When judging the merits of most hardware and software, often the balance is in favour of quantity over quality: ‘how fast is it?’, ‘does it have feature Y?’, ‘is it compatible with format X?’, may be more important questions than ‘is the interface actually useable?’.

For services, though, the reverse is usually true. Yes, it needs to cover the functional requirements, but often you’re more interested in the ease of use, whether the service provider makes you feel like a valued customer, and whether you could live without it: subjective, qualitative questions. This has always been the lure of .Mac. Upload photos to the web from iPhoto, synchronise your personal data from office to home using iSync, and back up data automatically to iDisk with Backup, all with a single click. So the question for most .Mac users is, what will seventy quid get me this year?

On the plus side, there’s increased storage (1GB up from 250MB, or 2GB for the Family Pack) and monthly bandwidth (10GB per month up from 3GB per month) for hosted web pages. There’s also a .Mac version of Yahoo Groups, a new version of the Backup utility, and for bilingual speakers, French and German localisation.

On the minus side, there’s no free copy of Virex (due no doubt in part to the initial incompatibility with 10.4), the fabled .Mac Dashboard widgets have yet to make an appearance, and now that .Mac has reached some sort of maturity, the $20 bounty per new recommended user has been quietly pulled. In terms of functionality, .Mac Groups are a bit of a sideshow: if potential users really needed it, they’d probably already be using Yahoo Groups, and switching everyone over might be tricky. The improvements to Backup, though, judging by the various user forums, will be welcomed.

Backup 3 is a ground-up rewrite. You begin by choosing a basic backup plan: Home Folder, Personal Data & Settings, iLife, Purchased Music, or Custom, (or if you’ve used Backup 2 there’s a ‘Transfer Previous Backup Settings’). Each plan contains a set of preset backup sources and a default destination. Once chosen, you’re taken to a tabbed window where you can edit or add additional sources and destinations. Sources can be specific folders, items found using Spotlight or QuickPicks – a similar idea to smart folders, where you can select from a predefined list of file types – Word documents, FileMaker databases, and so on. You can also choose from multiple destinations: your iDisk, a network device, a local drive, or a CD or DVD. Each destination has its own schedule, so you can back up
to CD once a week and an external drive every day, say.

Depending on your source selection, Backup’s initial search can take a very long time. However, backups are incremental, so local or network backups are fairly quick. If necessary, Backup prompts you to insert a blank CD or DVD, and burns the files onto the inserted media. Sadly, it writes single session discs, so you can’t keep adding
to an existing CD.

To restore a file you’ve previously backed up, select the desired plan from your list, and click on the Restore button. You’re then offered a Finder-like column view, with a list of dated backups on the left that allows you to burrow down to restore files from a particular backup. By default, files are restored ‘in-place’ but you can also specify that they be restored to a new location.

For most purposes, restoring files is a snap. However, Backup’s greatest strength – simplifying finding the things novice users what to back up – is also a weakness. If you’ve backed up iPhoto or iTunes albums and then restored them after a crash, the files might
be in the right place, but the applications won’t know about them unless you import them. You’re better off using iPhoto’s archive function and copying your MP3s to CD-R. At least that way, they’ll show up in the application when you insert the CD archive. You can use Backup 3 without a valid .Mac account, but you’re limited to 100MB in a backup.

Aside from the new Backup functions and .Mac groups, much of .Mac’s functionality is available at a lower cost, if not for free. Yahoo Groups and Gmail are free (albeit with ads), and Gmail offers 2.5GB of disk space and a desktop alert tool. Most .Mac users will already have an account with an ISP that includes some web or FTP space. Both OS X and iCal will happily read and write to any WebDAV server, not just your iDisk, and there are free plug-ins for uploading photos from iPhoto directly to sites such as Flickr. Backup is good as far as it goes, but Chronosync is easier to use for local and network backups, and Toast 7 can write data across multiple media. That just leaves iSync, as the one .Mac item that you can’t easily get elsewhere.


Right now, the decision to invest in a .Mac subscription is a subjective one. If you want seamless integration, without much effort, or if you need to keep your phone, address book, and PDA synchronised, then yes, you need .Mac. But if you are technically savvy you can find much of the functionality cheaper elsewhere. Of course, that would mean forgoing the @mac.com email address.

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