Imaging: operating system insurance

Alan HendersonRetired marine engineer
Great-granddad, Navy engineer & diver way back, Kiwi, environmentalist, Apple user, ships’ chief engineer, learning economics
Many experts here spend several hours a day dealing with  problems which are often resolvable only by reinstalling Windows. That means at least a day down the drain - if you can find all your installation discs.
Many people don't know how to reinstall Windows and have to pay someone to do it for them. Or they find a friend or relative to do it for nothing but a significant time sacrifice.

I never, ever have such problems. Well, not since I discovered imaging. I have images of both my Windows and my Linux installations. If disaster strikes, I start my imaging program (Acronis True Image) click on the appropriate buttons, and 20 minutes later my computer is restored to the pristine state it was in before Windows had a hissy fit or was devoured by an elusive rootkit.

Windows Vista has Vista Backup which works in a similar way, but the full version isn't available in the Vista Home versions. Anyway, the commercial programs are more flexible: incremental images, imaging across a network, extra compression, image integrity checking, etc.

Symantec Ghost does the same job, but the Acronis product has been getting the best reviews in recent times.

How does imaging work?

You open the program, select "backup" and follow onscreen prompts to select various options. The imaging software then makes a compressed copy of the complete partition or drive of your choice.

The image is written to another partition or internal drive,  to an external USB drive, or to another computer on your network. You can use Cds or DVDs but OSs are becoming so bloated and drives so cheap that hard drives are a more easily manageable method.

How do I fix things when it all turns pear-shaped?

You just run the program again, select "restore", browse to the saved image, the PC shuts down, reboots and overwrites your mangled installation with the pristine backup.

But wait! There's more...

The best imaging software allows you to create a boot CD containing a full version of the program. If your computer is so badly corrupted that you can't run the program from Windows, or even if Windows won't start, you boot from the CD and restore sanity from there.

I have several images at different stages of my installation. You can see my strategy for doing this with Windows XP here on
The same principles apply with Vista or any other operating system.

Any buts?

Yes, if you're imaging (backing up) drive X:\, it can't be saved to that same drive X:\. It can't be backed up to itself. So an image of drive or partition C:\ must be saved to (for instance) drive or partition D.

You can save an image of one partition to another partition on the same drive.

What's a partition?

A single hard drive - drive C for instance - can be divided into two or more virtual drives: C:,  D:, E:,....

Each of those drives is called a partition and is seen by Windows as a separate hard drive.

Acronis Disk Director is a very good tool for creating and resizing partitions. You can get it when you buy Acronis True Image. US$49 well spent.

An image of a basic installation of XP and MS Office will fit on one DVD, but when you start adding a lot more stuff you need several DVDs or, better yet, one or more of the following:

   1. A separate partition on your hard drive.
   2. A second (or third) hard drive.
   3. An external USB hard drive. More about these choices near the bottom of this page.

I'm more than a little paranoid. I don't like losing stuff. So I have 2 internal and 3 external drives.

An extra drive or partition also allows you to separate your data: (Documents, Pictures, email, outlook.pst files and the like) from your Operating System and your Programs. So you can restore an image of your Windows installation and programs while keeping your current data files intact.

I have a blog post here which tells you how to move My Documents to another location:

Any other plusses?

Yep. If I want to install new software I'll create an image of my current installation first. If the new program is a dog or causes compatibility problems, I just restore my latest image and all traces of the intruder are gone.

What Else?

It's great, buy it - today!  But if you don't, and you have Windows Vista  use Vista Backup.

BootItNG is a significantly cheaper program (it includes disk and partition management as well as imaging), it's just as good as Acronis, even more powerful, but much "geekier". i.e. It's less user friendly.

If you don't mind a steep learning curve get BootItNG here.

For US$49 or less, imaging softwaret provides peace of mind worth thousands. If you're in business it may be worth millions. Many of the most common problems posted on EE, particularly regarding OS and hard drive faults, would be solved or never arise if all users employed imaging software.

An expanded version of this Article, with links to free imaging software, may be seen here on my blog:
Alan HendersonRetired marine engineer
Great-granddad, Navy engineer & diver way back, Kiwi, environmentalist, Apple user, ships’ chief engineer, learning economics

Comments (2)

Author of the Year 2011
Top Expert 2006

Hi vallis - this is a great article topic and quite well written. Good advice for any Member and sure to be a life-saver for those who choose to follow your lead.

*Voted a big "YES" above.

Commented: is my choice. Its free. Everything has a learning curve, So be it with this too since we are talking about imaging. Sure, I don't like paying when there are plenty of free options available. But I voted YES.


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