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How Do I Back Up Multiple Partitions?

Question: I’m backing up a multi-partitioned hard drive. When making the image backup, can I make one of all of the partitions in one image or do I need to make multiple images? To restore the backup on a new drive, do I use the image disk to boot up my computer and copy everything to a new blank unpartitioned hard drive? Is it that simple? Or do I need to install other significant things like Windows or drivers and so forth? I really don’t know. I’ve been told that if I clone my hard drive with Windows XP and if I need to replace my machine, the cloned drive will not work. If I clone with Windows 7 and on a cloned hard drive, it will work on a new machine. Is this true?

We’ve got several really good fundamental and common questions about backup.

Let’s look at each.

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Making an image backup of multiple partitions

How you deal with multiple partitions at backup time depends on the backup software that you are using. Fortunately most, like Macrium Reflect, allow you to backup multiple partitions into a single backup image file.

That doesn’t mean that you have to backup all of the partitions into a single file. You still can, of course, choose to backup one partition and place that into a single backup image file.

Stack of hard drivesMacrium, as an example, uses .mrimg files as their backup storage format. These files contain images of all of the partitions that you select at the time that you backup. But ultimately, it’s your choice of whether you want that image to include one or more of the partitions on your machine.

Restoring images

When you restore a backed up image, you don’t boot from the actual backup image itself. What you do once again depends on the specific backup software that you are using, but most have you create rescue media. This is the backup program itself placed on some kind of media, like a CD or DVD, that you can then use to boot.

For instance, Macrium Reflect has you create rescue media before you need it. It’s simply a CD that you then keep in a safe place. When you want to restore a backup image to your machine, you boot from that CD, which fires up a copy of Macrium Reflect that you’ll use to restore.

If you’re actually restoring a full system image there’s nothing to reinstall. Remember, a full system image includes everything that’s on your machine – Windows, your applications, your data… everything. That’s why I like basing backup strategies on using them.

Cloning your hard disk and then replacing your machine

This is where things get tricky. First of all, realize that backups aren’t really intended to give you the ability to swap out your entire machine. Backups are about saving the data on your existing machine from hardware failure and other forms of data loss.

When you create a backup, you’re backing up all of Windows and the drivers as configured for the specific hardware that’s on the original machine. When you replace the entire machine, all of the hardware is different … yet your backed-up image of Windows has all of the drivers and settings for the old hardware.

When switching to a new machine for the best results I strongly recommend reinstalling Windows and all your software.

The backup image is still incredibly valuable for saving your data and whatever else you didn’t realize to backup. But a backup image is typically not a way to restore your world to a new machine.

Now, with that being said there are additional steps that some backup programs provide, and some utilities that might make a migration and restoration to completely new hardware possible. It’s possible that, yes, maybe you can shoehorn this scenario into working, and yes it may be a little easier with Windows 7 and Windows 8.

But again, for the best, most stable results, it’s still not something that I recommend.

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10 comments on “How Do I Back Up Multiple Partitions?”

  1. Thank you for clearing that up for me with a fantastic in-depth explanation. Naturally, one explanation leads to other questions.
    1. In the scenerio above, if I change machines and do as you say as reinstalling Windows (and partitions?), how and when do I the backup image to transfer my applications and data to the new install?
    2. You mentioned the transistion would be easier with Windows 7. I was told that Windows 7 would accept the previous parameter setups and make the the corrections seamlessly. Can I assume what I was told was in error?
    That’s all, Folks. Thanks again for all your help.

    • Frank,
      When you change your machine, you would reinstall Windows from Windows installation media (CD/DVD). You would then have to install your backup program so that you could access your data files contained in your image backup. Applications would also be reinstalled from original installation media (CD/DVD/download). Whether you reinstall your applications and then copy the data from the backup or vice versa, it’s your choice.

      If you try to restore your applications from your image backup, it’s jut not going to work, unless you are restoring the whole image (Windows and all), which you are not going to do if you’ve changed your hardware.

    • 1. you don’t use the backup image to transfer applications to a new machine. Applications should be reinstalled from scratch when moving to a new machine. As for your data, good backup programs will let you recover individual files and folders from a backup image, so you’ll have to check that program’s documentation.

      2. Windows 7 does a better job than before, but it’s not perfect.

  2. Hi Leo,
    I have 2 partitions on a hard drive I want to backup (image), one holds Windows 7 and the other Ubuntu Linux. Does Macrium Reflect recognize Linux file systems (ext3)? I’ve found nothing on the web site. I’m also looking at EaseUS which does not recognize Linux and does the backup/restore sector by sector.

    • Macrium or any good backup program doesn’t recognize any operation system on your drive, neither does it have to. It simply copies everything from the drive to the backup, so in the case you describe, there shouldn’t be any problem.

      • Thanks Mark,
        But it does seem to me that if the backup program recognizes the file system, it will be able to take advantage of this to ignore sectors which have been marked bad or are empty. This would clearly effect the size of the backup, and perhaps the speed.

  3. My main hard drive has three partitions currently: C for OS and program files; a small system partition with no drive letter; and F for a virtual machine. I use EaseUs Todo to make daily backups of C and the system partition, and a monthly backup of F to a different external drive.

    Recently, I had to restore C from one of the backups after an update went awry. The recovery process was a breeze with EaseUs, but I’m not sure how to explain what happened next. While the partition layout was preserved (C, the system partition, and F), the F partition was empty and had to be restored separately from its own backup afterwards.

    I’ve had this happen before when using EaseUs to selectively recover partitions to a drive that has multiple partitions. Why is that? Hope that makes sense.

    • I’ve found that the best way to back up a system drive is to back up all the partitions on that drive all together. when I did otherwise, it was a mess. The time and space saved by not backing up everything is insignificant, especially compared to the time lost by doing otherwise.

      • Good point. The partition for the virtual machine changes so little from month to month that folding it into the daily system drive backup wouldn’t be a big deal. Thanks for the idea!


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