Even in this era of Web-based applications and data storage gradually supplanting their local counterparts, most computer users still have an appreciable amount of personal data on local hard drives — in desktop computers or laptops. This data can consist of text documents, spreadsheets, digital photos, music files, application installation files, etc. A growing number of people are building collections of digital music and movies, which can consume a significant amount of disk space. The hard drives themselves allow for fast access to all of that data. So everything seems fine, right?
Yet what happens when the hard drive fails, or the laptop or desktop is stolen? In the former case, all of that data may be lost forever, unless data recovery experts can read the undamaged portions of the hard drive, and bring your data back to life, at considerable expense. In the latter case, if you or the police somehow apprehend the thief and reacquire the computer, then the data may still be unrecoverable if the thief has formatted the hard drive in an attempt to destroy all incriminating evidence. Even if he decides to keep your music collection on his "new" computer, and it is never deleted, then all the files are still effectively lost to you.
So the need for backups — preferably multiple ones, including at least one off-site backup — is obvious. But how to go about it? If you just have a handful of files, then a single USB flash drive (a.k.a. thumb drive) or a CD-RW disc may be sufficient. For large numbers of files, or especially sizable ones (e.g., a rip of a DVD movie), most flash drives will be insufficient, and a large stack of CD-RWs or rewritable DVDs could become quite inconvenient. In these cases, hard drives are the only answer. They can be local, such as a second hard drive in your desktop PC, or a USB hard drive attached to your laptop. Alternatively, they can be online, such as the servers of a Web-based backup service.
Whether local or remote, your hard drive backups need to contain all of your critical data. If any of it is sensitive — and for most people, that would be the case — then you should encrypt the backup, particularly for backups stored off-site and thus vulnerable to theft.
There are countless computer programs available for doing your backups. Some such programs must be purchased, while others are free and even open source. Most operating systems offer some sort of built-in backup application (i.e., an applet). All of these can be more than adequate for backing up individual files or folders.
However, most of these programs are not designed for backing up an entire hard drive (i.e., an entire partition). This is referred to as "imaging" the drive, because you are creating a mirror image of the drive's contents.
In the category of hard drive imaging applications, some of the best-known programs include Norton Ghost and True Image. They certainly have their fans and supporters, but they also have received criticism over the years, for such deficiencies as cryptic error messages and restored partitions that are unbootable (contrary to their advertised capabilities).
Image for Windows
Fortunately, those are not the only alternatives, and there now exist several imaging applications that may not be nearly as well known as the industry heavyweights, but are receiving top marks from software reviewers and consumers. One of these is Image for Windows, created and distributed by TeraByte Unlimited. This company, located in Las Vegas, Nevada, offers several related products, designed for managing partitions, copying disks, wiping drives, and replacing native boot managers.
Image for Windows was named a winner of the "2008 Community Choice Awards" in the Disk Imaging Software category, by Windows IT Pro magazine. The product costs $38.94, which is arguably a small price to pay for peace of mind. The DOS and a Linux versions cost even less, at $29.95. The company offers a 30-day evaluation of each one. In this article, I will install and try out the latest version of Image for Windows as of this writing, which is version 2.16a.
The downloading and installation process is quite straightforward — similar to that of any other commercial software release. After specifying the installation folder, a dialog box displays the various components that are bundled with the package.
All of the listed components are optional, except of course for the core Image for Windows product files. In this case, I declined the last two components. The remaining components altogether require approximately 5.5 megabytes of space on the target hard drive.
After specifying the Start Menu name and location (or using the default values), you have an opportunity to create program icons and perform other tasks. I deselected all of those options, and continued. The installation process ends by informing you that you need to reboot your computer for the settings to take effect. As usual, I ignored this warning, without any problems.
When you first start the program, it informs you that this is a trial version, and gives you a chance to enter the name and product key that you will receive upon purchasing it, which can be done on the company's website.
Making an Image
The Image for Windows user interface, unlike that of many other backup programs, is clean and intuitive.
The primary dialog box has a button for changing the program settings.
As seen in the figure above, you can modify the settings for the program itself, as well as PHYLock, which is an add-on component of Image for Windows, seen earlier in the list of installable components. Its purpose is to ensure that any backup of an unlocked partition or volume is consistent if any of the files being backed up are modified during the backup process. It does this by taking a virtual snapshot as it exists at a certain point in time.
The first time that you backup the partition that you wish to save, you should do a full backup. On subsequent saves, you can either replace it with another full backup, or backup only the changes, which Image for Windows tracks for you. In either case, the next two dialog boxes allow you to specify the partition to backup and the destination of the backup file, which by default has the file extension "TBI" (which stands for TeraByte Image).
The next dialog box shows all of the files and folders located in the target folder. In this example, I have chosen the M: drive on the PC, which is an empty logical partition. Because the C: drive is the one being backed up, I named the image file "C_drive".
In the future, if you use the same target folder, you will see the name of the previously saved image file, and you can overwrite it if desired.
You are now ready to begin the backup process, which should proceed smoothly and quickly. The only possible problem is if you are trying to image the partition containing the operating system copy that you are currently running, and you have not used PHYLock to obtain a lock on that partition. After the backup process completes, your target folder should contain the TBI file that you specified earlier.
Image for Windows compresses the backed up files and folders. In our example, 4.76 gigabytes of data were compressed into an image file of 3.18 gigabytes. It did all this in three minutes and 44 seconds, which is impressive.
Restoring an Image
Restoring a hard drive from an image file, is equally straightforward. For more details, consult the 111-page user manual, which includes information on installing the program, formulating a backup plan, and making, restoring, and validating images, in addition to other topics. Most users should never need to consult the manual. But it is reassuring to know that the information is available, if needed.
The particular partition used in our example, was a bootable one, and was subsequently restored to a blank hard drive and confirmed to be bootable. This is especially valuable if you have invested a great deal of time and energy into installing many applications on a boot partition, and you don't want to go through the laborious process of reinstalling all of your favorite programs and their configuration settings.
Image for Windows is a solid, attractive, and affordable alternative for disc imaging. With a program such as this, there is simply no excuse for losing the contents of a hard drive to theft, accidental deletion, hardware failure, or any other catastrophic loss.