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I want to backup my OS (windows 7 & linux) in case of HDD failure. Do I have to image whole partitions (e.g. using dd) or just copy files? I've read that rsync -a / /mnt/backup can do the job. Can I expect troubles with system resore by copying files back? What about Windows?

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If you copy just files or just partitions then you are leaving behind the Master Boot Record and neither Windows nor Linux will boot. Read

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What if we have MBR backup? Is it safe then to backup by copy all files when OS is not running? – mm1 Jun 7 '13 at 21:41

Yes, to make sure that you have full system backup you need to not only do a partition image but also you need to make sure that OS is not running. Why? That's pretty much the only safe way to assume that there aren't any open files...

I strongly recommend G4L - It is very easy to use, works really well and you can boot it off USB - for example with this:

Good thing about doing the whole disk backup is that you can restore everything as it was. Cons: used disk space and fact, that you have to switch off your computer. I also recommend default compression - gzip. That will speed up the whole process. Remember, IO probably will be the most expensive resource for you and if you can limit number of IOs (by compressing data) then you will speed up the whole process.

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