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is there any universal software for reading a hard drive image so I know it's ok and don't have to rely in one particular piece of software? like ISO is universal for CDs and if one wanted, one can use one program to make an ISO from a CD, one program to read the ISO, one program to burn the ISO to a cd?

Is the same possible with hard drive images?

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An ISO usually refers to a container file that contains a file system with the data that file system references. Simply put, it's a copy of a file system in a file.
This is fine when working with a ROM (like a CD or DVD), as those are inherently simple from a file system aspect. Like, to my knowledge, the ISO 9660 format doesn't include file-level encryption, compression or journaling.

File systems in use on hard drives have all that. So a container file format that wants to copy such a file system should better support all of those features (for all known file system types would be great).

Obviously, nobody would want to write and support such a container format.

It makes a lot more sense to just go one level deeper when creating an image of a hard drive and just copy the raw data off the drive (using tools like dd). That data has no structure at all, so there is no file format either.

You could do the same for CD/DVDs, but having a standard format for something like this is obviously an advantage over raw bit streams. Besides that, there are things like VHD, which is a container file for virtual hard disks. They can also be mounted in Windows and be used like normal drives. So the concept is similar to .iso files. There are a multitude of virtual disk drive container formats out there of course. I just picked VHD as an example.

To create a VHD from a physical disk, you can use Disk2vhd.
VHDs can be mounted in the Disk Management snap-in or via the command line. Said snap-in also allows you to simply create new, empty VHD containers. Under certain conditions, that might be more desirable than using the Disk2vhd approach.

I don't know a direct way to deploy the contents of a VHD to a disk drive. But once it is mounted, usual imaging procedures apply.

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so if I want to make a clone of a hard drive and have a variety of software to use for it, I suppose I could use VHD? Are there many freeware programs I can use to do those 3 phases, hdd->vhd vhd->hdd as well as mounting it in windows and looking at it. if so which programs? – barlop Feb 20 '12 at 12:24
I added additional information to hopefully address your questions. – Oliver Salzburg Feb 20 '12 at 13:15
Acronis can image a hard drive, much more flexible, then Acronis can convert its own images to VHD, this would come in handy if you wish to leave out certain directories or files from the hard drive image, which Acronis can do but Disk2vhd – Moab Feb 20 '12 at 17:02
i personally think that a dd/raw disk image is the closest to a universal format. – Journeyman Geek Feb 22 '12 at 8:35

No. Each existing (major) drive imaging software has used a different proprietary implementation. So one backup image can not be read with another company's software.

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I think this is the most direct answer to the question. – Xavierjazz Feb 20 '12 at 16:21
@Xavierjazz well yes but the other answers imply that, and they also suggest another route. – barlop Feb 21 '12 at 22:36

SD cards and Sony MS has copy protection which may display as unreadable parts of otherwise good digital media.

I'd ignore all the proprietary formats and use plain image (of partition or disk) then you can eventually extract data or play it back, and resize using tools on target system etc.

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what is a "plain image" using a non-priorietary format and what software do you use for that? – barlop Feb 21 '12 at 22:37

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