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I have never imaged a hard drive, so I don't know what software to use or how to prepare my system for imaging. Is this the best way to backup? In the past, I've always just kept a copy of my important files on an external drive and in Gmail or DropBox for smaller stuff, but it would be nice to just take one image and restore from that if something ever goes wrong.

Thanks for the help.

EDIT: I'm sorry, I forgot to mention the OS. I would like to do this for my home and work computers, which are Vista and XP respectively. And actually I'm about to upgrade to Windows 7 at home, so details on that would be appreciated too.

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What platform are we dealing with here? –  user3463 Nov 9 '09 at 20:20
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If you are transferring to Windows7 you do not want an image - unless you want to keep the door open to roll back to your previous OS. An image restores the operating system along with all your files. –  sound2man Nov 9 '09 at 23:14

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Either way works, it just depends on what you want to do.

I prefer a hybrid approach. Back up your important files to the cloud - Back Blaze, Mozy, Carbonite - and then do an image of the drive.

An image restores all you data and settings - opperating system included. Macrium Reflect or Clonezilla are the more popular free versions. I'm partial to Drive Snapshot.

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There are a wide variety of imaging tools available for the different platforms. I would seek out several and see which ones meet your needs based upon ease of use for you and the platform upon which you are running (Windows, Mac, *nix). Do a quick search on Google or the search engine of your choice and select a couple to download and try. If those don't work for you, try others.

Back-ups are an entirely different animal. A HDD image will help you return to a specific point in time, as will a back up. However, an image will resotre not only your current settings but the files up to that point. Back-ups are typically used for just files and not the applications/settings.

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Whether you need to image your system or just create an "important file" backup depends entirely on your needs.

Imaging a hard drive makes a sector-by-sector copy of your data so you effectively have an exact copy of all the data on your system. If something goes wrong with your system, you restore the image and your system is functionally identical to the state it was in when you did the backup.

If you simply backup important files, when your system crashes, you will have to re-install the operating system, locate all of your original CD's, install all your applications, reactivate them, and re-create all your system settings and customizations. That is perfectly acceptable if you can afford the time and effort to restore you system.

If you do an image backup, all you have to do is overwrite your system with the latest image and you are done. The downside is that images take up more storage space. Also, when you restore an image, you could be restoring any problems your system had when you did your last backup.

Personally, I like a hybrid approach. I image my system for backups. But, if my system crashes, I will typically use it as an opportunity reinstall everything so I can start with a "fresh" system. Then I copy all my data from my last image backup. I like the security that I am not forgetting any important files in my backup. And, if I don't have time to do a complete re-install, I still have the option of just quickly restoring my latest backup image.

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So if your system crashes and you need to restore from an image, but you cannot even get back into Windows (for instance), then how do you restore the image? –  NoCatharsis Nov 9 '09 at 21:33
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That's what an image is for. You can do a complete format of the drive, and then restore your system from the image. It's a bit for bit copy of your hard drive (effectively). –  sound2man Nov 9 '09 at 22:05
    
Ok, so do images usually require you to create an install disk to boot from in the case of primary disk failure? I was hoping to create an image on my external drive, but I don't know if you can boot from an external? –  NoCatharsis Nov 9 '09 at 22:28
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You can't actually boot to an image. An image is a little like a zip folder. It has all the files, but they need to be expanded before you use them. Can take an image and restore it to a disk and boot to that though, if that's what you are trying to do. You can boot to an external if you have your BIOS set correctly. –  sound2man Nov 9 '09 at 22:44
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good backup systems come with a live cd or usb creator for restoring. –  Journeyman Geek Nov 9 '09 at 23:47

As a longtime user of Acronis True Image software, I cannot begin to tell you the number of times backup images have saved my butt. Yes, it takes more space to do an image, but if your follow that image up with incremental backups, that problem becomes moot.

Performing an image instead of plain backups keeps you from having to do fresh installs if your operating system goes bad, from whatever reason, bad software installs, viruses, etc.

The key to images is to leave yourself detailed notes in the comments section of the software. I always state the condition of the Windows Operating system, whether or not I've done virus scans, any recent software installations, etc.

Another nice feature of Acronis software is that it has a feature called "Try & Decide". This allows you to install any software you want, but it doesn't become permanent until you tell it to. It's much better than Sandboxie in my opinion.

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A few others have mentioned the amount of space required for an image. Is an image literally a copy of the current system? In other words, if your HD has 300GB of data, will the image be exactly 300GB also? Maybe kind of a newb question, but I never got into these details in high school Computer Science. –  NoCatharsis Nov 9 '09 at 21:37
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Depending on the program you use. With drive snapshot, the compression is pretty good, and you end up with a smaller image. With some imaging software the image is the size of the entire disk - not just the amount used. –  sound2man Nov 9 '09 at 22:45
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Most imaging software, the compression level is excellent. I try to keep my system partition as small as possible as another way of keeping the image size down. For instance, my backup for today was of my C:\ drive of 9.5GB and the image ended up at 5.2GB. To make an image of 300GB of data is going to give you a pretty large file to deal with. But after the first image, the incremental images will be much much smaller. –  Patriot Nov 9 '09 at 22:58

windows 7 (and i believe vista) has disk imaging built in. for older versions you can use something like macrium reflect free (though this dosen't have incremental images) or the aforementioned acronis, or the paid version of macrium reflect in windows, or linux based imaging distros.

for file level backups, something like cobian backup might be useful, or just periodically copying what you want saved.

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