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This link classifies incremental backups into Rsync-type and other type:

Rsync-type backups

The main characteristic of this type of backups is that they maintain a copy of the directory you want to keep a backup of, in a traditional "mirror" fashion.

Certain rsync-type packages also do snapshot backups by storing files which describe how the contents of files and folders changed from the last backup (so-called 'diffs'). Hence, they are inherently incremental, but usually they do not have compression or encryption. On the other hand, a working copy of everything is immediately available, no decompression/decryption needed. A downside to rsync-type programs is that they cannot be easily burned and restored from a CD or DVD.

Other backups

Most other backup applications tend to create (big) archive files and (of course) keep track of what's been archived. Creating .tar.bz2 or .tar.gz archives has the advantage that you can extract the backups with just tar/bzip2/gzip, so you do not need to have the backup program around.

  • what distinguishes Rsync-type backups from other backups?

  • When restoring from "other backups", you do not need to have the backup program around but tar/bzip2/gzip. When restoring from "rsync-type backups", do we need to have the backup program around?

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    I think that "you do not need to have the backup program around" is ambiguous (or oxymoronic, since you do need to have tar etc. around). It certainly doesn't contrast with rsync, where you don't need anything to restore because the mirror is already exactly the same as the original.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 22:14

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  • Rsync backups:

    • You do not need the program around if you used pure "mirroring" rsync. Just copy the files back (cp -a)
    • If you use regular incremental snapshots with hard-links as for example in this popular setup you will also be fine.
    • I think, however, than some rsync-based programs may have their own way of handling incremental backups, e.g. to support extra features like two-way sync.
  • Other backups

    • In general you will need the program used to create them.
    • If you are lucky, the backup program may use a standard compression mechanism for full backups
    • But incremental backups will almost never be readable as-is.

Usually,

  • rsync backups will be bigger
  • hence they will also be longer to make the first time (but after that incremental backups should be competitive with archived ones)
  • with rsync it is easier to e.g. restore just a subset of the backup (or just have a look a some files in the backup) without extracting anything.
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