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Backup Software Helps to Ease Pain of Crashes

May 18, 1987|Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid is senior analyst at Seybold Group, a computer consulting and publication firm

Just the thought of a hard disk "crash" is enough to send shivers down the spine of many computer users. Imagine the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you just lost all your software and data. I had planned to write a review of a couple of the better hard disk backup programs for the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh, but a recent experience convinced me to write it sooner rather than later. That's because, for the second time in as many weeks, I lost all the data on my Macintosh's hard disk. A year ago, it happened on my IBM PC. No computer system is immune.

Regardless of the machine you use, there are lots of ways to back up a hard disk, and you don't even need to buy a program to do it. Nevertheless, programs like DiskFit for the Mac ($74.95) and Backup Master for the PC ($89.95) make the job easier, quicker and, therefore, more likely to get done. The important thing is not how you back up your disk but that you do it often.

Usually, when a hard disk crashes, you can blame some mechanical or electronic component. But that's not what happened to me. The crashes that I'm now recovering from were caused by a piece of software. For some hard-disk users, Print Shop, version 1.0, for the Apple Macintosh is a Trojan horse.

The program, from Broderbund of San Rafael, Calif., is used to produce greeting cards, banners, stationary and signs. It's a lot of fun, but I'm in no mood to review it at the moment. The problem has been fixed, so if you plan to use Print Shop, make sure it is version 1.1 or later. Versions for other computers, including the Apple II and IBM PC, do not have this problem.

I used the program to design an invitation to my daughter's third birthday party. What could be more innocent?

Everything was fine until I tried to print the card. The message on my screen said there was not enough disk space, which was strange, considering that I had 30 megabytes available. Then everything came to a halt. To borrow a phrase from the surfing community, it was "a wipeout."

At first I didn't suspect Print Shop. Although I knew such things were possible, I had never heard of a program from a reputable company erasing an entire hard disk. As it turned out, I have a spare hard disk, so I replaced the fallen drive with a new one. The next time I used Print Shop, the same thing happened.

A call to Broderbund's group product manager, Alex Hoag, yielded an apology and an explanation. The company discovered the problem last October and, according to Hoag, immediately issued a fixed version to all customers who had sent in their registration cards. My copy, which I received only a few weeks ago, somehow slipped through the inventory control system.

As part of the printing routine, the program creates its own pseudo disk drive called a "RAM disk." Essentially, it takes part of the computer's memory and uses it as if it were a disk drive to temporarily store the data that is being printed. But sometimes the program gets hold of the hard disk instead of memory. It issues Apple's disk formatting command, and bye-bye hard disk.

The good news is that, on both crashes, I lost only a few hours of work. That's because I've already learned my lesson. After an earlier crash, I found religion. I now practice what I preach by regularly backing up my files.

On the Macintosh, I use DiskFit from SuperMac Software of Mountain View, Calif., (415-964-9694). What I like about the program is that it is relatively quick to use. Once you've backed up the drive, the software can update the backup disks without having to recopy all the files. It only backs up the files that have been created or modified since the last backup. When you use the program to restore files, it places your files where they were before the crash.

DiskFit deletes, from the backup disks, any files that have been erased from the hard disk itself. That's done to save space on the backup disks, but it means that if you accidentally delete a file from your hard disk, and then back up your disk, you will also delete that file from your backup. I wish that the program, as a user option, would display a list of all files that have been deleted and give you a chance to check "do not delete from backup disk."

I recently discovered Backup Master for the IBM PC. The program, from Intersecting Concepts of Thousand Oaks (805-373-3900), is easy to use and amazingly fast. It uses its own copying scheme to compact your files so that you can get more on a disk than you normally could with DOS. At the same time, it does error checking to make sure there are no problems with the files or the diskettes being used for the backup. The only problem is that you must use Backup Master to restore the files--the regular DOS copy command won't do.

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