Retrospect Desktop Backup 5.5

  • Editors' rating
    7.8 Very good


  • Powerful and versatile
  • easy incremental backups
  • save multiple versions of backups
  • excellent documentation
  • works with many types of backup devices.


  • Versatility makes for extra steps to perform tasks
  • most difficult to learn
  • will grab an entire Jaz or CD-RW disk for itself

Retrospect Desktop 5.5 is a solid, versatile piece of backup software with many features. All its extra tools create so many choices, in fact, that Retrospect isn't as easy to use as NovaBackup, Simple Backup or GoBack. Thankfully, Retrospect's superior documentation and large selection of backup destinations make up for the steep learning curve. But if you want a full-featured backup system that's easy to use from the start, we recommend Roxio's GoBack.

Download the 30-day trial version of Retrospect 5.5 and you get the full software package, including a PDF manual. After registering and downloading the software, Dantz emails you a licence code to enter during installation. Best of all, if you decide to buy it after the 30 days, you won't have to download the software again; you just purchase another licence code.

Dantz offers several versions of Retrospect, but you'll probably find that either Retrospect Express Backup or Retrospect Desktop Backup will meet your needs. Express offers limited support for tape drives (USB/ATAPI drives only, no SCSI tape drives) -- perfect for the home user -- while the Desktop version supports a much wider array of tape drives -- good for a small business.

The Desktop version expands with optional clients to cover other computers, so you can pay extra to cover everyone in your office, for example. Before choosing between the two, check to make sure the software supports the backup hardware (CD-R/RW, tape, removable disk) that you have. There's an extensive list of supported devices on Dantz's web site.

The Retrospect interface appears easy to use. Its first button, Sources, lets you pick the drives or folders you want to back up. The Destination button lets you name your backup. Unfortunately, an extra step causes considerable confusion. You have to hit the Selecting button to open a dialogue that lets you pick whether you are backing up all files, applications, documents and so on -- but no more than that. You then need to drop down to the Preview button to select which folders and files you wish to back up.

Thankfully, Retrospect's Restore functions are flexible. Once you've lost data, you can choose to restore an entire disk -- helpful after a hard drive disaster -- either to the original location or to a new place. This is useful after a virus infection.

Top ZDNET Reviews

What sets Retrospect apart from the other backup products on the market is what Dantz calls a 'backup set'. Most other backup programs use a file's archive bit (part of a file's attributes) as a way to track which files need to be backed up. Retrospect tracks this differently, by way of its own catalogue file, which is stored on the drive being backed up.

The catalogue keeps track of all the files that have been backed up, including the filename, modified date and size. When it's time to do another backup to the same set, Retrospect compares this catalogue to the contents of the hard drive, rather than the contents of the backup stored on the CD, tape, or disk. Retrospect will back up only hard drive files that have been changed since the last backup.

This makes the preparation for a backup quicker, although it does consume disk space --Dantz says a catalogue will be approximately 4MB in size for every 10,000 files backed up.

An Incremental Plus backup -- backing up only the files that have changed each day -- is a convenient feature. Say you've been working on your novel every day and making daily backups using Retrospect. Your backup set will, by default, contain each saved version. If you decide on Saturday that you like Wednesday's version better, you can go back to Wednesday. You aren't stuck with having only the last backed-up version from Friday.

Retrospect uses its own dominant file format when writing to removable disks and CDs, so the format claims the whole disk. For instance, after backing up 100MB-worth of files to a backup set on a 2GB Jaz drive, the drive will show up in Windows Explorer as full. It's not (there's plenty of room for more files), it's just that Retrospect isn't going to share any space. Luckily, this doesn't happen when saving to another hard drive.

A scripting tool that can automate your backup process is included with Retrospect. Although Dantz calls it a 'script', it's actually a set of customised backup options.

Retrospect's online help, reached via the F1 key or by clicking Help, is on the skimpy side, but it does come with an excellent 246-page manual that walks you through each process, discusses some of the background technology that the program uses, and gives hints on backup strategies.

If you want a capable backup program with the ability to backup multiple versions of your work, then Retrospect is worth the learning curve needed to use it. For example, if you work on long projects that get revised multiple times, Retrospect may be a good choice. However, if you don't need that capability, consider NovaBackup or GoBack.