ShadowProtect Desktop 5 review

ShadowProtect Desktop, the consumer version of the leading enterprise-level backup software is the most reliable image-backup app we've found
Photo of ShadowProtect Desktop 5

ShadowProtect Desktop won’t dazzle you with its looks or its feature list, but it makes itself indispensable through its speed, reliability, and single-minded attention to backing up and restoring your system and your files. Unlike rival products that look like the kind of Swiss Army Knife that can get you imprisoned for life if you bring it the airport, ShadowProtect Desktop is focused on creating and using disk images—files that contain a complete snapshot of a partition on your disk, which you can either use to restore your entire system in a single operation, or open in a window on your desktop—as if it were a real disk—so you can explore or copy individual files and folders.

After reviewing many rival products, I still use ShadowProtect for my regular backups. And I’ll describe in a moment how I used it to solve some Windows problems that nothing else could solve. It’s been our Editors’ Choice ever since it appeared, and we haven’t found any reason to change our opinion.

ShadowProtect Desktop 5 is a reduced version of StorageCraft’s business and enterprise-level backup solutions, which include such high-level features such as cloud-based storage and network-wide backup control panels. Even the basic Desktop app is designed for efficiency more than for consumer-level friendliness, but any moderately knowledgeable consumer can manage it easily. All you need to know is some basic knowledge of how to navigate the Windows file system in a File/Open dialog box.

Getting Started
Here are the basics. Start up the app; make sure that the Wizards tab is showing in the main interface, click Backup, and follow the prompts to select a partition to backup and a location where you want to save the backup. Typically, you’ll choose an external USB disk, but the destination-selection dialog lets you navigate to another system or storage device on your network and use that instead. If you’re making backups for convenience instead of safety—for example, if you want quick access to older versions of your files—you can save the backup to another partition on your main hard disk, but do this only if you don’t mind losing your backups and your originals if your main hard disk fails.

The next dialog lets you schedule your backup, and you may want to change the default setting, which makes a full backup every Sunday and then makes “incremental” backups (backups that save only files changed since the last full backup) once every hour on weekdays. The next option lets you encrypt your backups and click on an “Advanced” button for some crucial options that you probably shouldn’t ignore.

The Advanced option that I use most is on the Retention tab in the Advanced dialog; this lets me tell the app to delete older backups after new ones are made; I typically save two full weekly backups, and let the program delete older ones, but you can save as many backups your storage location can hold. Then look over a summary page that reminds you of the options you’ve chosen, and click Finish to let the app do its job. You can close the main window, and let the app do its work in the background, so you don’t have to think it about it again until you need it for a recovery.


What to Do with Backups

You can do two things with your backed-up images: explore or restore. To explore an image, run the Explore wizard in the app’s main window; follow the prompts to select the image you want to explore and—if you’ve made incremental backups in addition to a full backup—which specific date and time you want to explore. After a few seconds the image opens on your desktop as if it were a real drive.

The Explore wizard includes an option to make the image “writable,” meaning that you can run programs from the image, modify files, or do anything else you can normally do with a real disk—but the underlying image doesn’t actually change. This “writable” option means that the app creates a “delta” file that records the changes you made in the files, and applies that delta file to the image when you open it again, so it looks as if the image actually changed. When you explore the image again, you have an option to ignore the delta file, so your original backup remains safely as it was when you made it.

If your disk has multiple partitions, you can restore an image to another partition while booted to your normal Windows system. But you’ll most likely want to use the restore feature to restore your Windows partition to an earlier condition when Windows’ built-in tools won’t bring your system back to life. To do this, you’ll need a recovery CD or USB stick, but you’ll have to download the necessary files from StorageCraft’s web site. The easiest option is to download a “cross-platform” recovery tool and burn it to a CD using the provided instructions. This tool is a Linux-based app that looks almost exactly like a Windows program and lets you backup, restore, or explore backup images from a bootable disk.

A second option creates a Windows-based restore disk (actually Windows PE-based, meaning it uses the Windows PreBoot environment, a special subset of Windows used for installing the operating system or booting from a CD or USB stick). You use a wizard to download some necessary Microsoft software, then build a recovery disk image, then burn the image to CD or USB stick. This alternative is definitely worth the effort if you want to create a USB-based recovery environment easily. Both recovery environments include a boot configuration utility that automatically repairs your hard disk’s Windows boot environment if Windows can’t boot normally.

An Unexpected Bonus
One reason I prefer ShadowProtect Desktop is that it can solve problems that it was never intended to solve. Here’s a true story. One of my family’s Windows machines was in a bad way. It often took an hour to shut down, and when it shut down quickly it often spontaneously turned itself on again a minute later. It locked up now and then for no obvious reason. I thought I might need to reinstall Windows or buy a new system, but decided to try something simpler using ShadowProtect Desktop.

I had a current backup of the misbehaving system, made with ShadowProtect Desktop. I booted the machine with a ShadowProtect recovery CD, told it to restore the backup to the hard drive, but to use the “hardware-independent restore” (HIR) option that’s designed to be used when restoring a backup to a different machine from the original. HIR strips out hardware drivers from a backup when restoring to a new machine, so Windows automatically installs the hardware needed by the new machine.

I wanted to see what would happen if I used HIR to strip out the hardware drivers on the misbehaving machine even though I was restoring it to the same hardware. The results were better than I hoped. Windows automatically reinstalled the drivers it needed—and the machine stopped misbehaving. It consistently shuts down quickly, and has never restarted spontaneously as it used to do. ShadowProtect Desktop produced a good result it was never designed for.

What you need most of all in imaging software is reliability. Your backups are the fail-safe system that you need to recover your data and get working again after a disk crash or other data disaster. Don’t take my word for the quality of ShadowProtect Desktop; visit the support forum at StorageCraft’s website and look for problem reports. Then compare the vanishingly few reports of problems with ShadowProtect—problems that seem to reveal underlying problems in a system on which the product is installed, rather than being caused by the app itself—and the profusion of problems reported with some rival products. You’ll probably conclude, as I have, that ShadowProtect Desktop 5 is the one app that you’re willing to trust with preserving your data, and a no-contest Editors’ Choice.

Specifications
Tech Support Email, forum
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7
Type Business, Personal, Enterprise, Professional

Verdict
ShadowProtect Desktop, the consumer version of the leading enterprise-level backup software is the most reliable image-backup app we've found.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc