Updated: May 3, 2018
I am a strong proponent of system imaging. The ability to restore your system to an earlier point in time is extremely valuable, as it can save you many hours normally required to install and configure a machine should things go wrong and necessitate a complete rebuild. Whether it's a bad system update, malware or anything else you don't like, just roll back and Bob's your uncle.
Macrium Reflect is a Windows-based imaging and cloning solution that fits the bill. The list of features and options is quite impressive, and both free and paid editions exist. Now, we've already talked about Macrium Reflect a long time ago, in my second article on free Windows imaging software, but now I want to give version 7 a full-blown review.
The installation is slightly less forward than with most programs. The actual setup program is a stub that will let you choose the version you want to install, but then it will also download the Windows PE files, which are required to create the bootable live environment for restore purposes. If you recall BartPE and UBCD4WIN, the idea is the same here. After that, you get the standard program installation wizard.
An interesting feature that MR7 offers is the setup of ViBoot, which requires Hyper V, but it allows you to test-boot your images as virtual machines. This can be quite handy to make sure everything works as expected. The paid version also offers Changed block tracking, so you can make faster backups, and Image Guardian, which protects your backups from ransomware.
Once the program launches, you get a relatively simple - and yet, complicated - interface. The reason is, Macrium Reflect has a lot of features, and it struggles between hiding them and presenting them all.
Essentially, you can choose between image and restore views, and then for each one, you have a list of available tasks. For backups, you have two shortcut options that let you quickly create images of your disks - including all partitions on selected disks or just the partitions that are essential for Windows functionality. This can save you a few mouse clicks.
On the right, in the main pane, you have a list of your disks, and again, options to clone or image them. You can also review your backup definition files - once you have a backup scheme ready, it will be available as an editable configuration (in XML format), and you can then fine-tune your imaging options. More about that later. Lastly, you can schedule your backups.
Settings and options
Before we image anything, it is important to fully understand what the program does. In the program options, you can configure defaults for your operations. Again, there's a lot to process. For backups, similar to most other programs of this nature, you can set the compression level, whether to split backup archives, password protect your backups, verify filesystem and the created images, set CPU priority, and still more. The cloning feature also takes into consideration SSD architecture, and also lets you make faster clones using Intelligent Sector Copy.
Again, for restore, you have similar options available. Do note that the defaults you set in the program will also be reflected in the live environment once you create the rescue media, but it is always advisable to check everything in detail regardless.
Then, there are still more options and features available, including scheduling, email notifications, and such. Macrium Reflect can definitely be somewhat overwhelming for less savvy users.
Let's image our disk, shall we. I added an external hard disk, which I'm going to use as the destination for the backup files. Macrium Reflect sees both NTFS and Linux filesystem types, but it only works with FAT32 and NTFS formats.
The next step is to choose the schedule. Several presets exist, combining full, incremental and differential backup templates, with varying retention rules. It can all look quite complicated, but the thing is, you don't really need to use any scheduling. If you do not like this, you can just delete schedules, and run your own manual backups as you see fit.
Once this step is done, Macrium Reflect will test your disk speed and start the operation. It lists the actual throughput in Mb/s and not MB/s, so if you see a very high and fancy number, you will need to divide it by 8, and then it will make more sense. I let the program run, and a bunch of minutes later, the imaging was complete.
Create bootable media
When it comes to system imaging, the important thing you MUST do is - create a bootable media, boot to make sure that it works correctly, and then also test a restore of the created image, because you do not want to be the person who discovers their critical imaging software does not really work in a moment of dire need. Of course, you should backup your personal data and run the tests on non-essential hardware first.
Again, there are several steps here - and quite a few interesting options. First, you can choose the type of PE you want - for instance, Windows 10 supports UEFI, Secure Boot, USB 3.0, and more. This does not necessarily mean you must use that, but the wizard will try to guess the optimal choice for your operating system. It will then also check whether all your devices are supported, so there are no issues during the restore process in the live environment.
Then there are still more options you can select to make your PE image as compatible as possible. You can choose architecture, as well as support for BitLocker and iSCSI. And you can also use your own image (much like BartPE). Very handy and convenient.
It will also prompt you for any updates, which may result in some extra data being downloaded. This is to ensure best support and compatibility for the hardware.
The last step is to actually create the rescue media. You can write to CD/DVD, USB drives, although these must be formatted with either FAT32 or NTFS, or create an ISO file. I did struggle here a little. A thumb drive I used for Linux testing was not recognized, and I had to destroy its partition table. I'd expect the program to detect and initialize devices as needed. I also wasn't able to make the ISO file bootable using a range of USB writing tools. I only got it working with the built-in wizard option in Macrium Reflect.
Now the important part. This worked rather well. I tested on several machines, including BIOS and UEFI setups, as well as a virtual machine. In all cases, the PE booted fine and fast and without any issues. No problems at all.
Very useful and practical. When booted in the live session, you can try to fix boot problems, check if there are any unsupported devices, and even redeploy to new hardware. I am quite pleased by the range of powerful options the program offers, as well as seamless usage across multiple hardware models.
This is a rather interesting one. Once you have a backup - there will be an XML file available. Click on the second tab in the right pane, and you can now edit this configuration.
You can change settings, script the backup as a PowerShell script, Batch script or MS-DOS script. Very nice and handy. Lots of flexibility here in getting things automated, neat and elegant. Last but not the least, you can choose what type of backup you want to run - full, differential or incremental. Perhaps the procedure is a little bit convoluted, and you need to adjust your way of thinking, but it's all there.
I tried the virtual boot option next - and it did not work, because Windows 10 Home does not have what it takes. At this point, Macrium Reflect got stuck, and I had to force-quit the program. But other than that, there were no hiccups.
Macrium Reflect 7 is a versatile, powerful, feature-rich system imaging software for Windows users, allowing them to image and restore their machines without having to branch into the world of Linux with the likes of Clonezilla, not that there's anything wrong with the latter, although the tech knowledge gap can sometimes be intimidating.
The program offers a wide range of options, sometimes almost too many, and it lets you tweak and customize every aspect of the process, including advanced scripting and scheduling. The restore process also worked fabulously. There were only a few tiny niggles with ViBoot and getting the rescue media written to an external device, but the core functionality was impeccable. This is definitely a keeper, and if you are a Windows user keen on keeping their system imaged, you should stash Macrium Reflect 7 into your freeware toolbox. 9.5/10. Quite recommended, and a very pleasant surprise. Thanks to Godfrey for the suggestion. Take care.