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How do I "image" a hard drive?

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.

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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

“… 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

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
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.

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20 comments on “How do I "image" a hard drive?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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?


    BTW – I once heard Steve Gibson, of Gibson Research, recommend Drive Snapshot (at 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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.


    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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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.


  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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


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