Review of Yoyotta LTO Backup Software

2021 Update: I wrote this review based on my experience with version 1 of Yoyotta, and have continued to use the software for the past few years through to version 2. Between 1 and 2, not much changed to the user interface that would require a significant revision of this review, but recently I was made away that version 3 is now out, and I’m told it contains a number of improvements and fixes to some of the issues I reported below. In the interests of making this review useful in 2021, I will update this review in the next few weeks with impressions of version 3. Stay tuned.

For four years my small video production business has been running its media backup systems on swappable 3.5 inch hard disk drives. In June 2018, we upgraded that limited system with a new Magstor Thunderbolt 3 LTO7 drive to complete the circle of a robust off/on site backup system impervious to the failure rate of spinning disk drives.

We are not a large production company. We turn over about 20–30 projects a year, with most productions turning in around 1–2TB of footage each. Our projects are made up of 4k footage shot for short branded content pieces and TVCs. We rarely work on projects that go for longer than 5 minutes, hence the complexity of our backup system is pretty manageable and our throughput not what I would call ‘high pressure’.

For us, LTO’s long shelf life offers piece of mind and a more (long term) economical choice for high capacity backup; after the sizeable drive purchase, the per GB cost of tape works out a lot cheaper than HDD.

While colleagues had warned me that working with LTO had a learning curve, I never really appreciated the quirks of the format until I spun up my first tape. I quickly discovered that ‘drag and drop’ is a pretty optimistic description of working with LTO. It’s much more akin to using a library catalogue.

It can take up to to 30 seconds for a LTO drive to spin up and tell you what it contains. Hunting into any individual folder can result in a similar delay. Delete something and the drive needs to spin to that point to mark the deletion. Add something and it needs to spin to that point of the tape before starting the copy. All of these delays make finding and retrieving less than real time to the point that you give up searching.

You need then a catalogue and the help of software to streamline the process of getting the files you want onto or off a tape.

Initially I thought we might get away with using Quantum’s open source (and free) “drag and drop” LTO drivers which work with the Magstor drives. Only Quantum didn’t work for us. It threw up constant ‘this file is too large’ errors when trying to drag folders onto the tape drive. Quantum also doesn’t offer indexing or cataloguing. It enables the drive, but it doesn’t help you with it.

So it would end up being a face off between Yoyotta or Preroll Post. Both retail for around the $600 mark. Both offer similar base features with professional upgrades for stuff like transcoding and conforming. We went with Yoyotta.

Preroll’s website looks like it was designed circa 2006 and that was an immediate put off. I downloaded the Preroll trial and the software couldn’t detect the LTO drive hence I didn’t go much further with it. I apologise to the guys at Preroll, but UI theory tells us that what an interface looks like directly influences our predisposition to invest in it. It didn’t look like an interface I would like to use, and I stopped using it. For better or for worse.

Yoyotta looks, on the surface, to be my kind of interface. It’s first impression suggests a clean, uncluttered UI that’s modelled on familiar graphical elements of the Mac OSX ecosystem. And sometimes, that’s what you get.

The good

It works. It read my LTO drive immediately (after a brief restart) and once you get acquainted with the ‘clean’ interface via its built in tool tip system it does offer (mostly) drag and drop functionality.

Yoyotta has a database which you can use to index all the files and folders added to a tape so that you can easily retrieve them.

Yoyotta offers three levels of verification after a backup has completed (none, quick, and full-checksum) and ejects the drive after finishing. You can also back up multiple projects at once in a stacked queue with the interface providing clear evidence of what has successfully completed. I know that’s a really simple thing, but it’s nice to come in and see the tape ejected, see the green ticks and know it all went well. You can even set it to send you a report (I’ve never tried this as it seems a little anal retentive for my needs).

It offers many options for what folder structure you want on your destination disk.

So far, Yoyotta has never failed at backing up. It has always been able to detect a disk, and the retrieval of information is quick and painless. I feel like the core software mechanics underpinning the system are well built.

The online support documentation is comprehensive, to the point, and actually really helpful. Reviewing it before purchase helped me understand the LTO world a lot better and even pointed me in the right direction for hardware purchases. I emailed support twice during my 14 day trial period and both times got a response overnight.

It looks nice. There I said it. Yoyotta looks similar to all the other Mac programs I use day to day. The interface is pleasantly light and bright and generally looks friendly and approachable. On the surface.

The less good

The interface is actually not very good at all.

It feels like the person that built the back end of Yoyotta also built the front end. And they probably shouldn’t have. Very little besides the drag and drop fundamentals is intuitive.

For a start, the interface is clean only because most of the functionality is hidden behind vague and misleading buttons. The menu that prompts you for your registration details, one of the largest and most prominent in the interface (??), is a green outlined rectangle filled with white noise static (in the screenshots it has changed to a question mark — ?). The text log readout of your backup actions is under an exclamation mark. There are two identical ‘gears’ in the top navigation area only inches apart, both do different things.

Despite looking clean, by hiding all the functions behind these buttons, Yoyotta’s interface often feels convoluted and complicated to use when most tasks are actually pretty straightforward.

Basic things like formatting tapes are hidden behind buttons that have a dual purpose. For instance, the first time you put in a blank tape a ‘pop up’ extends up from the ‘exclamation’ icon in the bottom center of the interface. Great idea. But if you happen to be looking away and you miss that pop up, it disappears after 10 or so seconds and clicking that icon again then opens up a completely different menu. From that point on, if you want to format the LTO tape, you need to enter a different menu via an icon in the top center that actually just says “LTFS”. The original pop up never appears again, unless you eject and re-enter the tape. It took me an embarrassingly long time to format my first tape.

I’d say that at least two of the key user tasks for Yoyotta would be “user wants to backup footage for a new project” and “user wants to retrieve footage for a given project”. Neither of these, or any other ‘everyday actions’ are represented in the interface, and nor is their order intuitively suggested.

For example to start a new backup, you should first choose the project that you want to add the footage to. That icon is in the middle bottom of the interface, one of the smallest and most insignificant icons. You’ll open up that interface and choose from one of four “gear” icons, perhaps hoping that the one you actually need (which seems most of the time the far left one) opens up a sub menu that prompts you to “open project”.

If you don’t go through the above first, and instead drag your footage into the very large interface window on the left, then the footage will automatically be assigned to the last project you loaded — even if that was a week ago.

The column approach to the interface suggests a left to right flow, but the reality is more like a circular zig zag. You start middle top by mounting your tape, then go middle bottom to define your project, then far left to add your footage, then far right to add your destination folders, then top right to initiate each backup job. And that’s if you’re not making any preference changes during the process. The left to right interface presents the illusion of order, and actually ends up encouraging you to take the wrong path to achieve common tasks.

The argument is that as this is a professional user interface, there are lots of different ways you can approach the same task. In that way, Yoyotta is a tool box and once you learn to use it properly, everything is relatively easy to do. I agree with the last part.

Once you do invest the time in getting things wrong, checking the online wiki, you learn how this particular program works. You become pretty adept at it. But overall, the day 0-30 experience is unnecessarily complex and off putting, and even today, after using it for over two months, I am still learning it. I rue the day I have to teach someone else to run our backups. Without me there, peering over their shoulder, they will likely have to pass through the same school of Yoyotta hard knocks that I did, and perhaps fail.

The conclusion

Backups are supposed to make you feel safe and secure. A successful LTO backup is the rock you can stand on when facing a data emergency. With Yoyotta, that sense of security is tinged with a feeling that even today, I might actually be using it wrong. I never felt this way when just dragging and dropping onto HDD.

I don’t believe a program in 2018 should need on site training to enable users to successfully complete the most basic tasks. The other day though I had to work out how I might add a single subfolder to an existing already backed up folder. That took me 10 minutes of clicking around and trying different methods to do what should be an intuitive thing. Next week I have to retrieve a sub folder from a Yoyotta backup tape, and looking at my database, I can see no obvious way that I can just select a sub folder from the Yoyotta database for retrieval, as it seems to only list files. No doubt this feature may exist, and is mentioned within the wiki, but I now need to schedule in that mental effort for a task that should be straightforward.

I’m left wondering, why am I using Yoyotta at all?

Well, I’m invested for one. I feel like I know 80% of the interface, and given our relatively uncomplicated media demands, most of my tasks will probably feel like usual suspects in another month or two. And the upside of Yoyotta’s complexity is the capacity to one day make me feel very smart.

Preroll Post seems like a good piece of software, but trialling it wasn’t a pleasant experience. And while it’s interface featured more of a ‘wizard’ like approach, it also projected an air of ‘has been’. I couldn’t see myself ever liking that interface, even if it did appear slightly more straightforward to use.

Back in January of this year Larry Jordan wrote a farily comprehensive ‘first look’ review of Yoyotta, noting many of the same issues I’ve raised above. Larry writes in his conclusion

I expect the software to evolve quickly over the next few weeks.

Judging from the screenshots Larry has taken, it’s pretty clear that at least on the front end, not much has changed. My hope in writing this review is that the more Yoyotta’s interface issues are raised, the more likely it will prompt its makers to employ an interaction designer, even a graduate, to fix their interface. As while today Yoyotta is vague and unhelpful, it has the bones of pleasant backup experience that I’m hoping to one day love.

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.