Backup essentials

In the last three days, I’ve heard no less than five complaints about the hassles of reinstalling Windows Vista. And those complaints are right on. It is a major PITA to reinstall Vista. A clean install means you have to update drivers, reinstall (and reactivate) all programs and go through the tedious process of resetting preferences. An upgrade install can take hours and still leave you with a lot of work to do.

But there’s a much better alternative: Create an image-based backup of your system drive. If anything goes wrong, you can roll back to that “good” configuration quickly, with all drivers, software, and settings intact.

Drive Image used to be the gold standard (for me, anyway) followed by Norton Ghost. Then Norton bought Drive Image and mashed the two products together into a horrible mess. (I see that Symantec introduced a Vista-compatible Ghost 12.0 upgrade earlier this year, but I haven’t tried it yet.)

At any rate, I’ve been using three separate image-based backup systems for the past few months. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but one will probably work for you. Note that the first is Vista only, but the second and third options in this list work equally well with XP.

  • Complete PC Backup This option is included with Vista Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions. You get to back up to a local hard disk or to DVD only (there’s a hack that lets you back up to a network drive, but we’ll ignore that for now). In addition, you must back up all system drives; if you have a dual-boot system, you can’t back up the two system partitions separately. Backing up non-system drives is optional. I typically back up to a removable USB hard drive. To restore from a Complete PC backup you boot from the Vista DVD and follow the prompts. Backups are very quick (I just backed up two partitions, containing more than 80GB total, in roughly 25 minutes). Restoring a backup is fast as well.
  • Acronis True Image Home I’ve been using this program for almost a year; they were Vista-compatible long before any of the competition. I routinely take snapshots of full drives so that I can restore a given system configuration as needed. You can do a full backup over a network, to a local (internal or external) hard drive, or to removable media. To run a restore, boot from the Acronis CD, which includes drivers for just about any backup media. You can get a free trial here; if you have a shrink-wrapped version, make sure you download the March 2007 update, which adds some important bug fixes and supports Vista x64. The bootable CD will work on any system without requiring registration or activation.
  • Windows Home Server I wrote about this at length while it was in beta (I also put together an image gallery that shows the product in action). I’ll have a follow-up review shortly, once the product is available for sale, but let’s just say that I still absolutely love this product. It does full image-style backups over the network, and in a multi-PC household it’s extremely efficient with data storage. I’ve had to restore backups from a Windows Home Server several times, and the process is very easy and straightforward.

If you even think you might someday have to reinstall Windows, you really owe it to yourself to choose one of these options (or an equivalent imaging solution). You’ll thank me later.

17 thoughts on “Backup essentials

  1. Windows Home Server has good backup utility that back up only nonidentical clusters , tha’s means the backup proccess reduce almost at 25% of time and 25% (and even more) at space required.
    you can hear about the technology at Scott Hanselman podcast interview with the manager of the group that developed the Home Server.
    here is the link:

  2. Yes, hen770, the storage work in Windows Home Server is nothing short of amazing. That’s why I said it’s the best choice for backing up multiple-PC households.

  3. Ed, you might enjoy Mark Minasi’s epic writings on the various complications of Complete PC Backup. It’s exhausting just reading it:

    A better option for some than the trial version of Acronis True Image Home is the entirely free OEM version offered by Seagate for those with Maxtor or Seagate drives (MaxBlast and DiscWizard respectively).

    Those are not your father’s MaxBlast and DiscWizard, as they were updated a few months ago around the Acronis product. Not all Acronis features are present, but most are.

  4. Bootit NG is also a great alternative for partition backup. More importantly it also contains BCD editing tools to repair the Vista boot configuration if required.

  5. Yep…Acronis is -king- of the imaging programs. I discovered it after finally giving up on that cranky old Drive Image from years back. I’m a great big fan of their Disk Director partitioning program, too.

    Now that you mention Windows Home Server again, Ed, I may just take a look at that as part of my “fun experiments” with my herd of ThinkPads that I own. (I have four of them-not quite the conspicuous excess of your Home Entertainment Center, but close) -just kidding there–

  6. I use Vista Home Premium 32b.

    With XP i never had problems with Acronis but with Vista it screwed up my new laptop (Acer Aspire). After installation i get the BSOD. 😦

    Now, Norton 12 works fine for me. Reliable and fast.

  7. Ghost 12 and the built-in Vista Complete PC Backup failed during my extensive testing. (Yes, it worked sometimes, but not always. This is unacceptable for a backup/recovery solution. The whole point is to use a tool that works, as intended, every single time.)

    I highly recommend Acronis True Image. The Acronis boot disc uses proprietary software and it works, no matter what is on the primary hard disk of the target machine. Unlike Ghost or the Vista disc, the Acronis boot media does not rely on Vista technology. The programmers deserve a lot of credit for getting a great product to the market so quickly.

  8. I’ve used Home Server to restore images several times, works flawlessly. I also do a monthly drive image using Ghost 12, which has also always worked when needed.

    One of the great things about restoring using Home Server is how easily you can restore to a new, larger hard drive. One downside of Home Server is the beta doesn’t support backing up a Vista X64 system.

  9. I have tried Acronis 10 and Ghost 12 with a MacBook Pro running Vista on a bootcamp partition. Both products fail because they will not image a dynamic disk. Does anyone know if Home Server has this limitation also?

  10. Freud,

    You’re booting from a dynamic disk?

    AFAIK, Windows Home Server will back up any NTFS volume. I am almost certain I have imaged some dynamic disks with it, but I have never booted from a dynamic disk so can’t speak to that configuration.

  11. Ed,

    Apple’s Bootcamp creates a dynamic partition for the installation of Windows. (There are numerous references to this but I’ll paste one below just for documentation purposes).

    “All Boot Camp itself does is set up the hard drive so that both Mac OS X and Windows can coexist. It creates two partitions from the single, existing Mac partition, using dynamic repartitioning. The Mac partition is shrunk down to make space for a Windows partition, but the existing contents of the Mac drive are preserved intact.”

  12. Been using the complete PC backup with no issues. I wouldn’t mind if it were a bit more flexible, but other than that it’s fine.

  13. Another Backup program to consider is Paragon Drive Backup 8.51. Paragon also publishes a Partition Manager 8.5 which has a feel similar to the old Partition Manager before it was taken over by Semantic.
    Both programs work equally well on NTFS, FAT32/16, LinuxExt2/3 and ReiserFS.
    The output can be directed to local /network/internal/external or CD drives.
    One can create a “capsule”, a hidden partition on a local disk, similar to those installed by the likes of Dell where as a last resort the computer can be restored to a working state.
    I have been using both programs on XP and Business Vista (trail) and both work a treat.

  14. Another program is Farstone’s DriveClone Pro v3. It works both on XP and Vista -either 32 or 64 bit editions. The only problem is that it does support a limited amount of RAID controllers … 😦

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