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Try several backup programs before you commit to one.
on October 23, 2009
After purchasing a 1TB external USB drive so that I can make backups of my (64bit) laptop's 500GB HDD, I've been trying out many different backup programs.
In the past, I had been using Ghost 2003 (DOS boot floppy) -- which I considered one of the best pieces of software ever created. I never bothered with the actual Window's Ghost 2003 install, other than simply just to create a boot floppy. Once I had a working boot floppy, I uninstalled the Window's Ghost 2003. My preferred method of doing backups is very simply. I simply want to boot into the backup program externally from any installed OS and manually perform backup/restores with an external USB HDD. I have no desire for automated backups. In the past, Ghost 2003 (DOS boot floppy) worked faithfully for me over many years covering (32bit) Win98, Win2000, WinXP, Linux, FreeBSD, and even Vista. While in recent years, I would have to manually repair the MBR and bootloaders after restores with Ghost 2003, it still remained an excellent program. Unfortunately, with the arrival of mainstream 64bit hardware, Ghost 2003 is now obsolete. Even more unfortunate is that Symantec, after borging PowerQuest, completely changed Ghost after 2003. Usually Symantec destroys any product that they acquire, but in this case they destroyed their own product (Ghost) after acquiring PowerQuest DriveImage -- which, just like PowerQuest PartitionMagic, was also an excellent product in it's own right before being borged by Symantec.
After quite a bit of work, I was actually able to get Ghost 2003 to recognize an internal SATA drive, boot from a USB pen drive, and "work" with 64bit hardware, but there were still a few things going "weird". Read the wikipedia Ghost article on how to get all that going if you want to give it a try.
What I am after is likely very common for what many others are after. I simply want to boot up into a backup program from an external source (CD/DVD, USB drive) and be able to do both backup and restores between an internal HDD and an external USB HDD. I don't even want a "main" backup program to have to be installed on an OS. I don't need nor even want automated backups. I certainly don't want the backup program creating any special "recovery partition" on the internal HDD. I just want a simple, and more importantly: reliable, completely external backup/restore solution.
So, my journey to find a replacement for Ghost 2003 has started. After trying out the trials, this is what I have found so far:
Most of the backup programs are finding themselves using the least-common-denominator approach these days, which I find to be quite troubling.
- Ghost (latest version). Absolute complete rubbish. By "simplifying" everything, they have made it more complicated than needs be. Not to mention that my first attempt to install this program resulted in a hang. I had to uninstall and reinstall it. That definitely doesn't start out with much confidence. Ghost no longer allows for the creation of "boot media". Like most other backup programs, you now can only create "recovery media". This is boot media that allows you to do restores, but doesn't allow you to do backups. To do backups, you must run the main Window's Ghost program from an actual installed OS. I find this recent trend to be really, really, really, stupid.
- Acronis TrueImage. Installed fine. Does the "recovery media" allow you to do both backups and restores? I couldn't get the "recovery media" to even work. TI has a bunch of automated backup features, all of which I could care less about. I had two MAJOR problems with TI, however. The first problem is that it did not allow a backup image to be created of my /entire/ HDD (containing multiple OS's). I would have to backup each partition individually. This is inexcusable. I want the option to be able to backup my entire HDD into one image. I want every single bit off the HDD in that image, the MBR and everything. I don't want to have fix MBRs, bootloaders, fstab's, etc, after doing restores. My second major problem with TI is that I could not get the "recovery media" to boot. It hangs after the initial splash screen, with a blinking CAPS LOCK key. I believe it may be a SATA issue, however there has been little response to others with the same problem on Acronis's support forums. This was simply too troublesome for me to continue using TI. I had no confidence with TI. My two stars for TI is because "I didn't like it", obviously because the "recovery media" didn't even work for me.
- Macrium Reflect Free Edition. This is what I finally settled on for now. It works and works rather well, but like Ghost, the "recovery media" only allows for restores. Again, you have to actually be in Windows and running the main program to do backups. However, on the plus side, it does allow the entire HDD (with multiple OS's) to be backed up into a single image. It backed up everything: Vista, XP, Linux, Swap, FreeBSD. I was able to collect enough courage to try out a restore and it went without a hitch. I also made a backup of just the Vista partition, out of caution that I (unlikely) may want to fallback to Vista after the free Win7 upgrade arrives from Toshiba. I'm happy with Macrium Reflect (especially since it is free), but still would like to have the completely external approach. The "recovery media" runs in a Linux environment and loads a little on the slow side, however works well once it is loaded.
- FarStone DriveClone Express. This one seems to be exactly what I am after, however there are no trials to try it out. Willing to take a chance on it and spend the $32 (google for promo). If I do, I'll update this after giving it a spin.
- NTFS Active Boot Disk. This one not only also seemed to be exactly what I was after, but also seemed to really have potential. After downloading and trying out the trial, I am impressed with it for the most part. The actual installed program is simply to create boot media, either on a CD/DVD or on a USB drive. While it may be possible to get the other backup programs' boot media onto a USB drive, I really like how NTFS Active Boot Disk thought out to do it for you. Everything is done from the boot media: backups and restores. There are also quite a few other handy utilities on the boot media. I was able to not only backup the entire HDD (with multiple OS's) into one image, but also individual partitions. If the OS filesytem isn't natively supported by Active Boot Disk, you can still backup as a raw image. This means that this backup program will work with /everything/. The boot media runs in a WinPE environment and loads quickly. The downside on this program is that it is relatively expensive when compared with the others. I really like being able to do everything externally and also boot up from a USB drive on my keychain. Edit add: Now that I have used this program more, I am finding a few rough edges. I have yet to try doing a HDD restore, but I have been doing USB drive restores (which it also supports). The first attempt to restore a USB drive from an image always results in a (-5) error when it attempts to write the partition table, however it works fine on the second attempt. Also some of the WinPE utilities (i.e., File Explorer) give an error when deleting files. This may be from WinPE itself and not necessarily the Active Boot programs. While you can successfully do everything that this program is designed for, some things are needing a little "hand holding" and coercion. I feel as if Active Boot Disk and WinPE could use a little more polish.
Summary: It is unfortunate that there is no longer a single utility out there that simply just works extremely well. I'm finding this problem not only with backup programs, but also other utility programs of recent years. I feel as if software has taken a down turn over the last few years. Programs seem to be "dumbed down" these days and also released before they are fully polished. Try out several backup programs before you commit to one of them. While TrueImage didn't work for me, it may work for you. Give Macrium Reflect Free Edition a try. Many will likely find that this program does everything that need and does it well. Best of all, it is free. If you are like me in that you want a completely external approach to doing manual backups and restores, take a look at NTFS Active Boot Disk and look for reviews for FarStone DriveClone Express.