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The only sure things in life are death, taxes, and that your hard drive will die one day, taking loads of data with it, quite probably at the least convenient time for you. That's what backups are for, of course, and the reason why you keep your CD burner close at hand to make copies of your valuable files. Don't you?

The only sure things in life are death, taxes, and that your hard drive will die one day, taking loads of data with it, quite probably at the least convenient time for you. That's what backups are for, of course, and the reason why you keep your CD burner close at hand to make copies of your valuable files. Don't you?

The trouble with CDs, though, is that they're pretty small compared with the capacity of an average hard disk – which these days is tens of gigabytes. And also, they don't fit in to the way that more and more people work: at multiple locations, using different computers.

So we're not talking about floppy disks here – 1.4 megabytes is a pointless size these days. (It's about two minutes online.) A promising new replacement are USB "flash" drives, such as the V-Drive, which plug into a USB port and can store from 16Mb to 1Gb. They're pricey (£25 for 16Mb), but reliable, tiny (car key-sized) and ideal for those essential documents.

But I'm after disks where 10Gb is the smallest worth bothering with. That's enough for thousands of songs in MP3 format, plus video and picture files; a few years ago we would have thought it enough for anyone, but times (and file sizes) change.

That has led to the emergence of a class of pocketable hard drives which redefine the idea of carrying data around. You might think that there wouldn't be much to separate them out; mostly you'd be right, though if you don't have any backup software of your own then that alone could be enough to tip your choice. And strangely enough the mode of connection can make a big difference too.

LaCie caught my eye first, with its delectable PocketDrive, first introduced in 2000 with USB and Firewire interfaces; USB transfers data at up to 12 megabits per second, and Firewire at 400 Mbps, if you've got the system to handle it. There's also now a separate USB 2.0 PocketDrive. (I'll explain the differences between USB, USB 2.0 and FireWire next week. For now, take it that big files will need either FireWire or USB 2.0, as shifting 100 Mb of files via standard USB is a tedious process.)

The PocketDrive has a rubberised surround with a groove in which you can wrap cables – a neat touch – plus a little pilot light telling you what the disk is doing (powered up is green, reading/writing flashes orange, off is – well, off) and you plug your connector straight in. I'll vouch for their durability: I bought a 20Gb one in late 2000, and it's been bounced and dropped a fair bit since then without losing any data. The drive is almost silent, too, which is very welcome.

LaCie doesn't, however, offer much in the way of software to help you carry out your backups. This is fine if you're trying at some stage to make a copy of key parts of your hard drive (perhaps before that nailbiting operating system update) or create your own set of files and folders to carry around (my own preference). But it does mean that you can't easily do an incremental backup, where only files that have been changed since your last backup get copied. For that you'd need to find a dedicated program.

The Amacom Flip2Disk at first looks larger than the LaCie PocketDrive, so I was surprised to put them beside each other and discover that it's slightly smaller. It has a strange transparent top, which makes you think it's wasted space. There are two lights, one showing power, the other whether it's reading. The pricing structure is that you pay for the drive, and then the cable (which has a particular connector to the drive itself); cleverly, this means that you can permanently have one interface (say, FireWire) on one machine, and a different one (parallel, perhaps) on another.

Compared with LaCie, though, the disks alone are expensive, and with the connectors even more so. It does come with backup software, but for the extra price, you could buy something dedicated and have a LaCie. (The software is PC-only.) On the plus side, it comes with a very smart, if rather bulbous, carry-case. But I think some price adjustment is needed.

Iomega is also trying to get into this market, but at the quoted prices its Peerless product looks more like a suicide note. It does, however, have a new range of portable hard disks, of 20Gb and 40Gb capacities, at attractive prices, though the company couldn't get one to me for trialing.

Iomega does have one very, very strong point, though: its Quicksync software. This can be configured to periodically back up files from a folder to any Iomega disk (of course it doesn't work on non-Iomega stuff). It is a fantastic asset that it's wise to keep to itself – it's the only way to justify most of its prices.

network@independent.co.uk

www.lacie.co.uk; www.vtec.co.uk; www.amacom.co.uk; www.iomega.com

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