Computer Imaging

Save yourself untold pain: make an image

Related page: Imaging strategy for a Windows computer.

Indispensable software for Windows Users

An image is a compressed backup of your computer installation. Images are very easy to create and just as easy to restore when your installation goes awry.

I spend a lot of time helping family, friends and neighbours with computer problems. I spend 2 or 3 hours a day dealing with email and forum questions from people with computer problems. Often the more serious problems are only resolved by reinstalling Windows. That means at least a day down the drain – if you have all your installation discs, which many people don’t.

This is potentially a big problem for those with laptops or big brand-name PCs which often don’t come with a Windows installation disc. If you’re in that position and your hard drive crashes, you have no restoration partition and no way of reinstalling Windows without buying or creating a Windows DVD or paying the computer manufacturer for a restoration disk.

An hour spent installing imaging software and creating an image of your installation can save you all this pain.

Many people don’t know how to reinstall Windows or are terrified at the prospect, so they must pay someone to do it for them. Or find some mug like me to do it for nothing.

I never have such problems. Not since I discovered imaging. I have images of both of my Windows installations and my Linux setup. If disaster strikes, I start my imaging program (Acronis True Image 11) click on the appropriate buttons and 20 minutes later my computer is restored to the nice clean state it was in before Windows had a hissy fit or got devoured by a rootkit.

Paragon Backup & Recovery 2010 – an excellent free imaging program for home users

Paragon Backup & Recovery

Paragon software have made their Backup & Recovery 2010 available, absolutely free, for non-commercial use. Get Paragon Backup & Recovery 2010 Free Advanced right here

This is an outstanding deal. I’ve tested this product and it’s up there with Acronis True Image. Even with the free version you can create a bootable CD which allows you to backup or restore without booting Windows.

Back to the commercials

Acronis True Image 11

For commercial users and for home users who require more bells and whistles on their imaging program I recommend Acronis’s products. There are several different True Image programs and prices depending on your requirements:

Acronis True Image Home

Symantec Ghost

Symantec’s Ghost does the same job as True Image, but the Acronis product gets the best reviews and it costs less.

Symantec seem to have lost the plot recently. Symantec’s Norton security software became bloated after the 2003 version but the latest version is back on track. See Antivirus programs. Hopefully their imaging program will catch up soon too.

Microsoft’s Backup

Windows 7 includes Backup and Restore and Windows Vista has Vista Backup which each work in a similar way, but the full versions aren’t available in the Home Premium versions. Why not? Microsoft wants you to pay for a Windows upgrade – that’s why not. Anyway, the commercial programs like Acronis True Image 11 provide more tools: incremental images, imaging across a network, extra file compression and image integrity checking.

How does imaging work?

OK, you open the imaging program and select backup and various options. The imaging software then makes a compressed copy of the complete partition or drive of your choice.

The image is written to DVDs, CDs, another partition or internal drive, or to an external USB drive, or to another computer on your network.

How do I fix things when it all turns pear-shaped?

If your computer packs a sad you open the imaging program; select restore and browse to select the saved image; the PC shuts down, reboots and overwrites your mangled installation with the pristine backup.

Acronis True Image
Acronis True Image is an excellent product

But wait! There’s more…

The best imaging software allows you to create a bootable CD containing a full version of the program. If your computer is so badly corrupted that you can’t run the program from Windows, or even if Windows won’t start at all, you boot from the CD and restore sanity from there.

I have several images at different stages of my installation. You can see my strategy for doing this with Windows XP (to be edited) here on The same principles apply with Vista, Windows 7 or any other operating system.

Any ifs and buts?

Yes, if you’re imaging (i.e. backing up) drive X, the new image can’t be saved to drive X. i.e. A drive can’t be backed up to itself. So an image of drive or partition C must be saved to (for instance) drive or partition D.

You can save an image of one partition to another partition on the same drive but that’s not advisable. One important reason for having an image is so that you can recover from a crashed hard drive. That’s not going to work if the image is on the same dead drive.

For most users an external hard drive is the best option.

What’s a partition?

A single hard drive – drive C for instance – can be divided into two or more “virtual” drives.

Each of those drives is called a partition and is treated by the operating system as a separate hard drive.

(To edit: free options available) Acronis Disk Director is a very good tool for creating and resizing partitions. Get it when you buy Acronis True Image. US$49 well spent.

An image of a basic installation of Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003 will fit on one DVD, but when you start adding data files and more programs to your XP installation or if you’re using Vista or Windows 7 you’ll need several DVDs or, preferably, one or more of the following:

  1. A separate partition on your hard drive.
  2. Better, a second hard drive installed in your computer.
  3. An external USB hard drive. More about these choices further down the page.
  4. If, like me, you’re a pessimist – both 2 and 3!

An extra internal drive or partition also allows you to separate your data: (Documents, Pictures, email, outlook.pst files and the like) from your Operating System and your Programs. So you can restore an image of your Windows installation and programs while keeping your current data files intact.

I have a blog post (to edit) here which tells you how to move My Documents and other User folders to another location.

Any other plusses?

Yep. If I want to install new software I’ll create an image of my current installation first. If the new program is a dog or causes compatibility problems, I just restore my latest image and all traces of the intruder are gone.

What Else?

It’s great, buy it – today!

But if you don’t, and you have Windows Vista or Windows 7 — use Microsoft’s built-in backup facility.

BootIt NG

BootIt-NG: very good but also very geeky

For advanced computer users

BootIt NG is a cheaper imaging program than most and it includes disc and partition management as well as imaging, it’s every bit as good as Acronis and even more powerful, but it’s also much “geekier”. i.e. It’s not at all user friendly and it’s less intuitive.

If you don’t mind a steep learning curve and working from a DOS command line get BootItNG here. If you’re not an experienced and confident Windows user, stick with Paragon, Acronis True Image or Norton Ghost.

You can get free trials of True Image, Ghost, and BootIt NG from their respective vendors’ websites.

How to use imaging on your PC

Visit this page for an Imaging strategy for a Windows computer.

Other computer security stuff on mistywindow: easy ways of beating viruses and the best antivirus programs.

Mac OS X users

Mac fans don’t despair. Apples’s OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard include the outstanding Time Machine for continual rolling backup. It’s an excellent concept with a ton of Apple flair. Arm yourself with an external drive and use it. Right now.

The nice people at Apple have a very good Time Machine tutorial right here.

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