It's that old conundrum. How do you practically backup your notebook and PC data? If your employer has kindly provided automatic backup over the company network whenever systems are connected then problem sorted. If it hasn't, and many don't, then what do you do? Tape backup is slow and complex and often skipped. Burning CDs is wasteful of CDs and always means a full backup is done. Drag-and-drop file copying to a USB-connected hard drive is better, i.e. faster, but is also always a full backup and requires you to remember to do it.

Western Digital has combined simple to use Dantz (now EMC) Restrospect backup software with a huge 250 GB external hard drive to provide an automated backup product. Naturally the first backup is full but subsequent ones are incremental or progressive meaning that your intitial 17,000 file/7GB backup source data diminishes to a few tens of files and hundreds, possibly less, of MBs if you do an automatic daily backup.

WD has also added two media card ports - supporting eight formats - and presented the device as a media centre suitable for storing music and pictures - MPEGs and JPEGs, etc - as well as documents. That will persuade many consumers to buy it and it's probably a nice idea for corporate users too. But the heart of the product is a huge quarter terabyte backup space with automatic backup.

How does it work?

It comes as a drive in a case, cables, CD and a few pieces of paper, specifically a quick start piece. Install the backup software off the CD, power up the drive and then plug in the USB cable. Windows XP recognises it and a new drive appears in My Computer. Unfortunately all the carefully laid out desktop icons on my screen were re-arranged. Sigh. After putting them back in place again I checked out the backup options.

You can have either all files or all non-system files - documents,application files, etc - backed up automatically at a certain hour every day or week. You can have a script set up so that Retrospect backs up specific files and folders on demand. A single button press on the front of the unit triggers this. To set up either automatic backup or backup on demand you press the appropriate button on the front panel. The buttons have icon patterns on them but no labels. You may need to keep the quick guide paper sheet handy to find out which is the backup on demand button and which the automatic backup button.

Maxtor's OneTouch unit only has a single button. You might find that a simpler arrangement.

To have finer granularity backup you need to get into the guts of Retrospect - and that means using the PDF manuals on the CD. There are two for the Media Center itself and two for Retrospect. You can't set Retrospect to backup specific individual folders or files. It only lets you backup broad categories of folders or file types, such as documents - which means non-system and application files such as .Doc. .txt, .rtf. .mpg, .jpg, etc.

Comparison speed tests
I drag-and-dropped a 6.7GB folder from my C: drive to the WD unit. The copy took place at 325MB/min. Thank you USB 2.0 and a fast 7,200rpm drive. So then I set up an automated backup with the supplied wizard and Retrospect backed up 8.1 GB at a rate of 408MB/min. That's impressive. It's fastest using the backup software.

How about restore? Double clicking on the external drive's icon got me the drive folder with a Retrospect Backup folder on it. Double clicking on that revealed my backup data set and double clicking on that gets me the folders and files I backed up. Restoration is just dragging-and-dropping files back to my C: drive. Nothing could be simpler. Why would any notebook or desktop user ever use tape or burn CDs again?

Progressive backup is very much faster, either in automatic mode or backup on demand, as so much less data is transferred. This unit would rapidly become an essential and valued part of your local desktop environment.

Media cards
Two ports are provided on the front top of the unit for Memory Stick, SD Card, Smart Media, CompactFlash, MicroDrive ad MultiMedia Card. Insert a card in one of these ports and another removable disk drive icon appears in the My Computer windows. You can transfer files from it to your own folders. It is a nice addition that will be valued by home users mostly.

Usability
The unit comes in a fairly chunky case about the size of a thick and large paperback. It has brushed aluminium sides and the three buttons on the front panel are surrounded by blue lights when depressed. A pair of feet are provided to mount the unit vertically and tuck it in by the side of your monitor. Two aditional USB ports are provide on the unit.

The drive is quiet in operation and the disks spin down when not in use.

This Media Centre is well-suited for backing up a professional's desktop or PC and deliberately designed to restrict your choices so that backups are fast to set up, and run reliably and regularly. What you lose on flexibility you gain on dependability and that's a trade-off I'd support strongly when data protection is at issue.

A final note. When I restarted my system the next day the unit was still connected and the software installed. All my carefully replaced desktop icons were altered again. Maybe it's a Windows SP2 thing.

OUR VERDICT

Buy this device to backup your desktop system if you appreciate simple, fast and dependendable backup of your entire disk or non-system folders to external disk. Media card ports make it digital camera friendly.