Some of my company's remote and mobile employees use notebook computers. These users are concerned about storage and backup: Several users have lost data when their notebooks' hard disks died, and a few have accidentally deleted files for which they had no backups. Do you know of any storage or backup devices that work well in the field?

Historically, mobile-product manufacturers have failed to adequately address data protection. Recent months, however, have brought a flood of new products that attempt to deal with the problems you describe. These devices have more storage capacity, have a smaller form factor, and are generally easier to use than their predecessors. USB seems to be the predominant interface for these new mobile data-protection devices. In my experience, USB devices are easy to set up and daisy-chain. Unfortunately, the current version of USB (i.e., USB 1.1) is relatively slow—10Mbps to 12Mbps. This sluggishness will probably be resolved later this year, when USB 2.0 products are scheduled to appear. USB 2.0 is about 40 times as fast as USB 1.1, clocking speeds of 480Mbps. FireWire (i.e., IEEE-1394) devices are also becoming increasingly prevalent. The current version of FireWire boasts a maximum throughput of 400Mbps.

You need to consider several factors when you decide which of these devices to purchase for your users' notebooks. First, Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows 98 include native support for both USB and FireWire, but Windows NT 4.0 doesn't. Second, tasks that seem easy to you (e.g., configuring DUN) might be difficult for nontechnical users. If you choose a solution that requires more than a few mouse clicks, your users probably won't use it. Worse, the more complex the solution, the more painful and time-consuming it is to support. Software typically determines a remote storage solution's complexity, so make sure your chosen device's software provides clear instructions and requires only a few clicks to operate. (I try to keep the number of clicks to fewer than three.)

Remote storage and backup units typically fall into one of several categories. These categories are optical storage devices, CompactFlash (CF) or PC Card RAM drives, USB or PC Card hard drives, and USB or PC Card tape drives.

Optical storage devices. Examples of optical storage devices are Iomega's Jaz and Zip drives, the Imation SuperDisk drive, and CD-RW devices. Optical drives are becoming increasingly compact and easy to use.

Iomega recently announced the Zip 250MB USB Powered Drive, which doesn't require an external power supply and is simple to use (if limited in capacity). I prefer to use the 250MB Zip drive's SCSI version (which I attach through an Adaptec SlimSCSI APA-1480A driver), but unpowered USB and parallel-port versions are also available. Zip drives are great for sharing files and for making the occasional backup, but a storage capacity of only 250MB per disk is small for a primary backup device. The Jaz drive, however, holds 2GB per disk. These drives are physically larger than Zip drives but are still small enough to fit in most notebook carrying cases. The Jaz drive's downside is the media cost: A 2GB Jaz disk costs more than $120. Both drives are Plug and Play (PnP)—compatible, simple to use, and fairly cost-effective.

CD-RW devices, although smaller than they used to be, are often too cumbersome for mobile users. Also, the software is usually clumsy and isn't geared to the nontechnical user. The CD-RW form factor is also less manageable than tapes or disks. Many CD-RW devices (e.g., Hewlett-Packard's hp cd-writer 8200e series) aren't PnP in Win2K.

CF or PC Card RAM drives. Several CF and PC Card RAM drives (e.g, IBM Microdrive products) are starting to appear on the market. CF and other PC Card RAM drives are usually simple to use. The devices are expensive, given their limited capacity, but are rapidly reaching a good price point. At the time of this writing, a 256MB CF card costs about $200; 512MB solutions cost nearly $500. These devices are good for quick storage and file sharing but aren't suited for system backups.

USB or PC Card hard drives. USB and PC Card hard drives have attained great popularity. Hundreds of USB drives are on the market, and many more are scheduled to appear over the coming months. Although most of these drives have little or no accompanying software (apart from the driver), several come with software that can go so far as to automatically back up a machine when you plug in the drive.

CMS Peripherals' CMS Automatic Backup System (ABS) is one example of this type of automatic drive. The ABS ranges in capacity from 6GB to 30GB and costs between $400 and $850, depending on capacity. I found the 30GB USB version of this drive incredibly easy to use. After you install and configure the drive and accompanying software, a backup of the PC begins whenever you plug in or launch the drive. Backups can't get much easier. I also enjoyed using Amacom Technologies' Flipdisk drive, which draws power from the PC and can transfer files through a USB, PC Card, or parallel interface. Because I used a PC Card instead of a USB for file transfers, the device's performance was more impressive than that of the USB drives I've used. A 20GB Flipdisk will set you back about $500.

Other PC Card hard drives are available, including Micro Solutions' backpack (which boasts impressive performance—double that of a USB drive), Kingston Technology's DataPak, and Calluna Technology's moveIT.

Some companies (e.g., Simple Technology, Addonics Technologies) sell USB enclosures that can work with a variety of hard drives. These enclosures cost less than $100—a good solution for the cost-conscious user.

USB or PC Card tape drives. OnStream Data and Seagate Technology dominate the market for USB and PC Card tape drives. Each vendor's drive requires you to install the Freecom Technology USB driver that comes with the product. Be aware that the two vendors' Freecom drivers aren't interchangeable.

OnStream's Echo USB30 external drive has an interesting look and feel and a 15GB (native) to 30GB (compressed) capacity. The drive has good performance (about 70MB per minute), is reasonably quiet, and costs less than $300. However, I'm not the biggest fan of OnStream's Echo software; the interface is a bit clumsy, changing the cache settings requires a reboot, and the software isn't compatible with Win2K Server or NT Server. (For a detailed discussion of the product, see "Ask Dr. Bob," June 15, 2001.)

Seagate's TapeStor Travan Portable USB 20 is an easy-to-use, high-performance backup device. This drive has a storage capacity of 10GB (native) to 20GB (compressed), and performance is about 60MB per minute. The drive comes with VERITAS Software's VERITAS Backup Exec Desktop software, which is simple to use and which makes job scheduling a snap. The only thing I don't like about this drive is the noise level; working on a notebook while this drive is in use is difficult. The drive costs about $350.