Updated: October 10, 2011
Several weeks ago, I introduced you to a handful of free imaging programs for Windows. These included cross-platform solutions like CloneZilla, hardware-locked programs that work only with specific hard disk brands as well as inside-Windows-only applications. They came with varying degrees of usability and comfort and options, with more or less friendly user interface, live CD mode of work, and so forth. The price tag was nil and you got solid and robust solutions.
Let's take a look at another bunch. Like the first tutorial, this article will focus on introducing several popular and rather reliable home backup and restore solutions that you can use to improve your system and data integrity strategy. In other words, should you decide to use system imaging in your setup, here are some tools that can help you. Once again, the emphasis is on the word free, plus of course, they do what they claim. Therefore, in no particular order.
This is a built-in feature in Windows 7, all versions it seems. You have a mechanism to backup your data as well as create a system image of your installation. The procedure is simple and quick, although diehard geeks may lament the lack of options and customization.
You can click Set up Backup, which lets you backup data and system, but the system image must go to a hard disk of some sort, either local, external or network. You won't be able to save a system image to DVD.
You can also create a system repair disc:
Windows 7 will make incremental images of your system. It's not the fastest or the most exciting tool, but it works well. To restore the image, you will need to fire up the Windows recovery console, either from the installation DVD, from a rescue disk just created or the separate 100MB System Reserved partition.
What you want is the third option - System Image Recovery, and hope for the best.
Macrium software offers a free edition of their Reflect disk imaging solution. It is important to note that the free license extends only to home users, not even charities or educational institutions. The program runs from within Windows, has a simple and friendly GUI and does not require an intermediate reboot to use. The interface is easy to navigate, similar to Paragon, with an even slightly more usable backup wizard.
Macrium advertises its speed as one of its many advantages. Indeed, it is quite fast overall. So if you're impatient or have large system partitions, you will like the extra time saving. For restore purposes, you can create a BartPE-based plugin, but only for Windows XP and 2003 installations, or a Linux-based live CD, which is recommended.
EASEUS Todo is another free, full-featured solution you may want to consider, similar to Macrium Reflect, Paragon Backup & Recovery or free editions of Acronis. The software offers imaging and cloning. Compared to most other programs, it has a simpler interface. If you want to setup advanced options, you can, but for ordinary users, you get big and friendly buttons.
Todo Backup also contains a number of useful tools, like the ability to check existing image integrity, the ability to mount images and explore them as if using a file manager, and cloning and disk wiping utilities. The software lets you create either a WinPE bootable disk or a Linux-based emergency live CD.
Redo is a bare-metal restore software, meaning you can use it restore your system images to new hard disks on new computers, without having to rely on an existing operating system. This means it does not boot from the context of one, but rather runs as its own live system, like CloneZilla.
Redo comes with a handsome and elegant interface. It's a Linux, through and through, slimmed down for a very specific use. The only downside is that Windows users may find this alternative a little more complex than a program running from within the operating system. On the other hand, you can also use it for Linux backup.
I've done detailed tutorials on some of the imaging programs mentioned in this article as well as the first compilation. You might be interesting in reading them, as they can help you understanding system imaging better.
CloneZilla definite tutorial (comes with both Linux and Windows restore examples)
GParted partitioning software tutorial (a must if you want to dabble in imaging)
Windows recovery (how to rescue your definitely non-backed-up system)
Should the popular demand well demand it, there might be separate articles for any which one of the mentioned programs here, as well. Oh, you may like the Paragon tutorial, which is another handy imaging program.
All right, lots of options, lots of choices. What do you do? My recommendation is, grab a spare box and test, test, test. This is the only way you can decide on the most reliable and convenient tool for you. My personal experience indicates CloneZilla is the best, but don't let my bias deceive you. All of these programs are quite useful and have their bonuses. For instance, the built-in Windows backup is awfully simple and restrictive, but everyone can use it. Few people fancy playing with live CDs based on Linux or muddying their fingers in complex, geeky stuff.
Some of these programs are faster, others are slower, some have better or more options, others counter with a friendly and loving interface. There's in-vivo imaging, there's the live CD environment, all kinds of permutations. But ultimately, it's the quality and reliability of the image backup and restore. That's the important thing.
Well, I've given you homework for several weekends. Do enjoy yourselves. Many thanks to whoever recommended and suggested these extra programs. As always, if you have wicked ideas, mail them over.