LaCie's good-looking device makes it easy to manually back up files but stumbles when it comes to more complicated tasks like scheduled saves
Given our penchant for cell phones, iPods, and always-connected laptops, we 21st century computer users regard our technical savvy as pretty evolved. But when it comes to one of the most crucial digital tasks—backing up data—many of us are just emerging from the cave.
Our unenlightened ways are not the result of a lack of options. We can choose from a variety of disk drives that plug into a desktop or laptop to make extra copies of our most important files. But saving all those files at the end of the day can be cumbersome, and most users don't bother. If you work in an office, there's always the corporate server, but what about when you're away? Surely there must be affordable, sanity-saving ways to keep the information that organizes our lives safe from digital disaster. Count me among the supposedly sharp PC users looking to usher my storage skills into the modern age.
I decided to begin a series of reviews of external storage devices with a test run of a sleek new drive called Little Disk, from the French company LaCie (ELED.PA). I learned of the manufacturer through an ex-girlfriend who's a professional photographer and favored one of LaCie's high-end products. It sat atop a desk, felt like a small anvil, and could store half a trillion bytes of data. My needs are simpler. I want a drive that can keep regular copies of notes, article drafts, and a few photo files and PDFs that I use to do my daily job, and one I can throw in my laptop bag a few times a week when I work from outside the office.
I used Little Disk for about a week, backing up my work files on a daily, if not hourly, basis. It's easy to set up, looks good, and capably handles manual saves. But Little Disk is not as good at more complicated tasks, and I can't recommend it unreservedly.
Unpacking LaCie's Little Disk and plugging it into my Microsoft (MSFT) Windows XP laptop was a snap. To get going, I removed a plastic cap at the bottom of the device to expose its USB plug, connected the drive to my laptop with the cable provided, and within a few seconds Windows had installed the drive. Three clicks got LaCie's backup software started, and a visual prompt cued me to save the contents of my PC's "My Documents" folder to the drive. The Little Disk is also compatible with Apple's (AAPL) Mac operating system, including the recently introduced Leopard and its new Time Machine backup software, which can make continuous copies of all your files while you work.
Sleek Looks and Quick Saves
Little Disk also looks great. It's about the size of a couple decks of cards and is coated with a shiny, reflective black plastic that makes the drive look like a miniature version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Little Disk is one of LaCie's newest products: It became available in October. One reason it looks so good is that it was crafted by Sam Hecht, a British designer who once worked for the renowned product development house Ideo. The version I tested holds 160 gigabytes of data, costs $110, and measures about 5 inches long, 3.5 inches wide, and less than three-quarters of an inch thick. LaCie also makes versions that store anywhere from 30 gigabytes up to 250 gigabytes of data and those that use FireWire cable technology for even faster saves. The Little Disk gets its power from the PC to which it's connected.
Saving files by dragging them from a folder on my desktop to Little Disk's folder was a breeze: The drive's USB 2.0 connection saved documents in a split second, and it backed up my entire 490-megabyte “My Documents” folder in about two minutes.
But I found LaCie's backup software inadequate for more ambitious tasks. It can't save files at preappointed times, and using a keyboard shortcut to create backups makes the software create annoying multiple copies of the same files on Little Disk, a problem that required too much effort to work around. LaCie's "one-click backup" function lets you hit the "Control" and "S" keys from your Windows desktop to save the folders you've designated. Trouble is, each time I gave the software that command, it created a whole new copy of that folder on the drive instead of replacing the existing copy. This process resulted in a series of folders that ate up space and had cryptic names like, "071101MyDocuments02," (the one I created on Nov. 1)—not to be confused with "071031MyDocuments02," from the prior day. Much squinting ensued.
I asked LaCie about the problem. A candid spokesman says the software isn't smart about replacing files or making incremental backups, and is designed to be as simple as possible for an "average user." The Little Disk also contains another software package that can synchronize a user's Outlook e-mail to the disk, but I found it too cumbersome to set up.
Overall, Little Disk delivers a lot of benefits for its price, and LaCie has nailed the hardware details—there's even a soft black bag in the box to preserve the product's sheen when it's tossed into your laptop tote. I only wish the software offered a few finer-grained controls so I wouldn't have to think so much while using it. Consider it one small step for man in the search for better backups.