By: Greg Ross
NTI (NewTech Infosystems) specializes in media and backup solutions, but their Shadow 4 software does not fit the mold of a typical backup utility; it provides users with the ability to back up your precious data in real time. Will NTI Shadow 4 provide you with that peace of mind you need, or does it deserve to stay in the shadow of its competitors? We shed some light in this review.
NTI Shadow 4 is a simple backup utility that has only one mission in life -- to backup your data in real time. The software preserves your information in the original format -- uncompressed and unaltered -- to any available location. Backups can be "one-way" (from a single PC to a single backup location) or "two-way" (from two PCs backing up each other), which is useful for synchronization of files between two locations, two computers, and/or two users.
NTI Shadow 4 uses the familiar Windows installer interface. After presenting the user with the obligatory EULA, the installer asks for some basic user information, including your company name. It is a little odd that the installer requires a company name to continue the installation, but you can simply make up a faux corporation (GregTech!) to satisfy the form field.
During the installation process, there is very little input required from the user. During our test install, all the default options were chosen. After about a minute, NTI Shadow 4 installed on the computer.
Curiously, once NTI Shadow 4 was installed, the installer provided to us by NTI started something else up.
We quickly discovered that NTI Ninja was also being installed on the computer. The end-user is not given a choice whether or not to install this unrelated program, which, in light of events described later in this article, is a very bad thing.
Fortunately, you can cancel the Ninja installation if needed. For the sake of testing, we allowed Ninja to install. During the installation of both products the user only needs to make one or two choices. Total installation time was less than two minutes for both products, which is definitely impressive.
NTI Ninja Woes
After using the default installation options (which installs NTI Ninja as well), the system prompted us to reboot.
Once Vista x64 SP2 finished its post install reboot, not a single USB device worked on our test system. The keyboard did not work, the mouse did not work. Troubleshooting was fruitless, and if a user experiences the same problem, the user is going to wish that a hard drive image/backup was taken of the system prior to the installation of NTI Ninja. Unfortunately, our testbed system did not have an image/backup yet made (this is why we were installing Shadow 4, after all) and we were forced to reinstall the entire operating system as well as all the programs and drivers.
We then installed NTI Shadow 4 again, but aborted the installation of NTI Ninja before it could harm the system.
NTI Ninja is not related to the core functionality of NTI Shadow 4, and it is more than a little annoying that the default option is to install this additional software. Considering this program appears to be a bomb for Vista x64, NTI has committed a criminal offense in our book.
Upon further investigation, NTI Ninja does not cause the same problem with a Vista x86 (32 bit) installations. For some reason, this particular problem was isolated to our Vista x64 installation. At this time we have no way of determining if it was a problem with Vista x64 or any service pack, or if it was an x64 driver conflict. Nor can we assure readers that this problem will not happen during installations on some 32-bit operating systems.
Since we were using a trial version of NTI Shadow 4, it is not known if the purchased version of the NTI Shadow 4 installer also tries to sneak NTI Ninja into the system.
Given the circumstances, users will be wise to avoid purchasing, testing, or using NTI Ninja.
After installing (only) NTI Shadow 4 on our test system, we finally got to play with the actual program. We were immediately presented with a very simple, very elegant interface that provided quick access to all the features Shadow 4 has to offer. Note that the interface's security button launches NTI Ninja, which leads us to believe that even the retail installer of NTI Shadow 4 includes this potentially harmful program.
Clicking the "New" button prompted a wizard that asked the user a series of questions about what kind of backup job is to be created.
The first page of the wizard asks the user what kind of backup job is to be started. One-way Shadows backup all data from the source location to the destination folder. Two-way Shadows function as a synchronization tool for two locations on a computer or network, but we will discuss that feature later in the review.
The wizard first asks the user which source folder is to be backed up. The most common choices are shown in the "My Favorites" tab, and provide the user with a quick way to back up all of the important data that the user would find in his or her user directory.
Users can also elect to backup other folders on the system through the "My Computer" tab. The destination folder is then selected. It is slightly unclear what the "Shadow space" is, but we suspect it is related to that pesky NTI Ninja program. Regardless, the user needs to select a single folder and move on.
A few additional options can be selected as well. Suppressing the error log, from experience, is probably an option that users will want to keep selected. Retaining the full path of backed up files and folders just makes the destination backup location a little more cryptic and difficult to navigate, but selecting it (or not) does not impede the program from working properly.
The user can also opt to automatically delete backups if/when the source file or folder is deleted as well (though you may want the backup precisely because you deleted the source folder). It is nice to see this kind of flexibility in the program, as it allows the user to select what is best for him, but it needs to be placed in a more prominent location in the wizard.
Previous file revisions can also be stored, much like Vista's Shadow Copy service. However, NTI Shadow 4 does a much better job of illustrating what exactly is being backed up. Users can even browse and open the revised versions of files, which is something Vista's revision tool does not do nearly as well.
NTI Shadow 4 can also alert the user that very little space is remaining on the backup drive. Alerts like this can be very important to the end user, and it is a useful feature to have in a backup program.
The only obvious problem with NTI Shadow 4's interface is that it frequently slows down, sometimes to the point we suspected the program was locked up. Fortunately, NTI Shadow 4 always "comes back to life" after 10 or 15 seconds. Considering the configuration interface is likely not going to be open often, this is more an inconvenience than a problem.
REAL-TIME BACKUPS AND RECOVERY
Once backup jobs have been created, the program goes right to work protecting the user's precious data.
Here we see the guts of the backup program's functionality. NTI Shadow 4 essentially performs copy-and-pastes in either near real-time as changes occur real-time, or in batch jobs as scheduled by the end-user. The above screenshot was taken seconds after copying a hoard of data into the source folder that NTI Shadow 4 was instructed to monitor.
Immediately after the files were created, NTI Shadow 4 went to work copying the data folder one file at a time. CPU usage on a Core i7 system hovered at around 5% during this process, which is inline with the amount of resources that are normally required for reads/writes on our testbed system. However, sometimes usage spiked up to 15-20 percent, which is probably because NTI Shadow 4 was quickly evaluating the next steps to take to finish the job.
However, the backup did have a little bit of latency even with a continuous backup routine. There was a minute-or-two delay between the creation/modification of a file and the subsequent copy that must take place. It does not hamper the product in any way -- we suspect NTI Shadow 4 is just trying to keep itself out of the user's way -- but users do need to be aware that the product does not instantaneously backup data. This is about as close to RAID1 as any single-disk software suite is going to get, and we were duly impressed.
Out of curiosity, we decided to see what would happen if/when Shadow 4's backup file was deleted. As it turns out, NTI Shadow 4 only backs up new files into the backup directory, as in only those files that have been added or altered since the last backup timestamp. The only way to force NTI Shadow 4 to backup the entire directory again is to explicitly run the full backup job again. In other words, don't let your backup get deleted or corrupted; run the full backup job on a regular basis.
This is not a major problem, but this is a scenario that we hoped NTI would have anticipated and guarded against.
It should also be noted that users can select to run backups manually, as shown above. Given what we discovered about NTI Shadow 4's default backup behavior, this is an essential feature.
We also tested the "two-way" backup feature, and it works just as well as the "one-way" backup. Files are created and destroyed between the two locations in concert, and the changes in each folder are applied just as quickly and effectively as described in the "one-way" backup.
Restoring any archive is easy. Click the "Restore" button in the user interface and go through the popup wizard. Select the particular files or folders that need to be restored, and then choose the location to which the files should be restored.
If the wizard is not entirely sure what to do, it will ask the user in a single prompt what actions should be taken.
The revisions feature, which supports file versioning, is also useful to have, though it does increase the required disk space just a little bit.
Above, we see what is actually stored in a revisions folder, and this image illustrates that NTI Shadow 4 is smart enough to minimize the necessary disk space needed. Note that all the un-revised data is still in the backup location, just in a different folder.
NTI Shadow 4 is a very simple, but elegant, tool that helps users preserve their data. The program does not have any unnecessary bells and whistles included; NTI clearly focused on getting the core functionality of the program working -- and working well.
The only real beef that we have with NTI Shadow 4 is NTI Ninja. It is not required for NTI Shadow 4 to actually work, though it does offer some interesting encryption options. That said, those features are not worth the risk NTI Ninja poses to the system.
While there are a few small shortcomings in NTI Shadow 4, none of them seriously impact the functionality of the program. Better yet, all of these problems are easily worked around -- or ignored -- so long as the user is aware of what not to do. Do not delete the backup archive!
Ultimately, NTI Shadow 4 was a very enjoyable product to review. Users should keep in mind that this is most likely the closest to hardware RAID1 that any software can provide. Its low price is also quite attractive.
If all users are looking for is a quick way to protect important data or to synchronize data found in multiple locations, NTI Shadow 4 should be on the shortlist to consider.
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