The wrong time to figure out that your laptop computer is not starting up properly is when you're on a business trip and are depending on it.
That's the situation in which I found myself a few months ago. The screen on my usually trusty Apple PowerBook was displaying a blinking question mark in a way that made me break into a cold sweat. I was expected to write stories and e-mail them to editors over the next few days. Clearly that was going to be a challenge with a PowerBook that was refusing to boot. Ultimately, I had the hard drive replaced, but not before lots of lost work time.
I wish I had then a product I tested this week. It is the ABSPlus Drive from a company called CMS Products. It's basically a small external hard drive that when combined with the company's software, called BounceBack, copies the contents of the hard drive of a PC running Microsoft's Windows or a Mac. It also makes that external hard drive bootable, so that in the event your internal hard drive fails--as mine did--you can start up from it.
None of this is terribly remarkable. If you know what you're doing, you can create an emergency boot disk for both the Mac OS and Windows systems. (Some people even do so from their iPod music players, but that's another story.) But what I liked most about this product was that the included BounceBack software was incredibly easy to use.
I connected the drive -- an 80-gigabyte ABS Plus, which sells for $399 -- to the FireWire port on my PowerBook after installing the BounceBack software. I have a 40-gigabyte drive and as yet have only used up about 8 gigabytes of storage space. (It's the new drive I just had installed.) The program estimated it would take only 18 minutes to back that up, but in fact it took 46 minutes. (I've come to learn that software programs constantly underestimate how quickly they can accomplish big jobs.)
Once it was complete, however, everything was copied to the external drive. I then used it to boot up. And all the files I was used to seeing were there, and programs ran as though they were running from the internal drive.
After booting back on the internal drive like usual, I deleted a few files "by mistake," then asked the BounceBack software to restore them to their original location, which happened to be the desktop folder. They appeared right where they had been before being deleted.
One feature that Windows users get that Mac users don't is versioning. BounceBack keeps multiple copies of specified files, so if you make lots of changes, but then want to go back to a version of the file before you made all the changes, the program can maintain those versions for you easily.
The drive itself is small and light. At 5 inches long, 3 wide and less than an inch thick, it's smaller than a thin paperback, which makes it as easy to pack for a trip as an iPod.
When I finally did get the new internal hard drive after the old one had crashed, I paid about $200, plus the labor to get the job done by a technician at a repair shop, and that was after deciding not to bother with going to the trouble of restoring my data. Luckily, the lost data wasn't incredibly important, but if it had been, then the entire fiasco of my failed hard drive would have been much more expensive. I would have preferred not having to make the choice.
Smaller versions of the drive -- which also comes in a USB 2.0 version -- start at $229 for 20 gigabytes and go to $419 for 100 gigabytes. When the data is important, that's pocket change.