How To Crash But Not Burn

In my years of working with computers, I've suffered a succession of disk-drive disasters--ranging from total mechanical failure to the corruption of key files that kept a machine from booting. But I've been saved repeatedly by backing up my hard disk onto magnetic tape.

Industry statistics show that only 7% of computers are equipped with backup systems. If lots of your job-related or vital personal-finance files are on your hard disk and if you're among the unprotected 93%, you're living dangerously. Even if you have made copies of files, you face a tedious job rebuilding your software from the original installation disks.

MEA CULPA. Windows 95 users face an additional burden, one that may make you think twice about upgrading. Microsoft Corp. had promised that its new operating system would include tape backup software. But the backup program included in Win95 doesn't work with many tape drives, including a whole new generation of cheap, high-capacity units.

Blame the Win95 production schedule. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Colorado Memory Systems Div., which wrote the software, says it fully met Microsoft's specifications. But HP had to deliver months before Win95 and the new machines appeared. Microsoft Senior Vice-President Brad A. Silverberg admits he didn't pay enough attention to the backup issue. Both Colorado and Arcada Software (whose backup programs come with tape drives from Conner Peripherals and Iomega) issued Win95 versions of their software, but they still fall short of what users need.

Here's why. Ideally, even with a crash requiring replacement or reformatting of your hard drive, you should be able to reboot and start the process of restoring from tape. Under Windows 3.1, you could do this with a number of products, including the popular PC Tools from Symantec Corp., but these won't work with Win95. Instead, you must first completely reinstall Win95. If you have the program only on CD-ROM, you may first have to install an old version of DOS. After reinstalling Win95, reinstall the backup software and then restore your other programs and files from tape. Arcada, HP Colorado, and Symantec are wrestling with the problem. But "it will be painful for a while yet," says John Boose, general manager of HP Colorado.

REMOVABLE DISKS. While the software mess is a bummer, there's lots of good news on the hardware front. The cost of tape drives has plunged. A new system from 3M called Travan allows backing up even big hard drives onto a single tape. An 800-megabyte Ditto drive from Iomega (800 697-8833) costs just $150, while a 3.2-gigabyte version is under $300. Conner (408 456-4500) and Colorado (800 810-0133) offer Travan drives of similar capacity at slightly higher prices.

While tape is the most cost-effective system for archival storage and disaster recovery, you may be willing to settle for backing up just critical files. Unfortunately, floppies can no longer hold even a moderate-size spreadsheet or presentation. For around $200, systems from Iomega and SyQuest Technology Inc. (800 245-2278) store up to 135 megabytes on removable disks. These are especially popular on Macintoshes, which can't use inexpensive tape drives. For even more capacity, the $749 PD/CD drive from Plasmon Data Inc. (408 956-9400) stores up to 650 megabytes on special cartridges and also doubles as a quad-speed CD-ROM reader.

More computer users have vital chunks of their business and personal lives on their machines. While backup remains harder than it should be, especially on Windows 95, even a flawed system is a sound investment.

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