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Discovering that your computer's hard drive has been wiped clean is a disaster that can strike in the form of fire, theft, a computer virus, a hard drive crash or even a careless employee. If you have recurring nightmares about losing all your customer files, financial records and databases, a tape backup drive unit with removable cartridges that operates independently of your hard drive can help you sleep peacefully.
Hewlett Packard, which makes the Colorado T1000e, one of the easiest backup drives to install and use, has instructions for creating a bootable disk, too, so if your computer does take a dive, you'll have all the necessary elements to totally restore your precious data.
It's simply good business sense to protect your files by copying or transferring them regularly to removable tape cartridges that can be stored in a separate location outside of the office or locked in a fireproof safe.
While most computers have a backup system on the hard drive, if the entire system crashes, you'll lose that, too. Floppy disks provide some backup protection, but their storage capacity is severely limited.
The newest tape backup systems compress data so you can transfer an entire database onto a single cartridge. For under $200, you can buy a basic backup system to create a taped library of all your files. More sophisticated, higher-priced versions let you make selective backups or schedule unattended backups while you're out of the office or at night.
A tape backup drive operates much like a tape recorder, reading your files and copying them onto a tape. A special cassette tape, which must be pre-formatted, is inserted into the drive's slot; on-screen programs offer several options to choose from, including automated daily backup, backing up only selected files, scheduling after-hours backup, and backing up files in the background while you work on other applications.
Most systems use the newer high-speed, high-storage 3M Travan or the older, slightly slower Quarter-Inch Cassette (QIC) recording industry standard formats. The tape cartridges cost between $20 and $40 each. Travan tapes have a metal plate on one side, are usually available pre-formatted in various capacities, and can hold at least 1GB of data. QIC tapes resemble audiotapes and hold several hundred megabytes, depending on the size you buy. Both versions offer native (uncompressed) and compressed capacities so you can double your data if necessary.
With so many business people demanding computer hard drives with at least 1GB storage space, higher-capacity tapes such as Travan have become a necessity. Many tape backup drives, such as Aiwa's TD-S1600, accept both Travan and QIC cartridges.
Several easy-to-use, easy-to-install tape backup devices are available for small-business budgets. The internal models are sold with mounting hardware to fit into one of the existing 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch floppy disk bays in your computer. External, stand-alone models are about the size of a hardcover book and plug into either a printer port or a Small Computer System Interface (SCSI, pronounced "scuzzy") port at the back of your computer.
Most external backup drives have extra ports so printers can be connected to them; this feature, called a "printer pass-through," reduces the extra cables and ports needed. External drives are also a good solution if you want to back up multiple PCs with a single drive or for laptop computer backup and file transfer.
If you have a PC, your backup drive will connect to a floppy disk bay or your parallel port; Macintosh users must check for compatibility and make sure the drive can hook up to a SCSI port.
Tape backup systems come with Windows or DOS software that's easy to install. Follow the instructions, and your backup system should be ready to roll in under five minutes. You may have to buy a connector cable if one is not included in the kit. Hewlett Packard's T1000E and Micro Solutions' Backpack are among the products that come with a free tape.
Still not convinced? Consider these advantages of a tape backup drive:
- Regular weekly backups provide a record of each new draft.
- You can archive data, leaving more space on your computer's hard drive, or use the backup system as an extra hard drive. Archiving on tape also means you can clear out some of your paper files.
- Files can be transferred easily from one computer to another, enabling you to share the removable tapes or take them on the road to use with your laptop.
- Tape cartridges slip easily into a pocket for safekeeping while traveling. Keeping them separate from a laptop, which can be lost or stolen, offers extra security.
- Most backup systems not only record files but can also hold software programs, so rebuilding after a computer crash needn't mean refeeding dozens of separate disks.
When shopping for a tape backup system, check out the noise level. It can be very distracting, which is why a scheduler feature for nighttime backup might be your best bet. Also ask to see the owner's manual; some are too technical or difficult to understand.
Other shopping tips:
- Make sure the drive and the tapes you purchase are fully compatible with your computer.
- If you're short on ports, get a system with a printer pass-through.
- If you've got hundreds of documents, look for a device with a cataloguing feature, which allows you to create a directory of files for easy reference.
- Make sure the system has a "compare" feature so you can check the data on your tape against the data you've just copied.
- Be sure storage capacity and speed are sufficient for your present (and future) needs. Most manufacturers offer several models with different storage and speed capacities. Our chart shows only the most basic, or most popular, of these.
Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.