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TR's MagicCard Plus PCI 2000 review

A new approach to system recovery

ModelMagicCard Plus PCI 2000
Price (street)US$119

YOU KNOW THE TYPE, and you know what they're going to say almost immediately after they start talking. There's something wrong with their computer, and they haven't installed any third-party software or flying sheep screen savers. They haven't been clicking on any email attachments, either; they swear. No, of course not. They were just innocently typing away when, all of the sudden, out of nowhere, something went very wrong with their Windows installation. To make matters worse, you're the one who has to fix it.

Maybe it was all an honest, careless mistake. Heck, maybe it wasn't the user's fault at all. Either way, it's going to take you some time to figure out just what happened and how to fix it. But what if you could simply hit the reset button and have all your troubles melt away? What if you could bring that system back up within seconds, to the same state it was in when the user first booted the machine that morning, and be done with it? Just how cool would that be?

This isn't a pipe dream, folks. The technology exists in the form of the MagicCard, and we've got one on the test bench for you today. Is this a support department's wet dream, or just a Ghost knockoff? Read on as we attempt to unravel the magic.

Dissecting the magic
The MagicCard is all about instant recovery from intentional or unintentional damage to your Windows install and data on your hard drive. You're protected from innocuous things like changing a desktop background image or deleting a few files all the way up to more significant changes brought about by virus attacks and even low-level formatting. "How?" you ask. The card uses a proprietary algorithm to encode system data and spread it over only 1% of your hard drive.

Since all encoded data is stored on the hard drive itself, the MagicCard is compatible with drives big and small. The only thing actually stored on the MagicCard is the algorithm used to encode data, which means that you can actually swap out different MagicCards in the same system. If, for example, your MagicCard were to die, you could pop a new one in without having to worry about the integrity of the encoded data on your hard drive. If data is encoded with one MagicCard, it can be decoded with another.

In some ways, the MagicCard works a lot like Ghost or DriveImage, because it lets you take snapshots of your hard drive and restore back to that point. However, there are a few key differences that in some cases make all the difference in the world.

  • Speed — Drive imaging software is slow at both creating and restoring image files, even if those images are stored locally on a different partition of the same physical disk drive. If you store images on a remote server, network bandwidth becomes an issue. It could take hours to create or restore an image depending on the level of compression you choose and just how big a partition you're imaging.

    Where drive imaging software takes hours, the MagicCard takes minutes, or even seconds to create or restore a snapshot. How's that for a reduction in downtime?

  • Storage requirements — Regardless of hard drive size, the MagicCard uses only up to 1% of available drive storage. That's it. 1%. Less than the storage requirements of even high-compression image files from Ghost or DriveImage.

  • CMOS recovery — The MagicCard has a limited ability to back up CMOS settings. This doesn't mean that you'll be saved if you fry your BIOS mid-flash, but if a user is able to get in and change around some CMOS settings, the MagicCard can try to restore them. However, because each BIOS deals with CMOS settings a little differently, the MagicCard won't be able to save all the settings from every BIOS. It's better than nothing, and the MagicCard has three different levels of CMOS recovery, to balance the number of CMOS settings it tries to restore with overall compatibility.

  • Image security — With MagicCard, there is no physical image file, which can be a better or worse setup depending on what we're comparing it with. Having no image file means that there's no chance a user can intentionally or accidentally delete or corrupt a snapshot and destroy all chances of recovery. MagicCard's virtual image file is spread across the local hard drive and is invisible and inaccessible to a user. However, since MagicCard's snapshot is stored on the local hard drive, it is susceptible to physical hard drive damage or theft. Using a Ghost image on a local hard drive is also susceptible to this vulnerability, but with Ghost you do have the option of storing image files on a remote network drive, separate physical disk drive, or even writing them to removable media.

A software imaging program like Ghost is about as close a competitor as the MagicCard has, but as you can see, the two are really are quite different. In some situations, you might even want to use a MagicCard in conjunction with an imaging program, since the MagicCard can't aid the deployment of new systems, nor can it account for physical drive failure.

The MagicCard can be set to automatically restore the contents of a drive on a preset schedule that can vary from time-based criteria like restoring every day, to simply restoring data each time the machine is rebooted. MagicCard's makers recommended using the MagicCard in this automatic mode, but if you're more daring, you can set the MagicCard to "manual," which lets you choose when you take and restore drive snapshots. There are some problems with the manual mode, but before we get into them, let's take a look at the card itself.