Sunday, 12 January 2014

Disk image backup software worth paying for

I'd like to briefly mention some PC backup software that I have found to be excellent. The software is Macrium Reflect. There is a free version (with limited features) and a series of paid-for versions.

I bought this software about two years ago, in order to create disk image backups. I have used it ever since, for backups and file recovery, and I have continued to be impressed by the software and the company that produces it.

Disk image backups have a big advantage over file backups. The purpose of a backup is to restore files that would otherwise be lost, but a disk image backup also allows you to restore the entire contents of a disk, including the operating system and all of its configuration. It can take a whole evening - perhaps a whole day - to get Windows installed and updated, with all the applications and configuration that you want. A disk image backup saves you this hassle. The restore process boots from a live CD, reads the disk image files, and puts everything back as it was. It's an enormous time-saver.

I have used Reflect to recover from disk failures and to migrate my system from one disk to another. I have also used it to restore individual files from disk images. I have two copies of the paid version, one for my PC and another for my wife's, and both are regularly used to run incremental backups of all disks.

The backup process is impressive, because it runs in the background while you do other things. This is enabled by a Windows subsystem called Volume Shadow Copy Service which allows backup programs to freeze a snapshot of a hard disk and then access that snapshot while other programs are able to use the disk as usual.

The makers of Reflect (Paramount Software, based in Manchester, England) provide regular updates to the application and to the live CD environment. The software continuously improves and minor bugs are regularly fixed.

The free version is surprisingly complete. The biggest omission is the incremental backups feature, which is very important for regular use (it's in every paid version). The free version also cannot encrypt files and the live CD environment is Linux only, rather than offering a choice between Linux and Windows PE.

Every Windows user should have backup software like this. For me, the price is much less than the cost of the time required to reinstall the OS and the applications, and the software has helped on various occasions. The only missing feature that I expected (but did not find) was some provision for migrating from MBR to GPT - it seems that backups made in one form cannot be translated to the other.

Competitors: another backup program called Acronis True Image has similar capabilities, but when I tried it out, I did not like the user interface of the desktop application or the live CD. I'm told that the built-in Windows backup utility can also create disk image backups, though I am not sure how you restore them without reinstalling Windows first, and the design of that tool seems to be primarily focused on creating file backups. There are also some free/open-source backup utilities that can be used, though I have never been impressed with the quality of backup software on Linux. You can rely on the really old approaches to backup (such as "TAR") which will always work, and you can image your disks using "dd" if you want, though this isn't intelligent enough to skip unused blocks or resize partitions. But user-friendly projects come and go, never reaching the level of stability, quality and support that is required for backup software, which can probably only come from a software company.

If you are interested in buying Reflect, then you may be able to make use of this code for a 30% discount: 3XQ-3GD-8XN.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with this company other than owning two software licences.