Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Reflections on Disk Imaging Software
by Alan German

As OPCUG members will know, I'm a real fan of disk imaging software for backup purposes. I have had many successes with such programs, but I have also had my share of heartaches. In particular, I found that I really couldn't get along with the user interface in the most recent incarnation of Acronis True Image Home 2011 (http://www.opcug.ca/public/Reviews/TrueImage2011.htm). Consequently, I set my sights on finding (a) a suitable replacement, and (b) preferably one which could be categorized as free and/or open-source software.

My first foray, with HDClone 4 (
http://www.opcug.ca/public/Reviews/HDClone4.htm), was pretty much a disaster. The free version of this program proved to be severely crippled and essentially useless. Then I tried Paragon Backup & Recovery 2011 (http://www.paragon-software.com/home/br-free/) which worked well in terms of backup, but the rescue disk had difficulty finding the resulting image on my external USB drive when it came time to test the recovery function in earnest.

Finally, I came across the free edition of Macrium Reflect (
http://www.macrium.com/reflectfree.asp) which seems to do everything that I want. As with many such programs, the basic operations of backup and recovery are handled by means of wizards that make it very easy to run either process. But, Macrium Reflect also has a couple of unusual tricks up its sleeve that make it worthy of consideration for prime time use.

The main task any disk imaging program has to accomplish is to backup a hard drive and Macrium Reflect makes this process exceptionally easy. In the left column of the main screen is a list of frequently used tasks. The first item on this list is “Create a backup image of an entire disk or selected partition(s)”. Clicking on this item brings up a wizard that guides you effortlessly through the process. Firstly, using a series of check boxes, you select a disk or partition that is to be imaged. Next, the location for the stored image is selected. This may be a local hard disk (accessed through a drop-down menu), a network drive, a CD or DVD. By default, the program assigns a name to the image based on the partition ID; however, this is easy to override. Choosing a file name such as d_datadrive_07jun11 results in a file actually named d_datadrive_07jun11-00-00.mring (or a series of such files - 01, 02, etc. - depending on the storage medium).

The penultimate screen of the wizard provides summary information related to the specified task. An “Advanced” option let's you further customize the backup by specifying the degree of file compression, the component file size, and allowing text entry into a comment field. By default, the backup process uses “intelligent sector copying” so that, for example, the page file and any hibernation file are not copied to the image in order to save space. This can be overridden by specifying that a clone of the disk should be made.

The final options in the backup process are to run the task immediately or to save the backup instructions as an XML backup definitions file. This latter option is one of the neat features of Macrium Reflect. It effectively provides a mechanism for running the backup at a later time or, by tweaking the XML file, running a similar task.

For example, storing my initial backup set produces the XML tag: <file_name>d_datadrive_07jun11 </file_name>. Clearly, editing the file and changing the date in this tag would allow me to run a backup on my data drive using my standard set of backup instructions but with a customized date being included in the image file name. Stored XML definition files are available through a tab on the main screen. Selecting a given file activates a menu of icons that include options to run the file immediately, edit the file, or schedule when it should be run (e.g. daily, weekly, specified date/time).

The second major tab in the list of tasks provides access to the restore options. The basic image restoration process is more or less the reverse of the backup procedure. Once again, a wizard allows the selection of items such as the image and partition to be restored, the location to which the image is to be recovered, options for the partition type (active, primary or logical), if the image should be verified before recovery is attempted, and whether or not the master boot record for the disk should be restored.

A second option on the restore tab allows browsing through the files and folders in a disk image using Windows Explorer. Selecting a partition within a stored disk image mounts the partition in read-only mode and assigns a drive letter. The virtual disk is then available in Windows Explorer and individual files or folders may be retrieved from the image.

The final option in the list of tasks is “Other Tasks”. These include checking the integrity of a disk option, creating a rescue disk (CD), and editing the program's configuration file in order to change the defaults.

The means of creating rescue disks is yet another of the interesting features of Macrium Select. By default, the system will create a Linux-based bootable CD. This worked fine with the Western Digital external USB drive that I typically use to store my disk images. However, sometimes Linux rescue disks have difficulties with external USB drives and cannot be used to retrieve stored images directly. In such cases, and for users of Windows XP and Server 2003, Macrium Reflect provides a second option. The program will create a rescue disk, using Bart PE (
http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/), in the form of a Bart Preinstalled Environment bootable Windows CD-ROM. A Macrium Reflect PE-builder plug-in is included on the rescue disk such that booting the CD, uses XP's system files and drivers, together with the Macrium Reflect software, to run the restore process. Effectively, the CD boots into a lightweight version of XP, and Macrium Reflect operates in the Windows' environment. And, external USB drives seem generally happy to perform under such conditions.

So, Macrium Reflect has all of the basic functionality to create and restore backup images of entire hard drives or of individual disk partitions. The software includes an excellent help file, with clear text and images describing all of the program's operations.

Now, the program once installed may work just fine, but getting it installed can be a bit of a problem. That was certainly my experience in Vista. [This is a problem with good old Windows Vista - a subsequent installation under Windows 7 went without a hitch.] Firstly, it should be noted that when downloading the free edition of the software, the user is re-directed to CNet's web site. The downloaded package appears to install normally and creates an icon on the desktop. But, when the program is run from this icon, it doesn't just load, it goes into a Windows configuration mode and, in my case, stalled with a “Fatal error during installation” message.

Checking on this error for Macrium Reflect determined that the program must be run as an administrator, but there was no “Run as administrator” option in the right-click context menu. I tracked down a Windows support item (
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/922708) that detailed a workaround for this issue. The trick is to open the folder that contains the installed program file and right click on this file to bring up the run-as-administrator option. The Windows configuration process now runs, using a built-in license key, and finally Macrium Reflect is launched.

To set up the program so that it automatically runs in administrator mode, you right-click on the program's icon, click on Properties, the Compatibility tab, “Show settings for all users”, and check the box marked “Run this program as an administrator”. Note that on exiting the compatibility tab, “Run this program as an administrator” is no longer checked; however, the program does actually run in this mode. Very bizarre, but it works!

Macrium Reflect clearly has some issues in terms of installation under Vista but, once it is properly installed, it is exceptionally easy to use and offers very flexible backup, restore and image browsing capabilities. The full edition of the software (US $39.99) adds many features, including incremental and differential backups, encryption, and technical support. But, if you can live with basic backup and recovery options, Macrium Reflect Free Edition may be just what you need.


Bottom Line:

Macrium Reflect Free Edition
Version 4.2.3584
Macrium Software
http://www.macrium.com/reflectfree.asp

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Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

The opinions expressed in these reviews do not necessarily
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