Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

We'll look at reasons why imaging a hard drive isn't the best approach, and other options you have.

How do you "image" a hard drive? I would like to make an image of my hard drive so when I mess things up like I usually do, I could restore everything back to a pristine condition without having to reformat and reinstall the operating system and associated programs.

"Imaging" a hard drive is a process that makes a complete copy of the drive, all of it, at a very low level. Restoring from a backup image restores everything to the exact state that it was at the time you took the image.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

But I'll let you in on a little secret: I've never imaged a hard drive. Not once. There are a couple of "catches" that make it not quite as useful as you might think.

First to answer your question: to create a hard disk image, you'll need a disk imaging utility. There are several, though as I mentioned I don't use one, so I don't have a real recommendation. These utilities will walk you through the process of creating an image.

Now, why don't I use one?

Most people think of disk imaging as a backup utility. As you've pointed out, if you "mess things up", you can restore the system to the original state that it had at the time you took the image. The problem is that the image is monolithic - all or nothing. That means any and all changes you've made since making the image will be lost when you restore. All of them.

"... any and all changes you've made since taking the image will be lost when you restore."

Now, I don't know about you, but while I do "mess things up" on a regular basis, I also do many, many other things that I don't really want to lose. So for me the approach to restoring from a full disk image would be to first try to copy off the data that I want to preserve, hope that I got it all, restore the image, and then restore the data. That seems like a fair amount of work to me.

My approach is slightly more traditional: an incremental backup solution. It backs up things as they change.

And yes, when things get really messed up, I rebuild my machine. From scratch. What I find, though, is that because I install and uninstall software on a fairly frequent basis, about every two years or so I need to rebuild the machine anyway.

So when does disk imaging software make sense?

The single biggest use for imaging software is in corporations, where large numbers of machines need to be built out frequently, and identically. Rather than running through the setup for Windows and whatever other applications might be part of the standard configuration over and over for each machine, it's done once, and then imaged. That image can then be restored onto multiple hard disks significantly faster than the standard setup process.

Another use for disk imaging software is for benchmarking and software comparison tests. When comparing several different utilities, the only valid comparison may be to start from an identical configuration each time. A standard disk image of the system provides a quick and easy way to start from an identical state each time.

And yes, a disk image tool might sometimes be used in conjunction with an incremental backup strategy.

But after all is said and done, to me a traditional backup strategy seems just as much work, and slightly more flexible.

Article C2439 - October 17, 2005 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

21 Comments
ilyas
October 30, 2005 3:23 AM

I did go through your answer to this question but I didnít see one single step telling this person how to do what he/she wanted to do.
People like me donít care about keeping backup on their files simply is because I work in Internet cafť we use imaging for all our systems. Once we setup and complete setting and installing every thing we want for that computer we simply create an image of it so if some thing goes wrong simply restore the image and in 5 minutes the computer will be online and ready to be used.
If this person asks you this question simply tell them that they need imaging software once they find that software simply run the software and flow the instructions. Tell then that their hard dive must have partition.
Any way I love your website I always read all your answers.

nick
November 2, 2005 9:34 AM

hI
how to make image of my harddrive(stand alone)
and copy to a dvd or ccd.


nick

Kulabird
December 29, 2005 10:54 PM

Yes Ilyas, Leo's response does not answer the question but he does state why he does not use imaging software and where he believes imaging software does apply. Of course in your application, you would want imaging software.

Most companies use Ghost as it is the leader in imaging software. Handy also that it bought its closest competitor. Next up might be Acronis. Maybe. Weak on DVDR backups - I could never get it to work via during the demo period even after contacting support and following any hints in the FAQs. I do not remember which company offered this particular product but it would reimage on restart.

Back to Ghost...
Not bad. The current verision of Ghost allows for backup directly in Windows XP as opposed to Ghost 2003 which would reboot to PCDOS to backup the drive. When I say not bad, I've run into headaches but so far Ghost has worked out better than others for imaging to CDR/DVDRs.

Don
February 7, 2006 2:02 PM

I have an image (Ghost Corp. 8.2) that syspreps when done. However, I am finding that on all computers I still have to run the Internet Connection Wizard AND the Outlook 2000 setup Wizard. These are consistent settings and it would be helpful to not have to set them up each time. Can you help?

lou
March 13, 2006 11:58 AM

Do you have to have the same size hard drive as the one that you want to image

Leo
March 13, 2006 12:05 PM

It depends on the imaging software you're using and what you're attempting to do.

Buck
April 13, 2006 2:47 PM

I have a WIN 2000 machine with a hard drive that is starting to make a lot of noise at start-up - probably on the way to failing. I like the way the computer is setup now. I would like to install a new, 2nd hard drive, in the slave position and create an image of the old hard drive onto the new drive, using a disk imaging program. Then just replace the old one with the new one. Would this work?

Thanks,
Buck

BTW - I once heard Steve Gibson, of Gibson Research, recommend Drive Snapshot (at www.drivesnapshot.de) over Ghost. Has anyone ever used it? It does have a 30 day trial period before you have to buy it. It then looks like it would cost EUR 39, which I think is about $48. It looks like it runs while Windows is running, too.

jereme
August 17, 2006 7:40 AM

how do u know if your harddrive is failing??
mine makes a gringing noise sometimes, but i dont know if that is normal. Yes, i reformat, and reinstall windows alot. could that have something to do with it?

i have a usb pendrive 256 MB, and i use winrar, for maual backup. i only backup some, cause all wont fit and i dont need all anyway.

thanks in advance for the answers, or comments.

To leo, and/or commentors.

james
September 18, 2006 5:12 PM

i had a "bad" hard drive. found out the ciruit board was bad. replaced it. i cant see files on my drive. imaged onto a new drive in dos. how can i "see" my dos images, and restore them to my computer?

thanks in advance

francis
August 18, 2007 9:53 PM

the answer on this page doesn't match with the title "how do i image a hard drive". Appreciate if you can provide step by step with pictures on how to do image a hard drive

gblaze
November 10, 2007 11:13 AM

Dear Francis,

Hey man I just want it to tell you that there is not an specific step on how to image your hard drive. As Ilyas said, "they(YOU!) need imaging software once they (YOU!) find that software simply run the software and flow the instructions."

Thank You

Tracy
January 21, 2008 11:20 AM

A disappointing answer. I need to image a hard drive. Your answer tells me nothing about how to do it, it just tries to convince me not to. There are many reasons why one might need to image a hard drive, not everyone has the same situation as you. I am not even dealing with my own computer, why would I buy software for someone elses? xxcopy is a great free utility, as long as you feel comfortable typing in a couple of codes in the command window.

sam
June 27, 2008 10:53 AM

I have a laptop with a lost user account password. Hence i can't use it. is there any way of creating an image of the current hard drive data, before reinstalling the OS?

Leo
July 3, 2008 2:19 PM

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I'd start by recovering the password and logging in:
http://ask-leo.com/ive_lost_the_password_to_my_windows_administrator_account_how_do_i_get_it_back.html

Leo


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Chris
March 7, 2009 9:51 AM

First I agree with the previous poster the title of this article is wrong, this is not a "How do I" article it is a "Why I don't" article.

Second:

Most of us purchase computers with the OS already installed and loaded with all kinds of worthless OEM junk from the manufacturer (AOL, junky games, crappy maintenance programs, etc.) then pop in our programs of choice (Office, photoshop, various plugins for browsers...) Reinstalling the OEM OS from scratch and redoing all that can take hours of time sitting in front of the screen and cannot be automated.

But, If I make an image immediately after I have the system in a usable condition I can restore my computer to exactly where I want it in about less than an hour and it is completely automated except for Windows Updates and restoring the data files.

I can't disagree with this article more.

anonymous
March 12, 2009 3:51 PM

Hi Leo,

Great advice but, I don't know if you realised. But you didn't actually answer the question "How do I "image" a hard drive?" Apart from saying you need a disk imaging utility. There is always a good reason for making a back-up image of your hard drive. Reasons and situations for each individual are many. For instance if your computer crashes beyond repair, then an imaged copy of your hard drive which is a couple of months old is more welcome than no back-up at all.
Data that changes and is added should be backed-up regularly in another form anyway. But losing settings, drivers etc is much more frustrating when having to reinstall everything.
Hope you can use this view and add it to your own future advices. All the best!

Sorry, I know this a late response from an old comment.

Daniel
July 9, 2009 7:56 AM

I have found it much easier to create an image of a partition on my hard drive that has the OS and all the programs I use, and keep my document files in another partition. I used to re-install windows and all my programs, but that took all day. Restoring the image to the hard drive takes 30 minutes, Big difference!

Rajeev
August 17, 2009 7:06 PM

Could I ask some basics on mirror image. Does a mirror image mean that even your windows and its latest updates are stored/backed up or only the documents/files/settings. And am I right in saying that the backup in Win XP only backs up documents and settings and not the Windows OS and updates. Please advise. This issue has been troubling me for a long time.

An image backup is everything. It's an image of your entire hard drive, so that would included everything from OS to updates to temp files to data files. Various backup programs backup different things - honestly not sure about Windows Backup, since I don't recommend it. I believe the current incarnation backs up only data files, but that the Windows 7 version has been improved.
Leo
18-Aug-2009

Jonny Quick
October 6, 2009 10:17 AM

What a crappy article ? How stupid ! I expect more from a computer guru. The title of the article is "How to image a hard drive", not "A bunch of reasons why I don't think imaging your hard drive is a good idea".

Again, extremely poor work. I expect better. I'd like the value of the time I wasted reading this sub-standard and misleading article, as well as the value of the time it has taken me to write this post.

alexis
December 7, 2009 11:55 AM

Here's a protip:

Please dont give your articles headers like "How do I Image a hard drive", because engines like Google cache the data, and then random Joe surfer like me comes looking for a tutorial, and all I get is some worthless article on how you feel about backup methodology.

I know what a hard drive image is, thats why I'm trying to find out how to make one. Fix your blog, thanks.

Leo
December 29, 2009 9:33 AM
I'm closing comments on this article because apparently people just want to tell me how badly I suck.

I get the point.

This series of articles shows how to create an image using Acronis TrueImage: How to Backup. Many, MANY backup programs actually create images. Acronis will allow you to choose data-only, or sector-by-sector, should you want to.

Another tool that I have some confidence in is DriveImage XML
Leo
29-Dec-2009

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