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I'm using windows xp professional with MS Office 2003.

I would like to know if it's better to do the image or just simply back-up the whole xp system?

I have all my programs saved in the C: Drive and the documents that I'm working on are saved in D: Drive.

For the past months when I do back-up I only back-up the D: Drive by simply copy and paste to my external hard drive.

Do you think it's also advisable to back-up the C: Drive or just simply image it?


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up vote 1 down vote accepted

It all depends on what you want to achieve.

An image (to another drive) allows you to get going again with exactly the same installed programs, etc, in the event of a disaster. Making an image is fairly easy it you have another hard drive in an external (USB or eSATA) enclosure. Use some of the popular imaging software (eg Acronis, Clonezilla, Ghost, and many others). Do this periodically, or perhaps a few days after you have installed a big new program and given time for getting used to it, setting it up etc.

Ideally that image should be stored off site, but if you cant do that then at least keep it some distance from the PC. If in a flood prone area, keep it up high. If worried about fire, keep it down low (but not at floor level - water = enemy of hard drives).

An image using modern software and for about 250GB will take a couple of hours to make. Using a modern 1TB drive - expect it to run overnight.

If you want to handle backup of data files, documents, photos, etc, then the internal between images will generally be too long - you need a daily or weekly backup. Again there are many programs out there which can do this, or you can just copy the files to a (different) external drive. Again - store it safely. There are also programs which will make this easier, and some which will monitor your machine for changes to files and copy them off to a backup within seconds. If going this way, for about $300 you can get a network (NAS) drive which you can populate with drives yourself - then you have an always-connected backup solution. If you go this way, use gigabit LAN or the performance won't be as good as USB or eSATA.

The data files backup, in general, gives you up-to-the moment backup of important data. The image gives you all the other junk as well.

Now some more about the trade-offs:

  • An image backup allows you to get going again FAST in the event of a disaster because you can either take it out of the external enclosure and just install it into your PC and go; or you can use the image program to restore.

  • An image backup has the downside that if your machine gets fouled up (bad s/w, virus, etc) and this is found AFTER you made an image, then your image is fouled up as well. So the image might not actually save you.

  • As a consequence of the above, relying on an image ALONE is a really bad idea. You could end up with 2 copies of something unusable.

  • A data files only backup saves your critical data but means you need to reinstall programs.

  • In general, re-installing programs is a painful thing but you can get a machine back in business again in about 3-6 hours (I know - I've done it).

A few other things to note:

  • Your digital photos, once destroyed by a drive crash really are gone forever. (This should not be a surprise but pretty much everyone with a digital camera loads their pics onto their PC and never takes a backup. And then cries when the drive fails.)

  • Every single hard drive WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL. They are made from moving parts and electronics and though they are extremely reliable they will not go FOREVER.

  • In a business that loses critical data (eg emails, client contact lists, financial accounts), a person working in insurance once told me that the typical time a small business lasts after a critical computer failure is 3 DAYS. Insurance won't do much for you if you didn't do backups. They can't magically get the data back even if they can cough up for a replacement machine.

My own practice is to be paranoid:

  • I use 2 hard drives in my main s/w development PC, these use RAID 1 to make a mirror. (The operating system is on a 3rd drive). For the cost of one extra drive I get a redundant copy of all my business data. (I did this after suffering a failure of the main s/w development drive, fortunately I had an image taken only 3 days before: LUCKY.)

  • I back up the operating system as an image to en external drive, now and again. I'm too paranoid on this one because if I have to I can just re-install everything.

  • I store all family digital photos on that RAID 1 mirrored volume (2 drives) as well.

  • I also have an ethernet attached NAS drive in another part of the house (with 2 drives, also mirrored), and I run a DAILY synchronise of my main PC to that NAS. I also have instant copy of file changes on that PC to the NAS. This copies my important business data files to that NAS as a secondary location.

  • All PCs are also backed up to that NAS in much the same way.

  • And the NAS has an external USB attached drive that I plug in and about once a week, I run a backup of the NAS to the external drive.

This is probably over the top for what many people would want but it has saved me on 2 separate occasions.

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This is a very good recommendations. As I haven't done any image or back up yet, I would like to know the steps what to do first. @quickly_now?do you have skype? – tintincutes Nov 21 '10 at 20:14
First step: Do an image backup. If you have to prioritise, do this first. If you can afford to, buy 2 external enclosures (you can get them quite cheaply, but avoid the real cheap stuff on eBay). Put a new hard drive in each. Use one for making the image, and the other for a daily / weekly data files only backup. If you can't afford this then do 1 and do an image as often as you can remember. – quickly_now Nov 21 '10 at 21:41
ok, I remember that I did an image back-up only with my C drive, where I install the programs. When you say 2 external enclosures, that means 2 external HD? Does it have to be 1 TB? What do you mean, "put a new HD in each?" – tintincutes Nov 21 '10 at 22:51
Buy 2 enclosures. And 2 hard drives. Put a hard drive in each enclosure. Make sure both hard drives are the same size as the main PC hard drive you want to back up. Label them (with a post-it note or similar). Do an image backup to 1 of them (and label it "image"). Lock it up. Remember to update this one every month or so (or when you make big changes to your PC). Label the other one "Data files" and keep it handy. Copy your data files (all of them, eg drag & copy the "Users" folder to it. Do this every few days. When you get sick of how long this takes use a program to do this update. " – quickly_now Nov 22 '10 at 5:17

If your definition of "backup" is copy and paste in explorer windows, for your system partition you would HAVE to image to get most of the data.

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how do you usually do back-up? – tintincutes Nov 20 '10 at 17:06

A full backup followed by periodic incremental backups would do what you want. I only use images for a base install, not for data recovery.

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It depends why you're taking it.

An image makes it very quick to recover, and it can recover programs/settings as well - saving your the trouble of reinstalling everything.

However, an image is going to be bigger, meaning you can keep less of them. It can also be hard to recover individual files (depending on the imaging software you use; the new Acronis versions let you browse the image like a folder and pull out files).

Generally what's best to do is to take an image every week/month/major change, and to backups daily. This means you can quickly get a fairly recent base system up, then recover you data onto it from your backup. You should take a fresh image every time you change something big - such as updating key software. It's also good to keep an image offsite.

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My solution is using Acronis for daily files backups (I'm backing to a network drive, but extrenal drive is just as good). This allows me to grab a file i might have deleted or changed by mistake.

Having full disk image is good only if you want to avoid reinstalling your entire computer. As they take more space and are good only for that specific hardware. If you wish to just backup your precious files, then use a file backup.

Either with rsync, acronis or something else. These give you a robust delta changes, where you only write the differences, thus using less space.

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@Am: yes I have Acronis installed. I didn't know that there is an option how to back up the files in Acronis. Do I need to have an extra HD? – tintincutes Nov 21 '10 at 22:49
yes, either that or backup to another computer. – Am. Nov 22 '10 at 5:16

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