Review: Five Recovery Apps Bring Your PC Back From The Dead

Sometimes you just have to wipe everything and start from scratch -- and a good recovery app will make sure it takes hours rather than weeks. Here are some of

October 26, 2006

24 Min Read
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"Bare-metal recovery" is a term used by system administrators to describe the process of wiping a computer clean and restoring it to life from a total system backup. Sometimes it's the only way to get things running again, especially if you don't have the time to reinstall Windows the conventional way.

Restoring from a full-system backup has a lot of other advantages over a traditional reinstall: You don't have to reinstall applications, restore user data or accounts, or perform tricky end-runs around the system to do things like recover protected data. Everything comes back in one fell swoop.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows

•  Norton Save And Restore•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image •  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

Bare-metal recovery is also one of the biggest features missing from Windows itself. There's no native way to make a system-wide backup and then restore it in one step if things go wrong. Granted, Windows has some nice incremental recovery options (System Restore comes to mind), and a decent file-and-directory backup tool, but no built-in way to restore everything at once. Sure, Microsoft has promised a full system-recovery function in Windows Vista, but upgrading to Vista is still a long way off for many people -- and for some it's not an option at all. What can we do now about the problem?

To that end, a number of third-party software makers have stepped in and provided software solutions of their own. In this round-up, I review five of them -- from Symantec's latest revision of Norton Ghost (now Norton Backup and Restore) to the light but useful Image for Windows. All of these applications have the basic ability to back up and restore an entire system disk without needing to boot to Windows, and can restore to and from a variety of backup media -- usually attached hard drives or CD/DVD-Rs.Acronis True Image Home

Acronis makes a whole spate of really solid products for system backup and recovery. They don't just cover standalone desktop PCs, but servers and managed corporate workstations as well; there's something in the product lineup for just about everyone. The best choice from the company catalog for SOHO PCs is probably Acronis True Image Home 9.0, which has everything you need and then some. Its friendly and highly consistent interface (it's even the same when booted from its rescue media) makes the whole process of creating and restoring backups a snap.


True Image can back up either the entire contents of one or more hard drives, or selected files and folders. The target backup file can be saved to almost anywhere, such as across a network or onto a removable drive, including CDs and DVDs. Even better: Backups recorded to removable media can have their own bootable copy of the restore program included on them, so you can just boot the backup media itself to start the restore process. However, writing backups to DVD requires a separate application that can write UDF-format disks, such as Nero InCD.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows •  Norton Save And Restore•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image

•  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

Acronis supports full, incremental, and differential backups for both full-disk and individual file-and-folder backups. This makes it extremely easy to create and maintain an up-to-the-minute set of backups for a full system: You can create a full backup once every couple of weeks to a month (which can be done in the background), and then perform incremental backups each night. I was able to set up a schedule to do exactly that in less than one minute; any scheduled tasks (and their status) were shown in the program's main window. With the default options, I backed up a 15GB disc with 5GB of live data to a second drive in about six minutes. Scheduled backup operations ran unobtrusively and quietly in the background while I did other work.

Like many of the other programs here, True Image also includes a boot disk builder, but you have a choice of building one of two varieties of the boot CD: a "safe" variety with a minimal driver set (i.e., no USB/SCSI drivers) or a "full" flavor with a broad spectrum of hardware drivers. This lets you build and boot the disc that works best on your computer, since the drivers are provided by Acronis, not by your own computer, and the full set of drivers might not work on every machine.

True Image 9.0 has a couple of unique features that I've seen (and liked) in previous versions of the program. You can create what's called the "Acronis Secure Zone," a hidden partition to which data can be backed up on the same disc, but securely and away from interference by other programs. When the zone fills up, the oldest backup data is deleted, in much the same manner as Microsoft's own System Restore function. "Snap Restore," which requires the Secure Zone, lets you boot the OS from a computer and resume work while it's still being restored from a backup. The process is remarkably seamless and resilient, but again, you need to have a system-directory backup in the Secure Zone for this to work.

Image for Windows 1.64

Terabyte Unlimited is responsible for one of my favorite PC utilities of all time: BootIt Next Generation, a disk-, partition-, and boot-management tool that does more than many programs costing twice that much. For that reason, I've routinely given their other utilities a good hard look as well, and they have at least one tool that fits into this roundup: Image for Windows, which ships with its companion application Image for DOS.


Image for Windows lets you make full partition and disk backups from within Windows, including the currently-running system partition. The resulting backups can be written out to a local or network drive, or to CD or DVD, and can be spanned across multiple discs. If you make a backup set to CD or DVD, you can also set up the first disk in the set to be bootable. This way, if you want to restore everything without having a copy of Image for Windows handy, you can just boot the first of your backup discs and start the restore process there. The size of a backup set is automatically split into 2GB files -- to avoid conflicts with, for instance, the file-size limitations of the FAT32 file system -- but can also be split into other chunks, such as 648MB, for burning to CD. It isn't possible to back up files and folders selectively, though, just whole partitions.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows •  Norton Save And Restore

•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image •  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

When you install the program in Windows, you're also prompted to install a tool called PHYLock. This allows you to back up files in use by the system by making a snapshot of them at a given moment in time, so any changes made to the system after that point are not reflected in the backup. (It's also possible to boot Image for DOS and make a full system image offline, but this way you can do the backup without disrupting other work.) I backed up a basic 15GB image with 5GB of actual data in about six minutes using the default options.

Restoring an image from scratch can be done in a couple of different ways: You can restore within Windows to another partition or you can boot a CD or floppy built with the program to perform an offline restore. Backups can be restored from any media you've copied them to, including a hard drive mounted natively and available through BIOS or connected via a USB/FireWire connection. However, you can't restore across a network in DOS mode; you need to have the file available locally in some form before it can be restored. The image files created by Image for Windows are compatible with all other Terabyte products, including BootIt Next Generation.

The single biggest drawback is the lack of an incremental backup option. For instance, you can't make a snapshot of a partition one week and then back up only the changed files the next week; you have to back up everything at once. (There's also no way to do individual folder backups.) This makes it hard to use as a regular backup solution, unless you don't mind staking out the time required to do a full system backup. That said, Terabyte plans to include just such a feature in their next major upgrade to the product.

Norton Save And Restore

Norton Save and Restore is actually the newest version of Norton Ghost; call it "Ghost 11.0," if you want to. Ghost itself was originally a standalone program, booted from floppies, that was used to perform drive-to-drive and computer-to-computer imaging. Symantec bought the program, rebranded it Norton Ghost, and added features from PowerQuest's Drive Image product (also bought by them). Save and Restore keeps all the good things from Ghost, but it's essentially an incremental upgrade and not an entirely new product.


Right after installation, S&R does several things to insure that it'll be able to properly back up and restore the whole system. The most important is a scan to determine whether a number of different hardware drivers -- mass-storage, network, etc. -- are available on the program's bootable recovery CD. This insures that if you back up to an external device (such as a USB-connected hard drive), you should still be able to access the backed-up data without needing Windows. Any device drivers not found on the recovery CD are listed in a report, so you can determine if they're crucial or not.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows •  Norton Save And Restore

•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image •  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

Also at installation, the program tries to automatically create a set of backup policies -- what to back up and where -- based on, among other things, what drives are available and what user profiles are present. These can be changed at any time, but the default values are pretty good: a full system backup once a week, and a backup of the user's Documents and Settings directory once a day. Backups, which are called Recovery Points, can be set to happen on a schedule or whenever certain conditions arise: an application install, for instance, or whenever a user logs on or off. Any protected file or folder will also have a right-click context menu that lets you see any previously backed-up versions of that item; if you overwrite something, for instance, you can roll it back to a prior point in time.

Whenever it's time for a scheduled backup cycle and the user is logged in, the program pops up a warning from the System Tray to ask you if you want to do the backup cycle now. If you say yes, the operation runs in the background, but you can always call up the progress dialog for the backup operation and move a slider that controls how aggressive S&R is at using system resources. When I tried it, a full system backup took almost exactly ten minutes; after that, backups took much less time since they were stored incrementally. If you have a Maxtor OneTouch external drive, S&R integrates directly with the push-button backup system on the drive.

S&R has several ways you can do recovery. If your system's damaged but still partly functioning (for instance, if an application has gone south on you), you can do a point-in-time rollback, which is similar to the way Windows's own System Restore works except that it includes user data (System Restore doesn't). If you want to recover individual files or folders, you can explore individual Recovery Points as if they were a mounted file system, restore to a given Recovery Point, or search for a file or folder name. If everything's been torched, you can boot the program CD, connect the drive you have the backup on, and perform a full system recovery that way.

Two other problems I had with Save and Restore are mostly aesthetic and not really functional. One is the slow user interface; it takes seconds on end for the program's main menu to come up when it's invoked (a problem that I've identified as being pretty endemic across the current line of Symantec desktop products). The other is the annoying presence of the Norton Protection Center icon, which is installed along with S&R, and which you can't ever really seem to get rid of. But these are minor quibbles, and really don't detract from the program's ability to protect your system well.

Paragon Drive Backup 8 Personal

Paragon Drive Backup 8 Personal strongly resembles Acronis' product -- not only in its interface layout but the way some of its features are implemented. The program's main screen even looks a lot like True Image -- a task panel on the left side, a fully-annotated task list at top right, and below that a panel with information about the available disks in the system. From here you can kick off most of the program's basic functions: making backups, restoring a disk image, copying a whole disk, setting up a scheduled task, or exploring an existing image to selectively extract files.


Whenever you set up one or more actions to be carried out by the program, they're not actually put into effect until you click the Apply button. This way you can view the results of all the actions you've queued up in a preview window, and undo any changes before they're made -- a nice feature for those of us who want to be doubly cautious about making potentially irreversible system changes. Aside from full partition/drive backups, you can also create a differential backup against a given drive and its last complete backup as a time- and space-saver.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows •  Norton Save And Restore•  Paragon Drive Backup

•  R-Drive Image •  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

The program runs down a detailed summary of all your settings before the backup is performed -- the size of the backup files (which can be split across multiple discs if needed), additional backup options, and so on. The "Hot Processing" option (on by default) lets you back up partitions currently in use without disturbing anything, something supported by all the other programs here. One option I didn't see explicitly defined in any other program, also enabled by default, doesn't back up the system swap and hibernation files to reduce the size of the backup set. A full backup of the test system took just under eight minutes with all the default options enabled. Logs of all actions can be e-mailed to a given address.

Acronis's Secure Zone feature is pretty closely emulated here in Paragon's "Backup Capsule" system. You can create a protected partition on a given drive where data can be backed up and restored as needed. Since space in Backup Capsules is typically at a premium, you can manually remove backups from the Capsules you create or adjust their sizes as needed. If you're restoring an individual partition as opposed to a full drive, you can optionally resize the partition during the restore process if there's room to do so.

Full-system restore operations are accomplished in a pretty interesting way. If you do this without booting the recovery CD (which you can build with an included utility), it boots to Windows and starts the recovery process in the pre-GUI phase. Any recovered Windows files are restored after the next reboot. The "One Button Copy" function simplifies migrating to a new hard drive (or copying the contents of a non-system drive) and also allows proportionate resizing of a copied partition.

One key feature that's missing is the ability to selectively back up directories and individual files, rather than whole partitions. You can restore them selectively, though, and it's as easy as copying and pasting files between instances of Explorer.

R-Drive Image 3.0

R-Drive Image 3.0 is slightly cheaper than True Image, but missing some of the more sophisticated features of that product. It covers the basics, though: You can back up whole drives or partitions both completely or incrementally, restore from within Windows or from a bootable CD, clone disks, explore a backup image as if it were a natively-connected disk, and schedule backups. What's not included, such as backing up to a pre-designated protected area or individual folder/file backups, isn't critical, but might be missed by some.


The program's lightweight -- only a few files in one directory -- and doesn't take much time or disk space to install. When it's run for the first time, it takes a moment to make an inventory of all the connected disks and then provides you with a menu of options. All of the program's functions are controlled through step-by-step wizard-like interfaces, so there are no submenus to delve through. Novices and people who just want to get things done without hassle will welcome this simplicity.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows •  Norton Save And Restore•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image

•  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

The backup process lets you backup multiple drives as well as partitions in one archive, so you can make working backups of a multi-drive system if you need to. The split size of the archive files is controllable, so you can write to removable media -- including CD/DVD drives, although for that you'll need to have packet-writing software of some kind installed. One very nice feature is the ability to make a clipboard copy of the command-line instructions used to trigger a specific backup set, so you can paste them into a script of your own creation.

Archives created by the program can be mounted as if they were separate hard drives and explored through Explorer. If you have an archive with multiple incremental backups, you'll be presented with a list of each backup revision, which you can mount and explore separately. The scheduler function can be used to create backup operations in the Scheduled Tasks folder or as command-line script actions that you can use elsewhere -- as part of a logon or logoff script, for instance. One tiny quirk about the way backups are done: There's no menu option on the first place for performing an incremental backup vs. a full backup. You only get the option to do this if you choose to back up to an existing archive file, which can be a little confusing.

There are some things missing. There's no innate ability to create protected backup partitions (as with Acronis' or Paragon's products), and there didn't seem to be any way to produce or browse event logs from the program. It's also not possible to back up individual directories or files, although the fact that you can back up incrementally (i.e., back up only what's changed since the last full backup) does make up for this a bit.

Conclusion

There's something to be said for a batch of programs where even the most basic and stripped-down one of the bunch is decently recommendable. Picking the absolute best of the bunch is tough, since the competition between the best comes down to which features you would rather buy for how much.

Five Recovery Apps

•  Introduction•  Acronis True Image•  Image for Windows

•  Norton Save And Restore•  Paragon Drive Backup•  R-Drive Image •  Conclusion

•  Full Backup Gotchas

Image for Windows carried the lowest price tag and the smallest feature set (no differential backups, no file/folder backups), but it also carried the least bulk and got the job done with little or no difficulty. I liked Norton Backup and Restore for being the most flexible, and it did have some of the best features overall, but it also carried the most heft. However, my personal favorite, Acronis True Image, had almost the same mix of features as Symantec's offering and carried a lot less bulk.

Paragon Drive Backup is even more lightweight (it installs almost nothing to the PC other than the executable itself), but lacks the ability to do individual folder backups, so if you don't mind not having that feature it's a good alternative. R-Drive is missing some of the features of the other programs in its price class, but its simplicity of design may be a redeeming factor for people who don't need those functions.


Full Backup Gotchas

As wonderfully convenient as it is to back up and restore a whole system at once, there's still a few ways you can get bitten if you're not careful. Here are some common gotchas to be mindful of when using bare-metal recovery tools in Windows:

Make sure you can restore what you've created. Verify that you can restore from the hardware you're backing up to. If you're using an external drive, boot your recovery disc and make sure that the backup set you've made can be seen and read from it.

Watch out for hardware changes. If you image a full system with one set of hardware and then change something, the original image may go haywire on you if you try to restore it. This could manifest as anything from a system that simply won't boot -- for instance, if you've changed disk controllers -- to odd behavior with peripherals.

Beware of Product Activation. This is a corollary to the first issue, but it deserves its own discussion. Restoring to a system that has a significantly different hardware profile than the one you backed up the image from may cause our old friend Product Activation to kick in. If you have no choice but to restore to a significantly-different system (i.e., more than three pieces of key hardware have changed), activate by phone, as you'll get more of an opportunity to verify that you're not pirating anything. A handy third-party utility called XPInfo lets you examine which pieces of hardware are profiled for Product Activation.

Invest well in your backups. The easiest, fastest and most cost-effective backup solution at this point is a second hard drive. That said, don't just buy any old hard drive for backups. Spend the money on an enterprise-class hard drive with a three-year (or better) warranty, and get the same for your PC as well whenever you can manage it. The last thing you want to do is discover that your backup and your main system drive are both toast. If you back up to DVD, use name-brand blank discs and not store-generic varieties that have no pedigree.

Know your disk geometry. If you restore to a new hard drive that's bigger than the one you had before, be mindful of the partition sizes you're restoring to. Most of the time you can resize the restored partition proportionately, so you can make full use of the new drive; if you have this option, use it.

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