Please Visit the all new Digital Outback Photo

Outback Photo Handbook: Backup & Archiving

Backup for Photographers: Backup Software

article series by Marc Rochkind and Uwe Steinmueller

Manage the Digital Workflow

Last updated 8/7/2008

Backup Software

OS X and Windows come with backup software, but it's insufficient because either it's inconvenient and error prone (on OS X, without third-party software, the only way to copy files to an removable drive is with the Finder) or because it doesn't meet what we consider the essential requirements for backup software. We'll review those requirements and then briefly review both the backup software that comes with OS X and Windows ("in-the-box") and what you can buy from a third party.

Minimum Requirements for Backup Software

The following requirements must be met by any backup system:
  1. There must be a way to determine what will be backed up. Systems that tell you they're backing up "other files" without telling you what those are, like Vista's Back Up Files, are unacceptable. Systems with so many options that you can't easily determine for sure what your settings are going to do are also problematic unless you're willing to spend time studying the documentation (if any), run experiments, and verify (see #3, below) that you're backing up what you think you are.
  2. There must be a way to tell if a specific file was backed up, so you can spot-check the backup. Systems that keep the backup in a mysterious form (e.g., some giant compressed file) don't meet this requirement unless they also have a user-interface for showing you a list of files. Vista's Complete PC Backup fails in this regard (more later).
  3. There must be a way of verifying the integrity of the backup, short of doing a restore and running the system for a week or two to see if any hidden problems show up. A system that uses the ordinary file system meets this requirement, because you can run a utility or script to compare to two folder hierarchies, file-by-file if you want. Systems that use their own format have to provide a separate verification option.
  4. For a complete backup, there must be a way to restore individual files. (This may not be a requirement for you, but it is for us.)


A discussion of data privacy (e.g, preventing identity theft) is beyond the scope of these articles, so we're not going to say much about it except to note that backup makes the problem worse.

However, many backup programs provide a way to encrypt the backup data, and that's what you should do. If your backup utility doesn't provide encryption, you may be able to encrypt the data anyway by encrypting the volume the data is written to. On OS X, you can use Disk Utility to create an encrypted disk image. However, Marc found that because unused space on a sparse image wasn't reclaimed, this method is unworkable for incrementally upadting an existing backup with just the changed data. It's OK for creating a fresh backup. (Marc wrote an article explaining how to create an encrypted disk image on OS X.)

OS X: In-the-Box Backup Software

OS X 10.5 (Leopard) comes with only one backup program, Time Machine, and it's a great one that everyone should use. The previous OSes didn't come with anything, although there was always a way to burn CDs and DVDs and to copy files with the Finder.

Time Machine worked well for Marc when Leopard was first released, but after a few months he got this message:

In his review of Time Capsule, The New York Times's David Pogue ran into exactly the same problem. For Marc, no amount of adjusting of Time Machine preferences or deleting of files from the backup volume fixed the problem. Time Machine would run fine with the increased space for a while, but then the message popped up again, so he had to turn Time Machine off, and he hasn't yet turned it back on. OS X Leopard has been updated a few times since, however, and so the problems Marc had may be fixed.

OS X: Add-On Backup Software

If you subscribe to Apple's .Mac online service (now reborn as MobileMe) you can download a backup utility called Backup. It's primary purpose is to back up online, but you're also supposed to be able to use it to back up to external drives and CDs/DVDs. But the one time recently when Marc used Backup to back up to DVDs, it failed.

A much better choice is Super Duper. Marc has used Super Duper to make both bootable disk images and partial backups for carrying offsite, with consistently excellent results. Marc runs Super Duper every night to alternate external drives, so that if there's a failure during one of the backups he still has the backup from the previous night. Uwe also (besides Super Duper) uses the new Carbon Copy Cloner which also works very well for 1:1 bootable disk copies.

Marc also used iBackup before he got Super Duper, and it seemed to work fine, although it won't create a complete, bootable, backup like Super Duper will.

Marc also tried Retrospect for OS Xs, which interested him because it's one of the few backup program that can write CDs/DVDs, but it repeatedly hung trying to write a DVD.

Another choice is Tri-BACKUP from TRI-EDRE, which is amazingly feature rich, but Marc found that with all its options it was hard to be sure that it was backing up all his essential files. Tri-BACKUP doesn't have a simple option for creating a bootable backup, although there is a combination of other options which, if set right, is supposed to make the backup complete and bootable. Marc was never confident that he had them set right. Still Tri-BACKUP is a capable utility with an excellent reputation that probably works great if you put enough effort into mastering all its options.

If Uwe is not making 1:1 disk copies he exclusively uses folder tree mirroring software for backup. For about two years he now uses ChronoSync (read our full review). ChronoSync is:

  • Easy to use
  • Works scheduled
  • Allows containers that bundle multiple synch jobs
  • Has exceptional and flexible handling for deleting files in the target folder (e.g. even keeping the last n versions of a file - we use this for our business data)
  • Great value for the money

Note on Synchronizing: We always synchronize in one direction. Doing otherwise can be risky business. We had once used bidirectional synchronization for a Palm Pilot. It turned out that one of the folders was empty which caused the software also to clear off the other side (so we lost all of it :-). Always think which folder tree is the master folder and synchronize from this folder to other target folders. Also remember only one backup copy is not a lot.

Windows Vista: In-the-Box Backup Software

We're not going to discuss the backup software that comes with XP because (1) with one-exception, noted below, Vista's software is much better (though still unacceptable, as we'll explain), and (2) Vista has been Microsoft's current OS for over a year-and-a-half.

Vista comes with four backup systems:

  1. Vista Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise include Complete PC Backup which, near as we can tell, works perfectly. The unfortunate thing about it is that it writes everything to a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) file, so you can't directly examine it to reassure yourself that it worked. You have to somehow mount the VHD volume.

    Some people have reported success in taking the VHDmount command from Virtual Server (separate download and install) and running it on Vista (or maybe XP). Indeed, Marc did install VHDmount by downloading Virtual Server (free), choosing to custom-install it, selecting only VHDmount to be installed, and then running VHDmount on the VHD file written by Complete PC Backup. It worked perfectly. So, if you're willing to install and use VHDmount (you don't have to use Virtual Server, or even install the whole thing), there is a way to verify that your backup was written and to restore individual files, but it's a lot of trouble to go to for what we consider to be an essential feature (verification) of a backup system.

    Complete PC Backup doesn't have a built-in scheduler, but you can schedule it from the Task Scheduler, which is on the Administrative Tools menu. Choose Create Basic Task, enter a name and set the time, enter "wbadmin" for program, and "start backup -backupTarget:F: -include:C: -quiet" in the arguments field, assuming you want to back up drive C to drive F. On the next panel check "Open the Properties dialog for this task when I click Finish" and, when it opens, check "Run with highest privileges".

    To Marc's way of thinking, even though Complete PC Backup seemed to work (Marc never tried a restore), that ordinary users (who don't install VHDmount) have no way to check its output is a serious defect. Also, and probably for the same reason, you can't restore individual files; you can only use the VHD file, all of it, during a fresh install. So, it doesn't meet our Minimum Requirements for Backup Software (see above), unless you install VHDmount.

  2. All versions (we think) of Vista come with Back Up Files, which allows you to back up various categories of files (e.g., pictures, music, e-mail) to drives, CDs/DVDs, and across a network. There's no information about what actually gets backed up, but there is a statement that if you check "Additional files" you get more. You have no idea whether your Wiggly Write or Dipsey Doodler application files are going to get backed up. When someone complained on an online forum to Microsoft, the response was that they could ZIP the questionable files first, since ZIP files are backed up. They rightly responded that this was beneath stupid.

    So, Back Up Files also fails our Minimum Requirements for Backup Software. (Marc still uses it because his computer happens to have four mostly unused drives inside it, but he doesn't count it as part of his backup plan.)

    With the more advanced versions of Vista, you can run Back Up Files automatically according to a schedule you set.

  3. System Restore can prevent against some user errors and equipment failures. It takes a snapshot so your system can be rolled back to a previous point. Only system files are backed up—no user data. It's nice to have, but doesn't address the real problem, which is loss of your own data.

  4. Previous Versions uses a part of each drive to keep past versions of files that are changed, as many as will fit. There's no way to expand the allocated space or to keep the versions on an external drive. Also, you get versions only as far back as the most recent Back Up Files backup, which is listed among the versions. We're not sure what happens if you've sent your Back Up Files drive elsewhere.

    Previous Versions provides substantial protection against user error if the good stuff was from yesterday, since you only get one version per day. If it was last week, you may not have it. Contrast this with OS X's Time Machine, which keeps hourly backups for a day, daily backups for a month, and weekly backups forever, space allowing. All on an external drive. And, it's the entire system, not just user files that have changed. And, you can restore an entire system from the Time Machine backup.

So, while Vista has four backup systems, even all of them used together don't provide protection from the six threats. Each of them has serious flaws:

  1. Complete PC Backup provides no way to verify its output or to restore individual files, unless you install VHDmount.
  2. Back Up Files doesn't back up all files, and won't tell you which it will back up.
  3. System Restore doesn't do anything with user files.
  4. Previous Versions is only once a day, is limited in how far back it goes, and can't write to an external drive, which means there's no independence from the main drive.

All of the Vista back up systems use the Virtual Storage System (VSS) to ensure that only internally-consistent files are backed up, even if an application has them open. OS X doesn't have anything like that; their thinking is that Time Machine will get an inconsistent file next time. None of our disparaging remarks are intended to disparage VSS, which is an excellent piece of work.

We have heard that XP lacks most of the four backup systems in Vista, but that there is a backup program, not installed by default, that works better than Back Up Files, in that you can at least tell it what you want backed up.

Vista and XP: Add-On Backup Software

This field is so vast and rich that we hardly where to start, so we'll just make two general comments:
  • You can get anything you want from a third-party, including bootable complete backups, incremental file backups, online backups, whatever.
  • What you can't get is anything wired deeply into XP or Vista that works as reliably and as smoothly as Time Machine on OS X.

For years Marc used Retrospect on Windows, and it ran reliably. He can't say for sure that it would have restored his entire system, because he never tried it. (He should have, of course.) When he spot-checked for files on the backup, they were always there.

Four years ago Uwe wrote very favorably about the inexpensive FileBack PC for Windows. More recently, Marc tried the latest version and also found that it worked very well. It costs only $25 - $90, depending on which version you buy. (Marc uses the $25 Home Edition.)

FileBack PC can't be used to image your main drive to create a bootable copy, but other utilities such as Norton Ghost, Retrospect, and Acronis True Image can. Of the three, Marc has tried only Acronis True Image Home ($37 or so from Amazon), and it seems like a fine program that works well. It can image your main drive, so you can boot directly from the backup, and also back up just the folders you want. It's a much better choice than the backups built into Vista (Complete PC Backup and Back Up Files) because it allows you to verify the backup and restore individual files (without installing VHDmount, which is a pain), and, unlike Back Up Files, it allows you to control exactly what's backed up.

Backup Overview


Marc Rochkind is the creator of ImageIngester

Manage the Digital Workflow




Featured E-Books




Featured Tuning Filters