Digital data is considered the most important part of the modern digital world. That is why data recovery services charge crazy amounts of money to recover lost data. It is always recommended to keep multiple backups of your important data and have a well planned and physically written disaster recovery plan.
Today we’ll discuss one important aspect of the data backup process: disk imaging.
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Disk imaging is a type of backup that takes a bit by bit snapshot of the hard disk and saves it into a single file. The disk image file may be compressed to save space. Disk imaging is especially useful for taking backups of the Operating System drives. If the system drive fails, the disk image backup can be restored to start running the system again with the same software installations as before.
If you’d been using computers in the early 2000s, then you would have heard about Norton Ghost. Norton Ghost was the most popular disk imaging software at that time. Now more disk imaging software have emerged. Let’s discuss the best and most popular disk imaging software.
Imaging vs cloning software
Imaging software also make use of another type of backup, cloning. While normal imaging can be done on the same hard drive, which is being backed up, disk cloning requires a separate backup drive to store the backup image. Disk cloning also creates the same amount of partitions or file system formats as the source disk.
The main benefit of disk cloning is that it can run as a secondary backup disk. The disk can be used immediately in place if the primary disk drive fails.
Why is disk imaging important?
Most people use cloud backup to sync their files to the cloud. Windows configuration and installation can’t be synced or backed up directly to the cloud. There needs to be a way other than syncing services to back up the system drive and configuration.
Imagine if you lose your laptop or your Operating System crashes and can’t start, what would you do? How would you install or recover all the software installed on your computer? It becomes a headache recovering software licenses to install the software again.
This is why regular system disk imaging and backup are important. It should be an important part of your backup and disaster recovery plan/strategy.
Disk imaging software
I have tried different disk image software over time and have settled down to a few best ones which I use in different situations. These backup software are meant for Windows specific systems, but some of the software also give options to backup servers, network devices, virtual machines and cloud systems.
The question is what should you look for in backup software? Here are some points you should consider when selecting a disk imaging software:
- Cost of the software – If your systems are mission critical, you would prefer paid backup software instead of the free version.
- Ease of use – If you don’t know a lot about computers and backups, you should prefer a backup software that is the easiest to use. The interface should be clean and clear.
- Security – What level of security does the backup software provide for the backups?
- Speed – How quickly can you take backups? Are backups efficient in terms of space and resource usage?
- Features – Are all the features you are looking for available in the software? For example, if you are looking for a complete system disk image backup, the software should provide bootable media options for recovery.
Acronis Cyber Protect
Acronis Cyber Protect (formerly Acronis True Image) is the best disk imaging software that provides backup and recovery features for the complete system, including operating system and complete hard disk recovery. The interface is very straightforward, and even a newbie can configure safe backups of their systems.
Although it does not come with a free version, it is the complete cyber protection suite. From file and disk backups to continuous data protection and bare-metal restores, it can do anything related to backup and disk imaging.
Some of the features of Acronis Cyber Protect are as follows:
Flexible backup storage options include SAN, NAS, local hard drive, Acronis Cloud, Google, AWS, Azure etc. It even supports good old tape drive backups.
Flexible restore options mean you can restore the backup to a physical or virtual machine. You can also restore your backup to the cloud.
Acronis Universal Restores lets users restore system backups to dissimilar hardware. If your physical system crashes, you can always restore your backup to a new machine.
Backup malware scanning and safe recovery are unique features of Acronis that you won’t find in other software. The software automatically scans for malware inside the backups. If the Operating System in the backup image is infected and can’t be loaded, it will automatically scan and remove the malware and fix the issues with the system backup.
It also comes with variable block size deduplication which saves backup space for multiple backups, and the backups are taken efficiently. Variable block size deduplication means only those blocks are backed up that have been changed since the last backup.
Acronis pricing starts from $65/year, but the first option Acronis Cyber Protect Essentials does not include image based backups. If you are looking for a backup imaging option, then you should go for at least the Standard edition, which is $85/year.
It is also available for server backups, Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace backups.
Usage advice: Select this if you want an all-in-one backup solution for a mission-critical system.
If you are looking for free disk imaging software with cloning capabilities, Macrium Reflect tops the list with a really simple interface. The free version has some limitations, like you can only backup to a local or network drive. There is no cloud option available. You can only create backups of complete partitions. The file and folder backup option is available in the Pro version.
When you install and run the software, it gives you the option to either image or clone selected partitions on the computer, or create an image of all partitions required to backup and restore Windows.
You can also create a Windows Rescue Media using the software. It will create a bootable ISO image, which can be used to create a bootable USB drive.
It gives you a plethora of backup plan options. Some options are as follows:
- Grandfather, father, son (full, differential, incremental)
- Intra-daily backups
- Incremental forever
You can also define the retention rules for your backups.
It creates backups in its own format with .mring extension. Backups cannot be edited or opened with any software other than the software itself. Even if you open the backup, it will only give you the option to select the partition to restore from the backup. There is no file or folder level explore option.
The Home edition costs $69.95 for four computers. The paid version further includes Macrium ViBoot for instant Hyper-V virtualization, Macrium Image Guardian to protect your backup images from ransomware, and restoring backups to different hardware.
Usage advice: Use this to create backup copies of your Windows operating system partitions, which can be restored if a system fails or malware attacks.
PARAGON Backup & Recovery
Paragon Backup & Recovery, also available as part of Paragon Hard Disk Manager, is another good backup software with a free version available (known as community edition). The community edition can only backup Windows and Mac systems. If you want to backup servers (Windows Server), partition disks and volumes, you’ll need to purchase Paragon Hard Disk Manager Advanced.
The free community edition has features that most home users need to back up their data and Operating Systems. It comes with a very simple interface which starts with a wizard. The wizard will walk you through the process of creating a backup and scheduling it according to your requirements.
In the backup source option, you can either select your entire computer, including all installed hard drives, select specific partitions, or even select individual files and folders for backup.
In the backup destination option, you can select local folders, external drives or network locations. Interestingly, if you have Google Drive installed, you will see Google Drive as a partition in the backup destination option.
That’s it. All other options are optional. For example, you can create a backup schedule or create a backup strategy very much like Macrium Reflect.
Paragon Backup & Recovery saves backups with the extension .PBF. You can’t open or edit the backup files. It can also create a recovery media to recover the operating system in case of a crash, but this option seems paid only.
Paragon Backup & Recovery Advanced costs $79.95 for a 3 PC license. This includes backup, data recovery, partition management, drive copy/OS migration, and disk wiping.
Usage advice: Use Paragon Backup & Recovery free to create backup copies of your files and folders. For operating system backups, you can use the Macrium Reflect free edition, which is one of the best free disk imaging software.
AOMEI Backupper is another popular choice for people looking for free backup software. AOMEI BaBackupper is more of an advanced alternative to Macrium Reflect and Paragond Backup & Recovery.
It has a clean and easy to use interface, but comes with many more options than both options given above. It can create a system backup, disk image backup, partition backup, file backup and even backup data to the cloud. Unfortunately, only AOMEI cloud option is available in the free version.
AOMEI Backupper can also clone disks and partitions individually. For a complete system clone or migrate your system to SSD or other disks, you will need the Pro version.
Only the basic sync option is available in the free version. If you want advanced options like real-time sync, mirror sync or two-way sync, you will need the Pro version of the software.
While you can schedule your backups and create a backup strategy/scheme like full backup, differential backup and incremental backup, you will need the Pro version to enable automatic backup cleanup and set up retention policies.
You can create bootable media if you have to start the PC in recovery mode to recover the data. You can also explore the data inside the backup files but this feature is not available in the free version.
AOMEI Backupper Professional costs $69.95 for a lifetime license, which is pretty fair considering the amount of backup options you get with the software.
Usage advice: AOMEI Backupper can be used as a general backup software for most purposes. If the upload backup to any cloud storage option was given in the free version, it would have been the best disk imaging software for almost all home users.
EaseUS Todo Backup
EaseUS Todo Backup is another fine competitor for backing up your data, including disk imaging. The first default interface of the software starts with a wizard, which guides you through different options.
Under backup sources, you can select individual files and folders, a disk drive or an OS system drive. Under Backup Destination, you can select a local drive path, EaseUS cloud, NAS or Security Zone.
Files backed up using EaseUS Todo Backup are stored in a file with .pbd extension. You can either recover the data to the original location or another location of your choice.
While clone, system clone and system transfer are options included in Pro version, you can create an emergency disk to boot up the system and restore data from the backup source in case of a disaster.
EaseUS Todo Backup Home costs $79.95 for a lifetime license or $39.95 yearly with 1TB cloud backup storage.
Usage advice: Use EaseUS Todo Backup with automated cloud backup, as it is cheaper than most cloud backup options.
TeraByte Drive Image Backup and Restore
I have included TeraByte Drive Image Backup and Restore, especially for sysadmins and people who missed the good old Norton Ghost. When you first look at the interface of TeraByte Backup Suite, it looks pretty old school. It does one thing, taking image snapshots of the disk drive and does it well.
It uses Windows Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) and PHYLock to back up the system drive. This ensures there are no inconsistencies in the data being backed up.
TeraByte Drive Image Backup and Restore Suite comes with tools to backup Windows and Linux. It creates backups with .tbi extension. You can explore the contents of the backup file using the software itself.
The best thing about TeraByte backup is TeraByte OS Deployment tool. It is a command line tool with scripts to create a backup of Windows installation and then restore it on different computers. This is a feature Norton Ghost was famous for.
Another feature I didn’t find in any other backup software is that you can verify the backups for consistency. This ensures your backups are in the best possible condition.
TeraByte Drive Image Backup and Restore Suite bundled with image deployment capabilities costs $59.98 per year.
Usage advice: Use TeraByte Backup if you want to create a standard Windows installation and restore the settings on multiple computers instead of configuring each computer individually. Just install all the software you want on all PCs and then take a backup of the PC. Deploy this backup to multiple computers using TeraByte Image Deployment Tool.
Active Disk Image
Active Disk Image is a professional and one of the best disk imaging software that lets you create a clone image backup from the disk, restore the image to the disk, create raw image, verify the image, copy disk to disk, clone disk, mount the image or even explore what’s in the image.
With so many features, the software is lightweight and easy to use. Each option opens a wizard that guides you through the process. When creating a disk image, you can also split the images into multiple files for easier handling. It also provides password protection if you want to protect your backups. AWS S3 cloud service is supported as a cloud storage option for offsite backups.
When you start the Disk Image software for the first time, it will ask you to create an Active Boot Disk that lets you boot from the CD or USB drive if the system fails to boot normally.
The backup files are stored as .adi files. You can open and explore these files using the software itself.
It comes with a free version that won’t let you create bootable rescue media. You are only allowed to create full backups. Differential and incremental backups are available in the Pro version.
The personal license costs $39, but if you want to use it on Windows Server, you will need a professional license that costs $69.
Usage advice: Use it when you want to backup multiple disks, including HDDs, SSDs, DVDs and USB drives. Use it when you need to create backup scripts for automation on multiple computers.
If you don’t want to use a third party tool to create an image of your computer, Microsoft provides a tool called Disk2vhd disk image software as part of Sysinternals. This is a simple tool to convert disk drives into VHD/VHDX files. VHD/VHDX files can be mounted on any Windows 10 or Windows 11 computer to explore what’s inside the backup.
There are no automation or scheduled backup options. You will need to either take backups manually or make use of command line options to automate the backup process. Disk2vhd creates full backups only. If you want to retain many backups, then this approach is not for you.
Once you have created the VHD, you will need a third party tool to clone the VHD backup to a new computer. I prefer EaseUS Partition Master, but you can use any cloning tool that supports VHD/VHDX.
Usage advice: Use Disk2vhd if you are a sysadmin and want to take manual backups of your computers. Use Disk2vhd if you don’t want your backups locked under third party encryption. Use Disk2vhd when you want to make changes to the backups, even after taking the backups.
My favorite backup software is Acronis Cyber Protect for protecting my production machines. Although it is not free, it does not hurt to invest a little money in backups instead of waiting for disasters.
If you don’t have a mission critical system, you can choose other software discussed above. I prefer creating a virtual image of my system drive using Disk2vhd.
If you don’t have backups, sooner or later, disasters will likely happen. So it’s always advised to have some kind of backup and disaster recovery plan. In the next post, I’ll talk about the best off-site and cloud backups. Stay tuned.
If you have any questions or comments, please share them in the comments below.