July 02, 2009


Seagate Replica. Windows Vista or XP with NTFS format. 250GB single-user version, $130; 500GB multi-user version, $200.

     Seagate Technology makes quiet, efficient internal and external hard drives that are found in computers worldwide. It also makes tough business decisions: in May, it announced a 2.5% reduction in its workforce (about 1,100 people) in an attempt to save $125 million a year and be cash-flow and earnings positive in fiscal 2010. Tough balancing act: make ever-better products to generate ever-better financial results with ever-fewer people. Yet Seagate seems to have the technology and management to do just that. A case in point is its fascinating and super-efficient single-use product, the Seagate Replica external hard drive.

     The reality of computer backups is that everyone advocates them, everyone believes in them, and far too few individuals and small businesses do them. The usual complaints: they are time-consuming; it is hard to set up the software to do them; they interfere with smooth computer operation; they are difficult to configure; even if you do get a backup made, a restoration is complex; they back up data files but not program files, meaning a restoration takes so many hours that you might as well just put the data on a new computer; and so on. All these complaints have some validity. What is wonderful about the Seagate Replica is that it pre-empts them all.

     This is a small external drive – less than six by four inches, less than an inch thick, weighing about half a pound – that looks like a miniature of some Apple products even though it works only on Windows PCs. It is designed to do one thing and one thing only: back up your entire computer, which means not only the data but also the programs, settings and the operating system itself. The first backup takes two to three hours for an average computer; the process is completely silent and does not interfere with or slow down use of the computer for other purposes. Leaving the Seagate Replica plugged in results in constant incremental backups, or you can unplug it (it is powered through a USB port) and start it again when you want an updated backup. The best approach is to leave it plugged in permanently, if you can spare the USB port. In fact, if you can’t, it’s worth investing in a USB hub just to keep the Seagate Replica running. Why? Again, simplicity: this is the easiest-to-use backup drive currently available, and it is hard to see how its approach could be improved (although it will be interesting to see whether it will work with Windows 7 when the new operating system comes out later this year).

     The Seagate Replica has considerable competition, including from Seagate itself: the Seagate FreeAgent Go has as much capacity as the multi-user Replica and is more flexible in letting users design their own backups. But that drive does not back up everything, and its software, although it works well, requires some setup – while the Replica software installs quickly and with minimal fuss. Other companies’ backup-oriented hardware, such as the Maxtor OneTouch line and drives from Clickfree, SimpleTech and Western Digital, will also do a good backup job. Online backup, through such services as Mozy, has its attractions as well – the most important being that your backup is stored remotely, so a disaster that destroys your entire home or business does not wipe out your backup as well as your computer itself.

     But consider, once again, the matter of ease of use. There is no competitor out there offering the simple elegance of the Seagate Replica. This drive is designed to do a single thing – back up an entire PC or, in the case of the 500GB version (which comes with a dock), several PCs – and then restore everything, from the operating system up, in case of disaster. The restoration really works – the software boots directly off the CD drive and functions even if your C drive has crashed and must be replaced. A full restore can take as little as an hour or so, depending on how much needs to be rebuilt. And it really is a full restoration – no searching for original programs or re-downloading software. This is simplicity itself – an increasingly important goal in personal computing: witness the success of limited-function netbooks in a world that was until recently dominated by do-it-all laptops and desktops.

     It is certainly possible to nitpick the Seagate Replica. The supplied USB cable is unusually short; you may need to use a different one. But any standard mini-USB cable works. If you get the 500GB version, the cable hardwired to the dock is two-headed to ensure that it gets enough power – a single USB port is not enough to run it on some laptops. That may make it harder to leave the drive permanently attached, since it could mean giving up two USB ports permanently. But USB hubs are inexpensive, and it is worth buying one, if you need to, for the sake of protecting a computer that may contain everything a household or small business needs to keep functioning. Think of the whole purchase – Seagate Replica plus, if needed, a longer cable and USB hub – as very inexpensive business-interruption (or household-interruption) insurance.

     Ideally, a computer user will supplement the Seagate Replica with online storage of key data files: the argument in favor of keeping crucial material offsite is a compelling one. But the strongest argument of all is to make backups in the first place, and far too many computer users remain far too cavalier about this essential task. Whatever Seagate’s corporate circumstances may currently be, the company has proved one thing again and again: it knows how to make highly functional drives that do their jobs with a minimum of fuss. The Seagate Replica does only one such job – any Seagate or other hard drive, equipped with backup software from Symantec or other companies, can make a backup and do other things in addition. But the Seagate Replica does what it does with such ease, such simplicity and such a straightforward approach to such a critical task that it deserves to be anointed the king of the backup field for all users who have thought, until now, that backups are just too difficult or time-consuming. With the Seagate Replica, they are neither. Procrastinators are hereby declared out of excuses.

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