Updated: August 29, 2011
By now, you have read almost half a dozen articles explaining system imaging in great detail, including several cross-platform solutions and a number of Windows-only programs. In my first Windows compilation, I have mentioned Paragon Backup & Recovery, a free application for home users, which should, upon successful use, entice you to buy the company's payware products. Today, I would like to give you a more thorough review.
The reason why I'm elaborating on Paragon is because I'm using it on my Windows 7 installation on top of my HP laptop. Alongside freeware CloneZilla and payware Acronis True Image, Paragon serves my needs for system backup and recovery. The program is fairly robust and reliable, otherwise I would not be using it, but there are some less trivial things that demand special attention. In this review and tutorial, I'm going to teach you how to use the program and how to avoid classic mistakes that could jeopardize your data.
Paragon in use
Backup is a trivial procedure and well documented in the first part. Recovery is what matters most. It's the one important part that should decide whether you're going to use an imaging solution. Now, since I could not take screenshots of the software in use on real hardware, I created a test scenario on a virtual machine, but the concept is, for all practical purposes, identical.
I will also elaborate a little on real physical setups, including dual-boot configurations, Windows re-activation due to reassigned drive letters bug, GRUB bootloader problems and more. Tested on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows 7, using Paragon 10.1 and 2011 versions.
Still, let's take the briefest of looks on the backup sequence. This screenshot has actually been taken on a physical machine. So here we have a dual-boot setup, with two Windows partitions, including the 100MB System Reserved and C:, as well as three Linux partitions in an Extended partition container. Like most backup solutions, Paragon is Linux-based and has no problem seeing the Linux filesystems.
We backup the First Hard Disc Track, MBR and both Windows partitions. The image is saved to an external USB disk. Ignore the thumb drive, it's not used right now.
To rescue your system, should it ever become unbootable, you will need to start Paragon from external media, because the destination partition needs to be unmounted, i.e. not in use. In layman's words, you will need to create a bootable ISO image of the Paragon Backup & Recovery software and burn it to a CD or copy it to an external USB device. In the moment of need, boot your machine from external media and perform the image restore.
Paragon Recovery Media is in fact a very small Linux, with a handful of drivers for different filesystems, hardware devices and network. It fits neatly on small storage, like thumb drives, which explains the Kingston Data Traveler we saw earlier.
Now the good part. Let's boot the rescue media. Your machine must be capable of booting from external media of some sort, otherwise, you might be in a bit of a problem. Paragon boot menu has a handful of options, including normal mode, safe mode and low-graphics save mode. You can also boot from floppy or local hard disks.
We're interested in Normal Mode. After a few seconds, the live system will complete booting and present you with a fairly complex usage menu. There's the full Backup and Recovery. There's Simple Restore Wizard, which asks few questions but makes some assumptions for you. I recommend against this.
You can also perform file (data) transfer, configure network, save logs, eject CD/DVD if your system image is saved to CD/DVD media, as well as reboot or power off the system.
It's Linux underneath ...
Before we begin, just so you're convinced, you can switch to a different virtual console and you'll see Linux working behind the scenes. The choice of reliability, small footprint and modularity is obvious here.
Now, let's focus on the restore.
The Restore Menu is fairly geeky. It looks spartan, it's not configurable, it comes with a ton of options, and you're not quite sure what bits need to be selected. Now, I'm saying this from the perspective of a common user.
In our case, the scenario is simple. There's Disk 0, which we need to restore. The image is saved on Disk 1. So we need to restore partitions on Disk 0 from an image located on the second hard disk. You can use Pick a task menu on the left or use the File menu or even right-click on the selected disk or partition. You also have Alt + shortcuts if you don't have a mouse available in the rescue session.
We want to Restore Partition (Alt + R). You'll be asked to locate your archive. The selected archive will have to match the partition you highlighted. If you backed up your entire disk and want to restore from that archive, you will have to highlight the disk. If you backed up a partition, you will have to highlight one of the available partitions.
Once you start, if you have password-protected your archive, you will need to provide the credentials before you can proceed.
Next, you will be able to choose what you want to restore - the entire archive, one or more partitions. Please note that you must be very careful here to avoid mistakes.
Paragon will assume that MBR means restoring Windows bootloader and will not look for an existing non-Windows bootloader. So if you have GRUB or GRUB 2 used for booting your systems, Paragon will overwrite them, either rendering your system unbootable or making only Windows visible to the user. I made such a mistake at one occasion - and on another, despite my explicit choice, Paragon restored MBR and killed GRUB. While fixing this takes only five minutes, this can be quite frustrating. We'll see how we can tackle that.
Once you're satisfied with your choice, proceed. Depending on your disk speed and the archive size, the restore process can take a while. Wait until the utility finishes and reboot.
Simple Restore Wizard
For those of you who do not fancy working with the complicated Restore Menu, there's the wizard that ought to be useful. It has its advantages in reducing the usage noise and guiding you through the process, but you must be extra careful.
You will need to choose what you want to restore - this is your archive. You'll have the option to review the contents. But unlike the full restore, you won't see an option to selectively choose components, like only this or that partition, MBR or no MBR, and such.
Then, choose the destination. Visually, not the best layout, as there's nothing to differentiate selected disk from the rest. Moreover, blue on blue on blue can be a little confusing.
You will be able to change the destination partition start and size, for each partition in the archive. Be careful making changes that you do not fully understand. Simple Restore Wizard may be guided, but you still must think.
After rebooting, we're back in business as usual, barring an occasional bootloader hitch and sometimes a somewhat sinister drive letter error that could invalidate your Windows activation, but more about that further below.
Some bad things
Overall, Paragon reliably restored the system. In fact, I've tested multiple configurations and it managed them all just fine. However, there were some problems. I did mention these previously, now let's recap.
The Restore menu is not easy to navigate; it feels rigid. The windows and panels are non-resizable. Moreover, it's difficult figuring out what disk is selected and used.
The interface is inconsistent with the underlying Windows system. Paragon rescue uses Windows-XP-like interface, when it ought to use something that does not resemble any specific version.
Now the more serious bits. MBR restoration can be tricky. You might end with GRUB being overwritten. Lastly and most importantly, sometimes, Paragon may assign wrong letters to restored images, causing Windows to think it's no longer genuine, so you will have to reactivate it, which is plain annoying, if not simply alarming for common users. There's quite a bit of talk about this in Paragon forums.
So how do you avoid all these problems?
You use the full Restore menu. It's not easy. It requires attention, but it will eventually allow you to do what you require. There's a tradeoff between control and convenience, but in these kinds of situations, you want full control.
I recommend you spend time mastering the recovery procedure using dummy or test systems and virtual machines before you are fully confident with the software. For best results, I would suggest the following:
On single-boot systems (Windows only), there's little special care required. You should keep your data on a separate partition (or several). On dual-boot systems with Linux where GRUB is used as the primary bootloader, I would suggest backing up Windows components one by one into separate archives - one for MBR, one for System Reserved, one for C drive, and so forth, or alternatively use the full Restore process when required.
In the worst case, you might need to handle GRUB separately. To this end, you will need a live CD utility of some kind, like Super GRUB Disk or SystemRescueCD. You can also use your own distribution live CD.
I've written a lot here. Bottom line, is Paragon Backup & Recovery worth using? The simple answer is yes. It's a free and fairly robust solution. I still believe CloneZilla is the best product out there overall, but for intermediate users, Paragon comes with a useful blend of price, functionality, ease of use, and quality. Not all is perfect, though. The ergonomics, look and feel, and some additional flexibility during the restoration, especially when working in a complex multi-boot environment, could be improved.
I hope this review & tutorial has helped you understand the topic a little better, as well as answered questions regarding Paragon software. There's the backup procedure, which is pretty straightforward, there's the recovery media. The restore process demands your attention to details. The best way to avoid problems is to create separate archives for each partition, so that you don't end up with broken drive letters or destroyed bootloaders.
And that would be all. Have fun!