backup programs would offer seamless access to all online backup services, but most don't. In the case of NovaStor and EMC, both companies also offer separate online backup services (NovaNet-Web and Mozy, respectively), which made tighter integration between the software and the online service a natural progression (NovaStor does a much better job at this than EMC, which offers basically a Band-Aid solution).

And while online backup is clearly the wave of the future, don't wait for the future to add a backup utility to your list of must-have applications now. A delay could be one of the costliest mistakes you'll ever make in your computing life.

The backup programs discussed on these pages are all available as downloads -- see the link at the end of each review.

Online and on your hard drive

NovaStor NovaBackup 10 Professional

If you're wondering what happened to NovaBackup 9, so am I. The company, oddly, went straight from Version 8 to Version 10. However, if my hands-on testing is any indication, the program simply may have been that much improved.

While NovaBackup 10 has many major changes under the hood, the obvious improvement to this package is its infinitely friendlier user interface. This interface mimics one of the best, Microsoft Office 2007, and its big-button file menu. Perhaps even more important, NovaBackup's layout and workflow are immaculate -- a rarity among the comprehensive backup applications that NovaBackup competes against.

Another huge improvement is the addition of disk imaging -- backing up drives and partitions in their entirety. Since Version 10 marks NovaStor's initial attempt at a disk imaging capability, I expected a primitive first-time solution. But NovaBackup's implementation, courtesy of Farstone, is more than adequate for most users, and will likely satisfy many professional users.

You can back up and restore entire drives or single partitions, restore individual files and folders, and even search within individual images -- a feature lacking in the top dedicated disk-imaging solution, Acronis True Image Home 11.

I enjoyed my hands-on trials with NovaBackup 10 tremendously -- especially the seamless integration of online backup storage. If you have an Amazon S3 or NovaStor's Digistor, you can simply add the service as a device, enter your user info, and then select it as the destination for any of your backups. Not that the backup clients for other online services are bad, but using NovaBackup's advanced options and GUI simply make it that much easier. It also allows you to apply the same settings to your local backups so that you're always sure you have everything backed up to each location.

NovaBackup includes a free, one-year, 2GB DigiStor account, though you need to provide credit card information to use it. The account will be canceled, not automatically renewed, if you don't want to keep it.

NovaStor claims that it's reworked many of NovaBackup's internal routines so that backups transpire faster. In my hands-on testing, backups of every kind were as quick as, or quicker than, the competition's, but the program itself was a bit slow to boot, and the disaster recovery (imaging) module was especially slothful enumerating drives -- it took up to 30 seconds to recognize them all. Because no progress bar appears during the enumeration, the first time it occurred I was nearly convinced that the program was locked up. Blinking drive lights told me it wasn't, but the experience is just that slow.

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