The ghost in the machine: 3 disk imaging apps

Historically, performing backups has been a tedious and time-consuming process fraught with limitations. While Microsoft has improved Windows' backup functionality in general, Windows 7 still misses the mark when it comes to a full-featured backup and restore application.

The major reason that Windows' Backup and Restore Center doesn't fully satisfy is because it doesn't offer the ability to ghost (or image) a hard drive. Ghosting works by creating a copy of all of the populated sectors on a hard drive and storing that raw data to a single file.

The advantages are numerous. For example, the backup file can be compressed to save space and then stored on another hard drive, optical disk, network share or other storage device. In addition, ghosting preserves all hard drive data (files, applications and operating systems) in a single operation, which greatly simplifies the backup process.

Ghosting technology also allows you to recover data in one simple step, by just restoring the complete image file to a hard drive. Some backup products also allow you to mount an image backup and then access individual files or directories to locate a particular file for copying, restoration or access.

For this roundup of backup applications that include ghosting functionality, I looked at Acronis True Image Home 20, Paragon Backup and Recovery 10 Suite and TeraByte Image for Windows. (At one point in time, Norton Ghost from Symantec is the imaging market leader, but the product was updated -- to version 15 -- too late to be included in this roundup.)

The products all offer the ability to back up a computer with imaging technology, restore those images to a hard drive and access individual files stored in an image file. They also offer incremental backup technology, where users create a master backup image and then update that image with only what has changed on the system since the initial backup.

What's more, the products all support the ability to restore an image to dissimilar hardware. In other words, the restoration process can strip out proprietary hardware drivers and allow the backed up operating system to boot on a different computer. That can be a great tool for upgrading to a new system or recovering from a disaster where the original device is not salvageable.

For the most part, the products all offer similar feature sets, but each has features that go beyond the basics. For example, Acronis True Image Home 2010 offers support for online/hosted backups via the Web, while TeraByte Software's Image for Windows includes support for Linux and DOS, and Paragon Backup and Recovery 10 Suite includes the ability to convert images into virtual hard drives.

How we tested:

I tested the three applications on a Lenovo T61p notebook running Windows 7 Ultimate (64Bit), a Toshiba Portege R-600 notebook running Windows 7 Ultimate (32Bit), and a white box PC with an AMD Phenom CPU, running Windows Vista Home Edition. All systems featured USB 2.0 ports (for use with an external USB hard drive) and gigabit Ethernet connections to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.

To time the products, I backed the Lenovo T61p (about 70GB of data) to an external USB 2.0 hard drive using each product's complete backup option, and then followed up with incremental backups.

Acronis True Image Home 2010

While imaging is at the heart of Acronis True Image Home 2010 ($50), it is the way the product functions that helps to set it apart from other backup programs. Usability seems to be the key theme here -- Acronis has done a great job of simplifying everything about backup, from installation to saving data to restoration.

Installation proved to be very easy on my three test systems, taking very little effort. The installation program checks for the latest version of the product and prompts you to download and install the newest version, if available.

One installation issue concerns the product key. To license the product you have to type in a code of 28 digits. Acronis recommends that you cut and paste the code from your registration email -- and I'd second that.

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