Acronis True Image Home 2009

PC Backup and Recovery
 (Four Stars)

This is not a full review of the Acronis True Image Home 2009 backup product. Nonetheless, the effort that went into its development is obvious and impressive. The GUI makes no asssumptions about the user’s experience level, but don’t let that fool you into believing the product is watered down or underpowered.

The backbone of Acronis functionality is the disk image.

Straight out, I’ll tell you I used to prefer the more straightforward “file copy” approach, but I’ve changed my mind. The downside is also the upside. The disk image does perform a middleman function:  in or out, everything is done through the intermediary of the disk image, which must be created to do your backup, which in turn must be accessed and reprocessed byte by byte to produce your recovered data. You can still view the contents of a disk image all the way down to the individual file level.

Restore panel from Acronis True Image

Restore panel from Acronis True Image

“File copy” is indeed easier and arguably faster (only because there is no intermediate step in a file copy). The “upside” of disk images: for copying systems disks, Windows users can testify there are certain hazards inherent in allowing Windows to see two bootable copies of the same operating system – not least of which is that the OS and its “Genuine Advantage” copy-protection detection systems may go ballistic, rendering the drive inoperable.

It’s safer to always copy a system or system disk to a disk image for this reason. From a protected partition, it can be faster, too. Acronis supports a variety of backup protocols, including full, incremental and differential. You can schedule backups, or create and run manually on demand. Although I only back up to  hard drives, you can also back up to USB drives or CD.

If you’ve bought the Acronis off-the-shelf retail box, the included CD is bootable, so you already have an emergency boot disk and do not have to create one. (I strongly recommend creating a boot partition anyway, even if you have to install another drive to do it). However, the boot CD should suffice.

If you downloaded the product, or want to create your own boot CD anyway, the software supports creating your own boot CD.

But what if your system has just crashed, you’re having a hissy fit, and can’t find or don’t want to hunt around for your boot CD? The best part, for me, is that you can create a boot partition out of free space on any available hard drive. On startup, just boot into it with the F11 key. A nearly indistinguishable replica of the Windows environment software mounts up. You perform your backup or restore from there. This is more powerful than it looks. It is not a crude quasi-DOS GUI like some products.  People who only feel comfortable in Windows will feel comfortable in this partition. It’s clean, and works fast and flawlessly.

The boot partition needs to be BIG for volume backups. The image cache is built here before the final disk image is created to another location. Normal compression is 0.5, and you must allow about 1.5 times that maximum size for the partition. To back up 300GB of data in a single operation, 300/2*1.5=225GB. I just used the 250GB old C drive for my new boot partition. (Today, adding a new SATA drive is no big deal).

Of course, if you’re restoring your system drive, you can’t run Acronis under a broken Windows anyway, so this boot partition is indispendable — and it couldn’t be any more seamless or bulletproof. Even if you have 300GB or so of free space on some drive right now, there’s no guarantee you’ll still have that much when you actually need it. “Best to prepare in advance”, says the man who wasn’t prepared.

It would seem that with today’s big hard drives, lots of us would have the spare 300GB or so of free space. Why install the boot partition on another drive?

A single-drive compromise would work somewhat for a system volume recovery.  (Read-writes on two partitions on the same drive will be slower than between two different drives). Most important, a single-drive solution wouldn’t help at all if the drive failed.

A big benefit benefit of the boot partition is that you can back up your system disk (or any other disk, partition or folder) without any risk of software interruptions from the system or other running background applications. There is nothing worse than getting a Skype call or an app’s invitation to check for updates while you’re running a backup – this sort of service interruption can be a showstopper.

With no startup software overhead in memory or CPU, my backups ran almost 50% faster than under Windows.

This saga all began when I swapped out a CPU cooler, only to discover I had to remove the motherboard to install a backplate. When finished, I started up and got the dreaded PLEASE INSERT A SYSTEM DISK error in DOS – for some reason my C drive would no longer boot. There was never anything wrong with the drive, and I’m using it now as the boot partition. The problem might have been the Master Boot Record, but I couldn’t find my notes on that without booting up. I foolishly tried the XP System Repair from the XP installer disk, and it blew up in the middle of the repair looking for a driver neither it nor I could locate, leaving the system trashed.

I love XP, whereas I battle constantly with Vista on a laptop, but the XP disk installer software is almost as poorly designed as Windows 98’s.

Naturally, I had no current system backup. Oh yes, I used to do that with my DataPort cartridges and Norton Ghost, but the cartridges changed with SATA, so did Ghost 2003, and so did my “backup system”.

Reasoning correctly that I still had all my old C drive data, settings and prefs, but just had a bad OS, I formatted a new spare HD and installed Win XP and all my apps new from scratch, and did all the updates. I was able to copy a lot of settings and files from the old drive. It still took two days to reinstall everything, but I ended up with a brand new system and ALL my files.

If that doesn’t convince us of the importance of full drive backups, what would? It gets better …

Using my old Norton Ghost 2003 floppies, I decided on  an immediate volume backup of my C Drive, for security. For SOURCE, I carefully selected the C drive. For DESTINATION I carefully selected the old drive renamed CBACKUP. Ghost has always been terrible about giving you enough info to positively ID a drive, so I checked my settings three times, and then clicked the BEGIN button.

Two hours 9 minutes later, I found myself booting into a copy of the old, broken Windows. It sank in: all my work of the past two days was destroyed … Ghost had inexpicably copied in the wrong direction!!!

I lost two days of mail and downloads too. I’d thought of backing that up, but why would you do a backup before you do a backup?

A friend said, “you must have been awfully pissed.” It went so far beyond “pissed” that anger and disappointment became irrelevant. I just got back into the saddle and started all over.

The next morning I went to Fry’s and bought a Samsung 1 terabyte hard drive ($74.99) and a retail box of the Acronics True Image backup program ($49.99). That was $20 cheaper than Ghost 14. I assume Symantec has cleaned up their interface, but I don’t care to find out.

I installed the new 1TB SATA drive in my DataPort cartridge. I can lock that up when away, or I can even take it with me. There’s no longer any risk of leaving it mounted day to day, since Windows will only see the disk images, not a rival bootable OS.

I am VERY happy to have the Acronis product. The PDF documentation is excellent. I feel that just having the boot partition is worth the price alone. I plan to schedule recurring backups weekly or better.

There is a learning curve, but, thanks to the excellent documentation and interface design, the curve is not very steep. It’s no longer a trivial matter to install a new OS and all the apps and configure everything again. A little learning curve is well worth it. Since Acronis is very cool, it’s worth reading the documentation and keeping the PDF reader file handy for reference.

I DO still faithfully back up all my personal files to a 150GB portable notebook drive in a travel case – and always have. I will certainly continue with my SuperFlexible File Synchronizer file copy backups for my personal and travel synch files.

To make things even easier for me, both Acronis and Superflexible allow scheduling of automatic incremental backups (updating or adding only those files that have changed). I had already started scheduling personal files backups, and will now do the same for volume backups.

Disk and file size stats get bigger every year – my current Windows folder is 5.32GB alone, some 120 times the size of the entire hard drive on my first 40MB Mac Classic. System Mechanic told me I had 1.36GB of clutter in my new system, and that installation is only two days old. But drive storage, only $75 a terabyte at Fry’s, has become unbelievably cheap. Backups of this size still take time: I am getting about 35-45 minute times per 100GB out of Acronis backups in the protected non-Windows partition. For these large volume backups (100-400GB), running Acronis without booting into Windows is the ONLY way to fly.

I did a test restore to ensure I can actually do a full volume restore, or incrementally restore just a few files or folders. This too went flawlessly.

You can also mount a volume archive on a spare partition, meaning you could read and copy individual physical files, but the archive has to be a full volume, not an incremental backup.

Acronis True Image earns Summitlake’s four-star award. For its bug-free coding, rich feature set and performance as advertised, this product would certainly merit five stars. I personally am not a fan of the increasingly popular “What Would You Like to Do?” start panels: I don’t care to click a button in order to see what functionality will become available. I would have prefered an “Advanced” panel option where I don’t have to hunt for the command set I need. But many Windows users will disagree. In two days of usage I’m quite familiar with the design layout, so this is only a personal perspective, and it is the only design aspect I found any issue with.

At this point I can recommend the Acronis product without reservation.

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