Updated: April 1, 2011
Let's talk about free imaging software for Windows. First, what imaging would be? Well, imaging is the process of creating exact copies of your system, which can later be restored to disk, preserving the system state as it was at the time the copy was taken. This allows you to recover from serious errors that would normally necessitate full reinstall of the system. Sounds good. We love imaging. There's a more detailed explanation further below.
All right, so what now? Well, you can pay money and get imaging software. Or you could read this article and learn about a handful of programs that will do this wondrous task for you free of charge. All right, let's get going. Finally, keep in mind that this article is not a tutorial, more sort of a compilation of goodies.
Before we start, do note that specific versions and offers by vendors may change over time. Normally, software companies release older, out-of-warranty, out-of-support, and limited promo versions of their tools for free after a while, in order to boost sales of newest editions. Therefore, the repertoire may change to include other version as time goes back. Just so you know when you happen to be reading this. So what do we have here?
CloneZilla & PartImage
Not really Windows-specific, but they work splendidly. Why don't you take a look at dedicated tutorial, which explains everything in great length?
Paragon Backup Free
I use this thingie on my HP laptop, which runs Windows 7 and Ubuntu. The program is fast and reliable, although the setup can be a little daunting. There are many options to choose from, so you should carefully work your way through the wizard. Several images from my own machine:
DriveImage XML has been around for a while now. It works well, although it's a bit slow. On the upside, you can also run it from external media, including UBCD4WIN. In fact, the program comes bundled in the latter's collection of tools.
A few others ...
Some companies offer older versions of their programs for free. We've seen Paragon just a few moments ago. Others go for limited versions of fully featured payware tools. Others yet bundle their imaging software with hardware products. Buy an external disk and you may land free software, too.
Occasionally, Acronis offers their older versions 7 and 8 for free. Soon, version 9 might also become free, for which I've paid handsome 50 bucks approx. four years ago. And it is still fully functional on Windows XP, no worries, old mate, eh.
Since the market shifts faster than the sand dunes of Sahara, I do not have a single definite link to share with you for all eternities. Offers come and go any time. Always be ready for holiday discounts and whatnot.
DiscWizard is an ATI clone. It can be downloaded freely, but it works with Seagate disks only. However, if you are using Seagate hardware, then you also gain a free backup utility, which is not a bad deal.
Small update: A fellow forum member tells the following story, not sure if this aligns with the license agreement and/or warranty, but you can test and see if it works for you.
DiscWizard can be made to work with other tools, including Western Digital and Hitachi. When trying to use DiscWizard on a non-Seagate internal hard drive, you will get an error. Solution, at the error screen, hold down the Alt key while you type t then o. This stands for tech override. Click OK. Credits to Mike D., Seagate Tech Support, source.
ATIWD (Acronis True Image Western Digital) Edition Software
This is essentially the same software as DiscWizard, also based on Acronis True Image, only for Western Digital disks. It may also be possible to try the same tech override as with DiscWizard. The feature could be useful if you have disks from different vendors, but do not want to have to install several imaging programs just to be able to image them. Thanks to sbseven for this tip.
I must admit I've not tested all of the available programs out there. Some remain on my todo list, for which reason sequels were born. Some time in the future, I'll get back to this topic and introduce several other programs, like Macrium Reflect, EASEUS Todo Backup and more.
Article written, money saved. I hope you enjoyed it. The leading freeware imaging software is definitely CloneZilla, as it works reliably any which way. For less skilled users, Paragon makes most sense. Limited versions released by various vendors can also sometimes be a useful catch.
Whatever you choose, don't forget to test your images. A failed recovery is as useless as one that was never made. Well, time to explore now. And do not use your production machines as test beds!
P.S. If you have recommendations for free imaging software, feel free to send me an electronic mail letter, which I shall read, if it gets past the spam filters, that is.