(As of this writing, only a Leopard-compatible beta is available although it appears no new features are being added for Leopard, only bug fixes)
Frequently, bundled software is worth the price you pay for it (sometimes less). Needless to say I was skeptical when installing Memeo’s LifeAgent software, having come bundled with my Buffalo 500GB external drive.
My backup needs are pretty straightforward:
- Web Site
- Metadata (keychains, bookmarks, etc.)
I keep my external drive locked in a cabinet at work during the week, carrying it home for a weekly Saturday 3am backup. I need to be sure that when my machine wakes up, LifeAgent starts to perform a backup.
Creating a Backup Plan
A LifeAgent backup begins by creating a “Backup Plan”: what to backup and where to put it. This is the main screen of the application.
Backup software with a clean, uncluttered look? Someone pinch me. Right away, I feel as though I’m going to enjoy using this. We create a new Backup Plan by clicking on the “+” button. Before we proceed, let’s have a look at some possible changes:
- If there’s only one option available (the first time I’m running the program), why force me to go looking for it?
- The “Pause” and “Restore” buttons are enabled, yet do nothing. They should be disabled.
- Like chips and salsa at a Chinese restaurant, “Share Photos Online” seems oddly out of place here. I don’t quite know what this has to do with backup software, but I’m paying the price for it in usability terms. If that option wasn’t available, we could remove the “+” drop-down entirely! (and promote the “Create Backup Plan” right up to the top-level, similar to how “Restore” is available without having to hunt).
Step 1 – Where to Backup
The first step in Backup Plan creation is to choose the destination, using the familiar Mac volume icons:
From the top, left to right:
- Why is “SELECT A DESTINATION” in ALL CAPS? By using all caps (versus Sentence case or Title Case) you remove the subtle sizing hints that aid the eye in reading text and give some the impression of YELLING. Also, it’s not quite centered.
- Even though I only have one removable drive, selecting “Removable Drive” doesn’t really do anything. It should see that I only have one Removable Drive installed, and choose a default location on that drive to place my files. For example, “/Memeo Backups/<Backup Plan Name>”. Honestly, I really don’t care where or what the name of the directory is, but if I did, the “Back up files to…” button would allow me to change it.
- Can we widen the dialog or shorten the section on the left to remove the need for the scrollbar? The dialog looks so much better without it.
- The overall flow of the dialog is a little off, jumping forward, then back, then across. Ideally we’d see top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Here’s a quick mockup:
which would also serve to remove the scrollbars.
“Back up files to…” should be “backup” as one word to stay consistent with the rest of the app.
- Remove “Optional” label. Of course they’re options – they’re check boxes after all :-)
- Vertically center the “Secure” checkbox with the top line of the option.
- The “Continue” button should be disabled until we’re ready to move forward. Currently it allows you to click “Continue” but then chastises you for not filling out all the form fields.
Memeo has usage data, and I wonder if that would tell them how many people backup their data to “Internal Drive”? Should we even offer this option even though it’s nothing more than a glorified file copy? It may mislead people into believing their data is safe just because they ran it through a backup program.
An imaginary support call:
“Good morning, Memeo support.”
“Hi there. I used your backup software but the guy at the Apple store is telling me the data wasn’t backed up!”
“Where did you backup your data? Did you use our online service?”
“No, I don’t even know what those are. The only thing in the backup destination list I have was ‘Internal Drive’. Can’t he get my data off the Internal Drive?”
Uh oh! While technically the user is to blame for this mistake, Memeo gave him the tools to shoot himself in the foot with. He won’t enjoy being blamed after the fact.
Step 2 – What to Backup
This, I absolutely love.
With “SmartPicks”, LifeAgent frees me from having to understand the implementation details of OS X and allows me to choose backup data at a level with which I’m familiar: music, mail, etc. Because I store all of my data under my Home folder, I was able to construct a backup plan using nothing but SmartPicks! One SmartPick for my Home folder, one for iTunes, one for my Keychain…
After making my selections, LifeAgent calculates the size of my backup in order to tell me whether or not there’s enough room to store it.
I don’t have any suggestions for this dialog; nothing that I haven’t mentioned already. Perhaps a little more breathing room for some of the components, and removing the tenth’s precision for size reporting – that level of detail is not useful with today’s gigantic disks.
Step 3 – Name the Backup Plan
Pretty simple step really – pick a symbolic name for the plan you just created.
Again, nothing that I haven’t said already (centering of title, switch to Title Case, etc.).
That’s it! We’ve created our first Backup Plan:
Wait… I’m done?
Steps 4-?! – No Scheduling? No Script Setup?
This is it? LifeAgent is already performing backups and versioning my data? It’s hard to believe, coming from the world of boundless complexity I was living in with Retrospect, but it’s true.
What about my need for scheduling? My device isn’t connected from Monday-Friday. I plug it in Friday after work and Retrospect starts a backup at 3am Saturday. How is LifeAgent going to accomplish this? I see no “scheduling” settings. Is this it? Am I stuck with Retrospect?
When I remove my drive, notice how the home screen changes:
The volume is offline and the backup status changes to tell me that the device has been disconnected. Fortunately, LifeAgent preserves some information about my last backup so I’m not in the dark about my data.
As my backup data becomes more and more out of date, LifeAgent helps me understand what hasn’t yet been backed up.
This sort of rich, modeless feedback is invaluable. Rather than popup warning dialogs to notify me that my external device is disconnected (a rather common occurence actually!), LifeAgent trusts that I know when things are plugged in and provides me with valuable information as to the state of my backups.
Bravo. Again, positively brilliant.
When I reattach my drive, LifeAgent wakes up and performs the backup immediately. Absolutely terrific stuff.
LifeAgent “Home” Suggestions
The Home screen is not without its foibles:
- “My First Backup” is all but invisible. Its placement has it contending with “Memeo LifeAgent” for the title of the dialog.
- The iMac icon (adjacent “Backup completed”) – What does it mean? That I’m backing up something from my own computer?
- There’s a lot of whitespace that’s only used during the backup procedure (to provide status, etc.) but when idle, the negative space overextends the composition.
- “1.1 MB” and “54.0 GB” – With today’s gargantuan drives, this level of granularity is excessive. “1MB” and “54 GB” will do.
- Rather than forcing me to read and understand “54.0 GB” how about some visual feedback? I can more quickly understand a progress meter (similar to Aperture’s) than a number.
- “Restore” seems out of place here. My restoration typically revolves around a specific backup, which I can already see in the Home screen – let me restore one specifically.
- The name of the backup is no longer hiding, instead taking center stage with an increased font size and more relevant location.
- The number of items in the backup is a property of the backup itself, not of the storage device. As such, it’s been moved away from the right side of the screen over to the left, near the name of the backup. If the backup is complete, I’ll assume they’re stored so we can get rid of the notion of “23 stored”.
- I’m primarily interested in the status of my backups. By using icons with vivid, saturated colours, I’m able to quickly scan the left side of the window. Are all of my backups “green”? Terrific. This replaces the iMac icon, which seemed to be there for decoration only and told me nothing.
- When disconnected, the backup device is desaturated, further differentiating it from other devices which may be online.
- Previously, “Restore” was located on the bottom right of the window. When restoring, the first thing LifeAgent prompts for was… the backup? Why then, wouldn’t we allow you to start a restore from a specific backup in the main window and get rid of that prompt?
- “Create Backup Plan” is no longer hiding under the “+” button, but has come out into the light. Since we’ve removed inexplicably-present “Share Photos” from the UI, we can get rid of the “+” button.
The process begins by clicking the “Restore” option on the main screen, which displays this dialog:
From here, the process is not as straightforward as it could be.
- Currently, all my devices are offline, so it’s impossible to do a restore. LifeAgent could be more forthcoming about this.
- I can browse the back ups, but since the files are not available, I cannot restore them. This functionality should be separate from “Restore”, perhaps “Back Up Browser” or some such. By combining it with restoration, the whole interaction feels overloaded and extended. For example, I can click the check boxes next to individual files. In this context however, that action is useless.
- “Show deleted files” should be switched with the “Restore…” button, unless of course “Show deleted files” acts as some sort of terminating action (it doesn’t).
- The “Restore…” drop-down isn’t an option (as most drop-downs are). It’s actually how you kick off the restoration process. For the event-driven programmers out there, imagine an “onChange” event being fired and kicking off a restore based on your selection.
Much of this difficulty comes from the fact that restoration is currently context-free. Without a “Restore” button next to each Backup Plan (as there is in my suggested mockup), this dialog appears out-of-the-loop. I can see the Backup Plan I want to restore in the main window. Why do I have to learn a new UI to choose that Plan again here?
By failing to contextualize, by failing to differentiate among common restoration scenarios, and by incorporating backup browsing functionality, this dialog is doing too much of the wrong thing.
Basically, restoration needs an overhaul.
Let’s take a look at a few restoration scenarios.
Restoration Scenario 1 – Full, “Clean” Restore
In this scenario, I should be able to click “Restore” on a Backup Plan right from the main screen. In the case where my machine is “clean” (i.e. no files will be overwritten by the restore), restoration should begin immediately, no questions asks. No dialogs, no nothing.
Let’s put this scenario in context to see why this is a win for us.
Your data’s been lost and you’re working to get your computing “life” back together. When you click “Restore” do you want a new interface to learn? Heck no, not when you’re freaking out about your data. Or would you rather immediately see a progress meter informing you that your restoration is underway?
Getting your carefully-archived data restored should be a cinch!
Restoration Scenario 2 – Full, “Dirty” Restore
In this scenario, I click “Restore” on a Backup Plan on the main screen. Restoration should begin immediately. Again: no dialogs, no nothing. However, LifeAgent needs to be smart about this one. If overwriting a newer file, it should make a copy of the file in the same directory with a smart name (e.g. “Rob’s Expenses – Newer than restored backup.xls”.
Note that overwriting a same-date, same-size file should raise no red flags.
An example of a dirty restore would be if your email program became corrupt. You’d like to restore from a week old, on top of preexisting data.
Restoration Scenario 3 – Advanced / Partial Restore
In this scenario, I’m willing to dig through the backups to find a specific file. Memeo made a smart choice by incorporating Spotlight-like functionality into the backup browser to make this as painless as possible. This also, is where all of the advanced restoration options come into play (restore to a different location, etc.).
Restoration, Take Two
Restoration currently assumes that all “restores” fall under Scenario 3 above, when that is most certainly not the case. By contextualizing restoration and optimizing for the common cases, LifeAgent’s restoration process stands to improve considerably.
My guess is that these suggestions evoke fear in the heart of many developers. Start restoring right away? With no confirmations or warnings?! What if this…? What if that…?
Listen, if you have no data, there’s no damage that can be done. Just start restoring it. (Scenario 1)
If you do have data, the application won’t overwrite it, it will make a local backup copy. (Scenario 2)
Let’s turn the usability of LifeAgent up to 11 and start thinking about removing UI.
LifeAgent Compared to Dantz Retrospect
Retrospect is a dialog-laden nightmare and I would suggest nobody reward companies for inflicting such misery on their users. It’s been all but abandoned by Dantz/EMC (in terms of better features or interface improvement in each release). My only reason for suffering this long was the sticker price (free) and that I lacked the knowledge of any viable alternatives. I had played around with others, but they were just as bad with less payoff. Why suffer through another bad interface to lose features? At least I was familiar with Retrospect!
Amazon.com reviewers would seem to agree: 2/5 stars on 17 reviews.
LifeAgent is in a different league… a different sport really. Whereas Retrospect comes off as a Windows app ported to the Mac (evident in its overall design as well as minutiae such as terminal button placement, lack of Mac-style interactions, etc.) LifeAgent was clearly designed specifically for the Mac.
LifeAgent Compared to Time Machine
With the release of Leopard, Apple has significantly upped the ante for backup utility developers. Without substantial effort (or maybe even with it!) nobody will be able to match the OS integration Time Machine offers.
As a long time PC user switching to the Mac back in ’05, I’m a bit skeptical of fully trusting my data to Time Machine a week after Leopard’s release. My Leopard upgrade did not go terribly well (“disaster” would be a more accurate description) and I have too much data to trust to an unproven technology. I take solace in the fact that I can point to a LifeAgent backup and “see” the file sitting there.
I hope that in the long run, Apple will make a convert of me. But for the foreseeable future I’ll stick with my dual backup plan: one external drive for Time Machine and one for LifeAgent.
Although LifeAgent would benefit from some UI rework, it has a solid foundation. Even the Leopard beta handled my backup needs (100 GB+) without breaking a sweat.
The only feature lacking from LifeAgent I thought I would miss – scheduling – I turned out not to need. When you reconnect a drive, it detects it and performs any pending backups. A terrific solution to my scheduling problem that I wouldn’t have come up with. That’s the mark of somebody interested in solving my problems! Terrific stuff.
It’s above and beyond the de facto Mac backup tool, Retrospect, and at less than half the price ($30 v. $90) a steal by comparison.
LifeAgent is highly recommended.