Data backup – PC/Mac household
November 18, 2005 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Data backup for PC/Mac household: We’re trying to set up an efficient way to back up our crucial files from 4 computers (2 Mac, 2 PC) to one external hard drive.

We’d like to have some type of customizable automated backup software to direct the back-ups. I am envisioning a single stand-alone external drive that we periodically hook up via USB to any of the computers to back up the designated folders/files. We have no clue as to which brands of drive or software would be best suited for this mixed family of computers. Estimated size of drive would be 160 – 200GB. 4 computers total; 1 XP, 1 Win2k, 2 OSX. Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by aceyim to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are all four machines connected in a network? If so, your backup requirements are similar to those of a cross-platform small office. In that niche I highly recommend Dantz Retrospect. It is cross-platform (both server and client) and supports a wide variety of backup strategies.

If you use Retrospect you would choose one machine as the "backup server" and the others would be "backup clients." Connect the backup hard drive to the server machine (note that Retrospect doesn't require a dedicated machine for network backup - it will happily launch in the middle of the night, perform the backup, and then quit). Based on the description of your equipment if you choose one of the Windows machines to act as the backup server purchase Retrospect Professional for Windows, if you choose a Mac as the backup server purchase Retrospect Desktop for Macintosh (either will require you get one additional client license to raise the number of clients to three in order to backup all four of your machines). Both server versions come with the client software for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.

Hardware-wise any sufficiently large hard drive in an external Firewire or USB 2.0 enclosure should be an adequate backup drive. I'd encourage you to consider buying two. If you get two you can set-up a rotating schedule in which one of the drives is kept somewhere other than in your home - that way if you have a fire or other disaster you don't lose your data. The smaller "portable" form-factor drives intended for use with notebooks will fit in a safe-deposit box.

Retrospect does have one downside. Its flexibility to support a wide variety of backup strategies, hardware, and options comes at the cost of complexity. While I find the design logical, many users find its complex UI somewhat bewildering.
posted by RichardP at 11:42 PM on November 18, 2005

I love Retrospect, but it does assume that your computers are networked, which you don't state.

If not, then I have a sneeky feeling that the Maxtor OneTouch line might be worth looking at, based on the scenario you describe (an external hard drive that you hook up to each computer in turn).

I've not used it personally, but I've heard good things about it. It's basically a regular external hard drive that comes with a special cut-down one-computer version of Retrospect. You install the software, set up how and what you want to backup, and then you can initiate a backup by pressing the big shiny button on the front of the drive.

However, I don't know how well its backup system plays with multiple computers. You'd need to check this out carefully before you commit to it -- for all I know, you might have to buy a separate one for each computer, at which point a networked Retrospect solution becomes simpler.

General external hard drive advice: Macs only started including USB 2.0 across the board about 2 or 3 years ago. If you have an oldish Mac, it might only support USB 1.1. So make sure your Mac supports 2.0 before going with a USB-only drive. Otherwise backing up from the Macs is going to be really slow.

An alternative is a drive that includes both Firewire and USB interfaces, in which case you're pretty much guaranteed to be able to get a fast connection. LaCie do a nice range of desktop drives, some of which are branded 'Triple Interface', which means they've got Firewire 400, Firewire 800, and USB 2.0. (I've personally had good experiences with LaCie drives, for what it's worth.)

And you'll need to make sure you format the drive in Windows (probably to FAT32), not in Mac OS X (which will leave you with some kind of HFS-formatted drive). Macs can understand Windows disks, but the reverse is not true.
posted by chrismear at 12:34 AM on November 19, 2005

Here's a FAQ (number 5) on the Maxtor product site that suggests that it is possible to use the OneTouch backup button with multiple computers. (They recommend setting up a separate partition on the drive for each computer if you do this.)
posted by chrismear at 12:39 AM on November 19, 2005

LaCie's SilverKeeper does a pretty good no-frills job. You could have each computer set to backup to a specific folder, or partition the disk and have it make separate bootable backups. (I'm not sure how that will work cross-platform, though)
posted by anarcation at 12:40 AM on November 19, 2005

In case it wasn't clear -- if your computers are networked, I would still strongly recommend the Retropsect setup that RichardP describes. It works really smoothly once you've got it set up, and to me it seems like less hassle than lugging a hard drive around.

If you computers aren't networked, then something like the Maxtor OneTouch setup is probably your best option.
posted by chrismear at 12:42 AM on November 19, 2005

In conjunction with LaCie's SilverKeeper for the Mac, try Syncback for the PCs. It does a great job and the freeware version is all you need. (I use it to make nightly backups onto a shared drive on another machine.)
posted by bright77blue at 7:11 AM on November 19, 2005

Slight tangent -- anyone know of an external hard drive (other than the Maxtor One Touch) that includes Retrospect bundled?
posted by omnidrew at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2005

Sorry to be responding so late, but our computers are not networked at this time (nor do we plan to do so in the future). So far it seems like the Maxtor OneTouch might fit our needs. I had read a little about them in the past, but shied away from the mysterious one-button approach. If it's able to recognize each computer and then store the backup files in separate partitions, then we're good to go. That's exactly what we’re aiming for.
Thanks very much for everyone's input. It's been a great help.
posted by aceyim at 7:08 PM on November 19, 2005

Just to clarify: in regards to formatting the separate partitions, is it possible to have them formatted in differing file systems, i.e. have the Mac partitions set to Mac OS Extended or HFS+, then have the Win partitions set to NTFS? I assume one computer (say one of the Win comps) will be setting up the four partitions. From there, does that computer have to format all the partitions at once or can each computer, once hooked up to the external drive, format its own partition, allowing each computer to set its own file system? I am probably being a bit obtuse about this, so I apologize in advance for needing my hand held through this. Thanks.
posted by aceyim at 7:31 PM on November 19, 2005

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