CrashPlan–Backup Solution for Macintosh
Company: Code 42

Price: Standard version $20, Pro version $60 (client software only).
For remote data storage, up to 50GB for $5/month; additional $0.10/month per GB of data over 50GB
(storage is free if using a friend’s computer as the remote destination).

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Using the word “crash” in the name of a backup solution for your critical data is bound to bring on a serious case of bad karma. So I salute the Code 42 folks for having the chutzpah to tell it like it is when it came to bestowing a name on their ingenious backup software.

CrashPlan is a powerful, inexpensive and easy to use backup solution that runs on Mac, Windows, and even Linux. While it most closely resembles offsite backup services like BackJack or Mozy, in that it moves data to a remote location as opposed to a local hard drive or tape backup, the real beauty of CrashPlan is that it allows you to choose the remote location, which can be any Macintosh, Windows or Linux computer that a) the owner of said computer (presumably a friend/family member/poker buddy) allows you to access, and b) has enough free space to back up your stuff. In fact, the Code 42 folks actually encourage this; apparently they’re happy just selling you the client software, even though they do offer storage space at their data facility.

Not only can you use your Mom’s PC as a backup destination, but thanks to CrashPlan’s ultra-friendly invitation options, you might not even need to call her to ask!

By setting up your backup in this way, you don’t have to pay monthly and/or per gigabyte fees to a service, plus you know exactly where your data resides and that no one other than your backup partner can access it without your knowledge. Even better–the backup files are compressed and encrypted in such a way that your files can’t be opened or viewed without using the CrashPlan client to restore them. So even if you’re forced to con Mom & Dad into using their PC as your free backup destination, they won’t accidentally stumble upon all those half-naked Ana Paula Mancino pics in your iPhoto library.

The CrashPlan client is very simple to set up, although I had to email the support folks for clarification on some of the more esoteric settings that are available.

Some of CrashPlan’s more esoteric settings. You probably won’t need to mess with these anyway, but for power users it’s nice to know they’re there.

The restore process is dead simple; you simply navigate through a list of the backed-up files and check the one(s) you want to restore. This is an area where the product really shines in comparison to a solution like the current version of Retrospect, whose tortuous “snapshot” restore process can make you wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just recreate every file on your hard drive from scratch.

Another really essential aspect of CrashPlan is that it does what developers refer to as “delta blocking,” meaning that when a file changes, only the changed bits are stored. Why would you care about this? Well, if you use Entourage with its massive email database, or perhaps Parallels or VWWare Fusion along with a big honking virtual disk image, CrashPlan can create incremental versions of these files with only the changed portions of the file, saving you oodles of gigabytes of storage space each time a backup occurs. This is something that Apple’s Time Machine has not yet mastered, and there is much weeping and wailing on Mac message boards about how to work around these large, constantly-changing files when using TM as your backup system.

Nonetheless, there are a few drawbacks and things I’d like to see the Code 42 folks improve upon. The client is written in Java, and on “older” Macs (G3 or G4 towers, PowerBooks, early iMacs, etc.) its speed ranges from merely poky to glacial, especially when using it to set up one of the aforementioned older machines as a destination for multiple CrashPlan clients. In my experience using a G4/533 tower with 1GB of RAM, the more clients you pointed at the backup Mac, the slower it got, until it took the CrashPlan GUI a full ten minutes to respond to a mouse click or drag. Then again, CrashPlan is free to set up when used as a destination only, so what it lacks in performance it makes up for in price. Note that the speed of the actual backups to the destination is actually quite remarkable over a LAN, and better than expected over the Internet; it’s just the GUI controlling the backup configuration that is slow.

The one really glaring omission is that you can’t use CrashPlan to back up to a locally-attached disk as you can with Time Machine, or any of the excellent backup/cloning programs like SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner, ProSoft Data Backup, etc. You can however, use it to back up to another machine on your home or office network with an external drive attached. Code 42 says they will be adding this feature in the very near future, and once they do it will be hard to justify using any other solution for backing up your stuff, given that CrashPlan already supports multiple concurrent backup destinations and could then simultaneously back up to an external drive directly attached to your Mac as well as your buddy’s 24″ iMac across town.

That’s what backup mavens refer to as “redundancy,” which in simple English means “Wow, you mean even though my pet ferret just knocked my FireWire backup drive off the desk while I was trying to recover my ‘Are You Smarter Than a Canadian 5th Grader’ audition letter, I’m not totally screwed? Awesome!”

And while we’re on the subject of simple English, when it comes to naming backup software it doesn’t get any more direct or to the point than “CrashPlan.” So while it really is an excellent backup solution–with the potential to be even better when it adds support for locally-attached drives–I can’t help but feel like I’m jinxing myself by using a product that is deliberately named for The Computer Disaster That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

Then again, even if I really do jinx myself, at least I’ll be backed up. Rating: 4 out of 5

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2 thoughts on “CrashPlan

  1. Gil:

    Good review here. I referenced your review in my latest review of CrashPlan (hope you don’t mind). I see your review is a little dated as the plans and pricing have changed. You can now get unlimited plans for as little as $49.99/month.

    At any rate, thanks for posting the review. It was helpful in putting mine together.


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