File-by-file backups save time and trouble when you've messed up a single file or when a folder is damaged or missing.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
No-sweat backups for Windows and Macs

Feb. 15, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   The more you have to think about doing a backup, the less you're likely to do it.
   That's why I'm a big fan of Apple's Time Machine, a software program that automatically makes copies of everything you do on a Mac. It runs every hour, on its own. You don't have to think about it. It just does its thing.
   And recovering whatever you might have lost is just as easy. If you find you're missing a picture that used to be in iPhoto, for example, you nudge your mouse pointer against a slider and go back in time to locate the missing picture.
   Apple's backup method is standard on all Macs sold in the last few years. You can also get it on an older Mac by upgrading to the Leopard version of the OS X operating system. All it requires is an external hard drive, at a cost of less than $100. As soon as you plug the external drive into the Mac, Time Machine spots the new drive and asks if it can use it for backups.
   It's simple and effective. But what about Windows users? Is there something like Time Machine for Windows?
   Yes and no. Microsoft doesn't include a Time Machine-like program with Windows, but you can fill that gap easily. The software I recommend is Second Copy, which you can download from www.centered.com. It costs $30, but you can try it out for free.
   Second Copy is a set-and-forget backup program that's so good Microsoft should have included it with Windows. It's not quite as automatic as Time Machine and doesn't have the fly-through-time interface Time Machine has for recovering missing files, but it's as close as you can get in Windows to Apple's no-thought-needed backup method.
   I've been using Second Copy since 1998, when it was called Second Copy 98. It's been getting better year by year.
   Like Time Machine, Second Copy is designed to mate with an external hard drive -- or with a networked drive, something Time Machine can't do. (Apple sells Time Capsule, a wirelessly networked version of Time Machine, but Time Machine itself can't back up to a network drive.) You select the files and folders you want Second Copy to monitor, tell it where to copy the files to, and let it handle the rest.
   Time Machine and Second Copy are equally polite. You'll probably never know they're running unless you happen to notice your drive light blinking. Clever programming keeps each one from taxing your computer's processor, and neither one cares whether you're using a file it wants to copy; it just catches up with the file later.
   You may be wondering how Time Machine and Second Copy fit into the backup plan I advocated in a recent article, "Disk cloners make backing up a simple chore," available at www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec083108.html. Cloning an entire disk, as I described in that column, helps get your computer up and running when you have a catastrophic loss or malfunction. But file-by-file backups save time and trouble when you've messed up a single file or when a folder is damaged or missing.