From the January 1998 issue of Startups

Question: My computer--or, I should say, the programs and information files it contains--has become indispensable to my business. What's the best method for backing up these files, just in case my hard drive crashes or, worse, I'm hit by fire, flood or theft?

Name Withheld

Via the Internet

Answer: Backing up your computer files is much like purchasing insurance--a necessary evil. It's one of those ideas that makes a great deal of sense, is obviously important, is insisted upon by every computer manual and how-to book, and yet is postponed, avoided or forgotten by too many people.

As anyone who has been around computers for a time can tell you, probably from personal experience, not only can it happen to you, you need to plan as if it will happen to you. The problem is becoming all the more urgent, too, as the capacity of personal computer hard drives moves into the billions of bytes. Clearly, that's a lot of floppy disks--far too many to serve as a convenient backup method. And you need to back up files often, at least once a week if you're adding and deleting lots of important data every day.

Fortunately, technology offers many choices: magnetic tape cartridges and a growing variety of so-called removable disks. The options differ in capacity, convenience and price. Tape cartridge drives, the venerable old standby, can be added to any Windows-compatible PC for less than $150. They can store as much as 3.2GB of your hard drive's files on a single $20 cartridge that's a little smaller than a deck of cards. The main disadvantage: Tape drives read and write data at a rate of about 19MB per minute. Given the huge capacities of today's PC hard drives, you may want to schedule your backup sessions during lunch or at night.

Removable disk drives, on the other hand, copy several megabytes per second onto disk cartridges that are about the size of a small book. But the costs are higher and capacities lower: Iomega Corp.'s popular Zip 100 drive, for instance, lists for $149.95 and stores 100MB of data on a cartridge that retails for $149.95 for a 10-pack. SyQuest's $149 EZFlyer stores 230MB on a $24.99 cartridge, and its $299 SyJet drive crams 1,500MB on a $125 disk that's the size of a floppy disk. A major upstart in this market is Avatar Peripherals Inc., which offers a product called Shark 250. Selling for $249.95, it uses 250MB disks that go for $39.95 each. The 10-ounce device is designed for use with laptop computers, drawing power from the computer's internal batteries.

What's particularly handy about these removable disks is that they locate and retrieve data at practically the same speed as the standard hard drives in personal computers. That means you could use these drives as extensions of your hard drive, storing on them all files related to a single project. By using multiple disk cartridges, you, in effect, gain a hard drive of infinite capacity. This is also a good way to keep important business files safe from curious kids.

What about backup software? All these drives come with software that helps you manage the backup process. For instance, you can choose to make copies of only those files that have been altered since the last backup--a handy way to keep backup times and file sizes to a minimum.

Finally, never forget: Keep your backup disks safe and sound, preferably far from your office. Ask a friend to store them, or for maximum security, rent a safe-deposit box.

Question: I'm running a mail order business, and I often need to send faxes to hundreds of customers at a time. I've heard there are service bureaus that handle this kind of job. How does using such a service compare with doing the faxing myself?

Elizabeth Bennett

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Answer: Sending faxes to multiple recipients is called fax broadcasting, and it is certainly one of the most cost-effective methods for reaching out to customers and prospects with fresh information about products, price changes or special offers. In general, the cost for faxing a few pages runs below the cost of first-class postage. There are several approaches you can take, each with its pluses and minuses.

Mass faxing from your fax machine can be surprisingly inexpensive, points out Peter Davidson, a Burbank, California, fax industry consultant. It's mainly a matter of choosing the right long-distance company. Shop around, and you can pay as little as 10 cents a minute for domestic calls and about 7 cents more per minute to reach Western Europe.

The downside? It's not much fun punching in a long list of fax numbers on a fax machine's limited control panel, and there's no way to personalize the cover page for each recipient. In addition, lengthy broadcasts can tie up a phone line for long periods of time. And finally, inevitably, a certain number of faxes on your list won't get through--typically because of busy signals or someone's fax machine having run out of paper. When that happens, the machine will alert you, but you'll have to resend those faxes manually.

So, why not use a PC? Certainly, that makes it easier to create and manage long lists of numbers. Fax programs from Symantec Delrina Group and Global Village Communication, among other brands, are designed to do just that, as well as many other fax-related tasks. These programs are usually bundled with PC- and Macintosh-compatible fax modems, which can be bought starting at just under $100 and are quite easy to install and set up.

Generally speaking, though, computer faxing is less reliable than using a fax machine: You'll find that as many as 20 percent of your fax calls won't go through because of technical incompatibilities between the computer hardware and the fax machines at the other end of the wire. That rate can be greatly improved, however, if you're willing to spend $500 or so for one of the many "intelligent" fax boards available for Windows-compatible PCs. These boards rely less on your computer's central microprocessor chip and therefore can better accomplish the precise timing of signals required for faxing over imperfect telephone lines.

Finally, there are fax service bureaus, which can do just about any fax-related task--for a price. The typical standard service lets you automatically broadcast a fax message to any list of numbers which you'll have to provide beforehand. After that, there are many options to choose from: You can have the service's computer prepare a personalized cover letter for each of your customers. Or, if it's vital for some legal or regulatory reason, for example, that no one receives your broadcast before anyone else, some services can transmit as many as 10,000 faxes at once--each via its own phone line. And most service bureaus now let you either fax your original message to them or, for maximum image quality, e-mail it to them in the form of a word processing or graphics file generated by any of the popular PC or Macintosh programs.

Plan on paying as much as 30 cents per minute for the most advanced fax services, in addition to the set-up fees that can run as high as $50. Some companies have begun offering substantially lower prices, which they achieve by using the Internet to move clients' faxes across long distances at a very low cost. That may sound overly complicated, but the technology works. The only problem is that the Internet as a whole is considerably less reliable than the standard telephone network. So, if your faxes absolutely must get there on time, Net-based faxing isn't for you--not yet, anyway.

Where can you find the fax service bureau that's best for you? Check your local Yellow Pages, or take a look at the Web, where most services are now advertising. A good place to start, in fact, is Davidson Consulting's Web site (http://www.pdavidson.com ), where, among lots of useful information about business faxing, Davidson also maintains a nationwide list of service bureaus.

Contact Sources

Avatar Peripherals Inc., (888) GO-AVATAR, http://www.goavatar.com

Davidson Consulting, (818) 842-5117, peter@pdavidson.com

Iomega Corp., (800) MY-STUFF, http://www.iomega.com

SyQuest Technology Inc., (800) 245-CART, http://www.syquest.com


John Verity is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has been covering the computer industry for
21 years. Send your computer questions to John at jverity@mindsprint.com.