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Sectors can go bad on hard drives, but that should have no impact on your ability to restore a successfully created backup image to another hard drive.

Hi, Leo. This hasn't happened yet, but my desktop is five years old so it could. I'm talking about bad sectors on the hard disk. Reading your columns, I know that you can use CHKDSK to find and mark bad sectors, however, I believe anything on that bad sector has been lost or at least corrupted. Can you now use your full backup from Acronis for example to restore your system? Will it skip the bad spots and put the data in good areas? Even if that was not the area where the backup was created from?

In this excerpt from Answercast #65, I look at the way backup images are formed and how they can potentially restore data from bad sectors.

Restoring from an image


One of the reasons that the term "image backup" is confusing to people is that there are, in fact, two types of image backups.

Complete sector-by-sector image

One type (and this is not the type that we typically do) actually copies, sector by sector, every sector on the hard drive - whether it's used or not. That creates a complete "image" of the hard drive; of all the data on the hard drive and whatever was also in all of the free sectors; all of the unused portions of the hard drive.

That could potentially (when restored) have some difficulty restoring to a sector that it had been able to read from when making the backup and now could not write to when restoring the backup.

But, as I said, that's not the kind of backup we typically make.

Files and folders image

If you're using Acronis, if you're using Macrium Reflect, if you're using any number of different backup tools, an "image" is actually an image of all of the files and folders on the disk, regardless of where they're laid out. In a way, its kind of like a "super copy" of all of the files and folders.

It's very close to using something like XCOPY to copy all of the files and folders. It's not... and XCOPY is not a suitable replacement for a backup; I want to be clear about that. It's not a suitable replacement for an image copy because there's more going on.

But, the concept is that what gets stored in the backup image is the files and folders that were on your machine; not where they were on the disk they came from, where physically on the disk they came from.

The information about what sectors they were located in isn't part of that kind of a backup.

What that means is:

  • The backup is a lot smaller because it's not backing up the unused space; it's only backing up things that actually have information.

  • When it comes time to restore that image, it can restore to pretty much anywhere on the disk it needs to.

That's one of the reasons that an image backup of this kind is so commonly used when you're changing the size of your hard disk; because that way, not only are the sectors all rearranged a little bit differently (or potentially rearranged a little bit differently), it's a completely different sized hard disk. The image can still be restored to that drive even though it may have completely different physically characteristics.

So, I don't think there's anything to be concerned here.

When sectors go bad

If you do end up with a bad sector, you may end up at some point with a backup failing. In other words, the creation of a backup potentially failing because the backup software was unable to read a sector. Some backup software will fail at that point; some will continue and simply notify you; but the point is that that's the point at which you might first detect something having gone wrong.

But, that should have no impact on your ability to restore a backup image that was successfully created to another hard drive or even to that same hard drive if a sector is eventually marked as bad and no longer used.

Article C5968 - October 29, 2012 « »

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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.

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