Walt Mossberg

Clickfree Backs Up Your Files Easily, So You’re Not Toast

If you got a new computer over the holidays, you’re probably focused right now on enjoying all its cool features, or savoring how much faster it is than the old warhorse it replaced. The last thing you want to dwell upon is the chore of backing up your data.

Still, backing up your files is important. Hard disks fail, and computers get lost or stolen. When those things happen, files that aren’t backed up can be lost forever, or may be recoverable only for a high price. Unfortunately, the process of performing backups and recovering files can be a cumbersome task.

So, this week, I’ve been testing a product that claims to make the process dead simple. In fact, its maker claims that the gadget, called Clickfree, is “Easier than making toast!”

I didn’t find it to be quite that simple, and it has a couple of important downsides. But Clickfree pretty much worked as advertised in my tests. It is an automated way to back up your important files, as long as you remember to use it regularly.

Clickfree is a compact, specially designed external hard disk that automatically backs up your key files — every time you plug it into your PC — without requiring you to install or launch any software. You don’t even have to press a button. Every time you plug it in, a window pops up on your screen that counts down from 24. When it reaches zero, the Clickfree drive starts copying a staggering array of the most common and important files on your computer. After the first backup, subsequent sessions copy only new or changed files.

The key trick behind Clickfree is that the backup software is built into the external drive itself, and launches whenever the drive is plugged in. It doesn’t reside on your computer.

The drives come in a variety of sizes, from a 120 gigabyte version that costs $90, to a new 1 terabyte version that costs $230. Each drive can be used to back up multiple PCs. They can be ordered at goclickfree.com.

And Clickfree’s maker, a Toronto company called Storage Appliance Corp., has just introduced a new product for people who already own an external hard disk. It’s a special $60 cable with built-in circuitry, called the Transformer, that makes your own drive behave like a Clickfree drive.

Clickfree doesn’t back up your whole hard disk, or your programs. But it does back up over 400 common types of data files, without requiring you to make any choices or configure any settings. It captures email, office documents, photos, music, videos, financial data and more. If you like, you can remove or add file types.

Once the files are backed up, Clickfree presents you with a screen that organizes the files it has collected by category and type. From this screen, you can restore any or all of the files on the same computer, or you can move the drive to another computer and copy them to that machine.

The Clickfree software also allows you to view, or browse through, your backed-up files, print or email photos, and to perform other tasks, as long as the drive is plugged in.

Clickfree originally was designed only for Windows PCs, but the company this week plans to introduce new models that can be used to back up Macintosh computers.

I tested both the Clickfree drive and the new Clickfree Transformer cable, using a drive I already owned, on multiple Windows computers, some running Windows XP and some running Windows Vista. The products worked properly on all of the machines but one, a Vista laptop from Sony. Clickfree’s maker guessed that the Sony was one of the rare machines that require the drive to use an external power supply. It said it supplies such power supplies free to users who need one.

Otherwise, Clickfree worked well, even on a virtual Windows XP machine running on a Mac. Backup was smooth and fast, and I was able to restore files easily, either to the same PC from which they came, or to other machines. I was even able to move files from a Windows PC to a Mac running only Apple’s (AAPL) operating system, not a virtual copy of Windows.

The sole Clickfree function that consistently failed for me was a relatively minor one: a feature that allows you to upload photos directly from the Clickfree software to Facebook.

Unlike a toaster, Clickfree doesn’t work instantly the first time you use it. The product has to install drivers so it can be recognized, and in some cases I had to reboot the computer to complete this process. After that, it was smooth sailing in my tests.

But Clickfree has two big downsides. It doesn’t work constantly in the background, so you have to remember to use it. The company now includes a program that reminds you to back up, but you still have to get out the Clickfree drive and do it. The other downside is that Clickfree doesn’t create an offsite backup of your files. The company is planning to add online backups this year.

Still, Clickfree is one of the simplest and most effective backup products I’ve tried.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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