System Image or Clone Backup

I already discussed programs meant to sync or backup specific folders and files. There are other programs, however, that will back up an entire computer, including the operating system, installed programs, and all your files. Basically, everything on the computer’s hard disk (or partition) is included. This type of backup is usually referred to as a clone or a system or disk image. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, though they differ in some significant ways.hard drive thumb - System Image or Clone Backup

A Clone is an exact sector by sector copy from one disk to another. Everything is copied, including empty disk space, and the contents of the destination drive are totally destroyed in the process (so don’t clone to a drive where you are saving other files). I use the term disk, but actually a clone can be taken of an entire disk or just a partition. Most likely your disk only has one partition, but if you do have more than one, you could clone each separately. The biggest value of a clone is that you can just replace the original disk with the cloned disk and the system will work; in other words, there is no need to use the cloning program to restore your backup.

An Image (System or Disk) is also a full copy (sometimes sector by sector, sometimes not) of a disk or partition to a file on a destination storage device. One advantage of an image over a clone is that you don’t need to overwrite the entire destination drive. In fact, using compression, you can usually store multiple copies, especially if your program can do incremental or differential backups. With an image, you can also generally restore individual files rather than the entire system.

As I said, many people mix the two terms and some programs can do both. It’s fine to make a clone, especially if you have an extra drive to use, but I think making a system image is generally more useful. I would especially recommend doing so after first completing a new computer setup or before making any major system changes, though a regularly schedule system image backup is even better. Do keep in mind, however, that the backup can be a very slow process that could require a lot of storage space, especially if there is no differential backup option.

Now that you have a better understanding of the concept, let’s talk about actual programs. Most can be run in Windows, but a few are run from a CD or bootable USB device, which is significantly less convenient. Regardless, you may need such a bootable CD or flash drive to do a complete system restore, especially in the event that your computer can’t boot properly. The program you choose will likely have a utility or instructions for making this restore media and doing so with a CD is fairly easy—just download an ISO file and burn it to a CD. Creating and using a bootable USB flash drive is usually more complicated. You’ll need the same ISO file that would be used with a CD, but you can’t just copy that to a flash drive. Instead, you need special software to make the drive bootable. I recommend Universal USB Installer for one ISO image and YUMI – Multiboot USB Creator for multiple ISO images. Another option is UNetbootin.

If using a bootable USB drive, creating it is only half the battle. You also must get your computer to boot from it. Unfortunately, each computer is a bit different in this regard, so it is hard to give detailed instructions here, but for a general tutorial, see How to Boot from a USB Device or How to Boot from a CD. If that doesn’t help, search the Web for tips on your specific computer, perhaps using a query like “how to boot from usb lenovo thinkpad.”

The ultimate point of all backup is the ability to restore. Generally, creating a system image is fairly easy. The complicated part is restoring it using that CD or flash drive. So, my strong recommendation is to test your ability to restore. You don’t need to actually perform a restore, but you should at least verify you are able to boot from the CD or flash drive and access your recovery software.

By its nature, a true clone program doesn’t offer many features. In contrast, in a system image program you should consider features such as the option to back up only the used sectors on the disk, the ability to compress, encrypt and/or password protect image archives, the ability to schedule regular backups, the ability to perform a backup while you are still using your system, and incremental or differential backups. Some programs also allow you to mount a saved image to a drive in Windows Explorer so that individual files can be viewed and restored. A program offering such a feature could, in theory, be used instead of the regular file backup programs already discussed, though note that creating the images can be time consuming and, depending on the program, may not permit you to work during the backup.

Below, I list the major programs to consider, shading those that I think especially worth considering. Currently, I am using AOMEI Data Backuper, though I think the other options I have shaded are also good choices.

I list Acronis True Image here because it is a popular system image program that you will see referenced all over the Web, but it is only available as a paid program option. The price is $49.99 for one PC and $79.99 for three PCs. Do note that some hard drive manufacturers include a free slimmed down copy of Acronis True Image.
Data Backuper is a powerful, free Windows program that allows you to create complete disk backups, partition backups, system backups as well as disks and partitions clones. The app’s options allow you to check the integrity of a backup image, create bootable media (CD/DVD/USB Flash drives), and even mount it to explore the contents via Windows Explorer without having to restore it first. Data Backuper lets you choose different compression levels, encrypt and password protect the backup file, split large backups and make use of Intelligent Sector Backup to only backup the used section of file systems. The program also uses Microsoft’s VSS technology to backup data without interrupting any running applications. Finally, Data Backuper supports incremental and differential backups and lets you selectively restore individual files and folders from a backup image file without recovering the entire backup. The only major feature missing is the ability to schedule backups. For more information, see the AddictiveTips review.
Clonezilla is an open source program for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It comes in two flavors, a server edition for multiple computers and Clonezilla Live for one computer. Despite its name, Clonezilla can act like either a true cloning program or a system image program, depending on the option you select, though it doesn’t support incremental or differential backups in either mode. Overall, Clonezilla is very powerful, but it is most likely going to appeal more to the technically savvy because it is not very user friendly. In particular, you must run Clonezilla from a specially created CD/DVD or USB flash drive. For more details, check out the Geeky Projects tutorial.
DriveImage XML is a free Windows-only program. Image creation uses Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Services (VSS), allowing you to create safe “hot images” from drives currently in use, so you can keep working while it runs. Images can also be compressed and are stored in XML files, allowing you to process them with third party tools. Another advantage of DriveImage XML is that it lets you browse the image and restore individual files and folders. It can even schedule backups. To restore your computer from a saved image you will need a Runtime Live or WinPE/BartPE CD or USB flash drive.
Todo Backup is a fairly robust program with many features, including the ability to do differential, incremental, and scheduled backups. You can restore individual files, a complete user library, or the entire system, so you could, in theory, use it as your complete backup (not sync) software solution. Note that Todo Backup no longer offers a free version, but if you search the Internet you can find old, free versions to download.
Macrium Reflect Free is gizmo’s freeware top choice. It is Windows-only software that can make a clone or system image backup. The free version doesn’t offer many of the features available in the paid versions, like incremental and differential backups, password protection and encryption, or the ability to restore to dissimilar hardware. The free version also doesn’t include the file and folder backup feature, but it can mount any backup image that you have created so you can explore and restore any individual files if the need arises. Creating an image backup is easily accomplished by double-clicking an XML file on your desktop, by running the program or by creating a schedule. Like DriveImage XML, you can run Macrium Reflect while still using your PC.
For an excellent tutorial on using Macrium Reflect Free, check out johnyythegeek1’s YouTube video. And, if you need to use a flash drive instead of a CD, check out the “Create a Bootable Linux USB device” article in the Macrium Knowledgebase.
Norton Ghost is another very famous program in this field, but it also only available as a paid version. I can’t think of a reason to pay $70 when other good free options exist, but I list it to be complete.
Paragaon Backup & Recovery is a Windows system image backup program with some nice features, including the ability to schedule backups; a backup “capsule” (special disk partition) to store a full backup image that will continue to function even if the main system fails; and the ability to create a bootable USB Flash drive, CD/DVD or other media to recover your PC in case of an unbootable system. Paragon also offers the fairly uncommon ability to restore to smaller partitions and it lets you password protect your backup archives, which is usually a premium product feature.
PING was developed to offer a free alternative to the very popular Norton Ghost. It is another program, like Clonezilla, which cannot run in Windows, but it does offer some good features, including incremental backups and the ability to backup and restore the BIOS. Like Clonezilla, this is a good option but is probably best suited to the more geeky among us.
SuperDuper is a disk copying program for Macs. It can clone to another drive, partition, or image file. There is a free and paid version. The paid version offers scheduling, Smart Update, Sandboxes, scripting and other features.
Windows Backup and Restore (called File Recovery in Windows 8)
Windows 7 includes a backup utility. Just search for backup from the startup menu. 7 Tutorials offers a good overview, but note that the ability to backup to networked drives is available only on the Professional or Ultimate editions of Windows 7. Other useful features, like the ability to filter files for inclusion and backing up via FTP, are missing as well but one nice thing about Windows Backup is that it can do both a backup of your files as well as a full system image for restoring your system in case of an emergency.
XXCLONE is a disk-to-disk clone-only (no system image) program. Its primary goal is to create a self-bootable clone of your Windows system volume, which means that that you cannot save your cloned image to a CD, flash or external drive, or any other attached storage space which cannot be made a Windows system volume.
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