Green Backups: The SimpleTech [re]Drive Review

by Gerry Blackwell

SimpleTech offers an attractive data backup drive that's kinder to the environment. But does its function match its form? We put it to the test.

USB external hard drives are a commodity item, but SimpleTech has managed to smartly differentiate its [re]Drive product as an environmental statement and an all-in-one backup solution.

The [re]drive – we’ll use the more conventional Redrive from here on – is built using recycled aluminum and bamboo, a renewable resource. It also boasts a couple of significant power saving features.

Redrive ships with ArcSoft TotalMedia Backup software. Fabrik, the company behind SimpleTech, also makes available its Fabrik Ultimate Backup, an online solution that provides 2GB of free backup capacity. And the bundle also includes Turbo USB software. Fabrik claims it boosts data transfers over USB 2.0 connections by 20 percent. 

Despite its utilitarian boxiness, Redrive even manages to look reasonably attractive with its bamboo accents and artfully molded aluminum end panels. The drive is available so far in one capacity, 500GB, which is plenty for backing up vital data in most small businesses or homes. Price: $139.99.

The SimpleTech [re]Drive
SimpleTech's 500GB external [re]Drive is built with bamboo and recycled aluminum.

Environmental Impact

Redrive uses a power adapter that qualifies for an Energy Star Level 4 rating. Energy Star is an international standard for energy efficiency in consumer products.

Fabrik says the Level 4 rating means Redrive delivers “up to” a 10 percent power efficiency improvement over its current Energy Star models, and “up to” 30 percent power savings over non-Energy Star products. We have no way of evaluating these claims.

Redrive also adopts the smart practice of automatically shutting power down when the computer to which the drive is attached powers down – even though the drive does also plug into house current. Not all USB drives do this.

Out of the Box

The Redrive provides a good out-of-the-box experience. As soon as we plugged it into the wall and into a test computer, Redrive powered up and Windows (Vista) automatically installed the necessary drivers on our test machine.

The included ArcSoft TotalMedia Backup & Record software, which installs quickly and easily from the drive once the drive is connected to your computer, is  impressively full featured, especially for a freebie. It also has some weak points.

The software appears to be relatively fast. A 55GB initial backup took a little more than 90 minutes while we did some word processing at the same time. This is faster than with other backup programs and external hard drives we’ve tried. The Turbo USB software may have something to do with it.

TotalMedia does differential backups, meaning that it backs up only changed or new files. But if you prefer, it can do full-data backups that copy every file each time. In Advanced Backup mode, you can select which file types to backup – a useful feature since there may be some files in folders that you don’t want or need to preserve.

TotalMedia can also back up open files such as Outlook database files. Without this capability – and some backup programs don’t have it – if you forget to close the files before scheduled backups, they won’t be backed up.

Minor Flaws

Some shortcomings we noted smack of poor program design, others are understandable limitations in what is after all an inexpensive backup product.

In the latter category: TotalMedia compresses files for archival backups, which means they can't be edited in or copied from the backup location.

Some programs also let you do copy-and-paste or mirror backups that simply copy selected files and/or folders to the backup location in their original form. This makes it easier and faster to restore just a few files, and it makes it possible to edit and share files from a backup location.

TotalMedia also won’t preserve earlier versions of a file if you’re using differential backup. If you change a file in the original location, the new version overwrites the old.

Some backup products and services will retain a certain number of earlier versions even when you use differential backup, appropriately identified, so that if you change your mind about modifications to a file, you can later restore an earlier version.

TotalMedia has three modes: Photo, Video, Music and Personal Documents, which are simplified modes designed mainly for home users, and Advanced Backup. You can also schedule any type of backup for a particular time, day of week or rate of recurrence.

The Photo, Video Music mode has some notable flaws. We selected this mode to start, then selected only to back up Photos and chose the Incremental backup option. At the next screen, the software automatically began searching for photo files on our test computer’s hard drive.

The problem? There is no way to limit which folders the program scans, so it scans the entire drive. It does this surprisingly quickly, but it found all kinds of images we never knew were there – icons and other graphics associated with application programs and downloaded Web pages – most of which we didn’t want or need to protect.

It would be better if TotalMedia Backup limited the scan only to folders where you deliberately store photos – most Windows users store photos in the Pictures or My Pictures folder or a subfolder.

Missed Files

The almost 7,000 “photo” files found in our test run included many we did want to back up – but not all of them. In this mode, the program apparently recognizes some common image file types, but not others.

In our test, it recognized JPEGs, the most common type, and files edited in Adobe PhotoShop with the .PSD extension. But it did not select for backup hundreds of RAW (.NEF) photo files uploaded from a Nikon digital SLR.

This is curious because in the Advanced Backup mode ‑‑ where it’s possible to include or exclude file types ‑‑ files with the .NEF extension appear in the list of recognized types.

While the software scans your drive for media files, you can choose the destination for your backup, first by selecting the appropriate drive from a drop-down list, then selecting or typing in a folder location.

You would think the Redrive would be selected by default since the software ships with the product, but the Redrive did not even appear in the drop-down list of available drives. Nor did any of the other external drives attached to the test computer.

This was despite the Redrive (and the other drives) being connected properly, turned on and appearing in Windows My Computer.

There is a solution. You can select the Redrive as the destination using the Browse option, which is really there so you can select a destination folder for the backup once you’ve chosen a drive.

Advanced Backup

TotalMedia Backup somewhat redeems itself with its Advanced Backup mode. The problem with Redrive not appearing among the available destination drives occurs here too, but the same solution is available.

And here you can at least select which folders to back up – although some folders would not expand in the TotalMedia file selector dialog, so it was impossible to select only certain subfolders within them. (This may, however, have been a Windows Vista issue, not a problem with TotalMedia.)

Also, as noted, you can select file types from an exhaustive list to include or exclude – and add new file types by typing in their extensions.

Online Backup

The Redrive’s second backup option could also be useful. You can open a Fabrik Ultimate Backup account and download and use the software for free. The free service lets you back up as much as 2GB of data off-site onto Fabrik servers.

This probably won’t be enough to back up all your data files, though. Fabrik charges $4.95 per month per computer for an Unlimited Storage Account which, as the name suggests, give you unlimited capacity.

The software was created by a different supplier than TotalMedia Backup, so the interface is different, which is unfortunate. A single interface for configuring both would have been nice.

Ultimate Backup provides a fair amount of flexibility around when, how frequently and under what circumstances it backs up your files, and how much of your computer’s processing power it uses when backing up. For example, you can tell it to only back up after the computer has been idle for 30 minutes. Or you can use the slider scale to increase the speed of backups or minimize the drain on the computer’s resources.

Depending how you configure the program, initial backups can take many hours or even days, but subsequent differential backups should take much less time – and fewer computing resources.

Ultimate Backup does preserve several versions of files that you change, so you can restore an earlier version if you change your mind about modifications. And it does let you choose which folders and subfolders to backup, though not which file types. 

Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a 500GB external hard drive, especially if you want it as a backup drive, Redrive should be on your list of candidates.

It’s competitively priced, the backup software is, at worst, adequate and better than the software bundled with some external drives. The online backup service is a nice throw-in, although you can get 2GB or more of free online storage from other sources as well.

The environmental pitch is of course a marketing ploy, but there is also substance to Fabrik’s claims for the product being green. If that’s important to you, and it should be, move Redrive up the list.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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This article was originally published on Monday Oct 20th 2008
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