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What Good Is an Image If I Can’t Restore an Old Backup to a New Computer?

I’m good little backup-er. I follow all of your instructions and happily use Macrium for regular image and file folder backups. Recently, the video system on my aging PC died and I decided to buy a new PC. I thought I could easily restore the image backup to my new PC, thereby saving me hours of reinstalling my software. But no, I can only restore an image to the same sort of hard disk on the same PC. What a waste! Surely most people will want to replace their whole PC when they have a failure that requires them to think about restoring an image. How many people, and in what circumstances, find an image backup has been a lifesaver?

I understand your frustration, but restoring an old backup to a new machine is not what image backups are for.

And to be really honest, it’s not why you back up.

An image backup includes the detailed settings and configuration information for the specific hardware being backed up. When restored to a new/different machine, those settings no longer apply. The backup can still be useful, but not for what you’re trying to do.

So, when is an image backup useful? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.

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Image backups are invaluable if a hard disk fails or when malware strikes, allowing you to recover from disaster. They can be useful if you need to restore specific files that have been lost or move files to that new machine. Restoring an old image backup to a new computer, however, is not what those backups are for.

When your hard disk fails

External Backup Drive If your hard disk fails, you don’t need to replace your entire computer. Just get a replacement hard drive (perhaps a bigger one, to increase the capacity while you’re at it) and swap out the old drive for the new.

That’s a perfect scenario for an image backup.

Your image backup software can then restore the image you took to the new hard disk, and everything will work as before the failure.

When malware strikes

I have encountered some seriously infected machines. You can try to disinfect and remove malware, but once you’re infected, you’ve basically lost control of your machine. You may have clean scans, but you never really know all the malware is gone — unless you restore to a backup image taken prior to the infection.

This is one of the more common uses for image backups.

There’s nothing as reassuring as being able to say, “Oh, well, darn, my machine’s been infected! I’ll just restore to last night’s backup,” and poof, the machine is clean.

When you want to copy or restore some files

You don’t need to restore the entire image. You can pick and choose files, folders, and whatnot from an image to restore to your machine or copy to a new one.

The reason images are so wonderful is because they contain everything. You don’t have to rely on figuring out what needs to be backed up beforehand, so there’s no worrying that you may have missed something.

If I delete a file today that I later find out I needed to keep, I can go to the image backup I took last night and simply restore the file. Similarly, when you’re moving from machine to machine, using your image backup as a way to transfer your data files is a perfectly reasonable approach to getting them to your new machine.

When you move from one machine to the other

It is sometimes physically possible to do what you ask: you can restore an image to a different machine, reboot, and hope it works. Windows will do its best to reconfigure itself on the fly to what it sees as a massive hardware change.

It usually doesn’t work. Often your machine will not boot, or will run with many, many problems quickly becoming apparent. Even if it appears things are running smoothly, you simply have no confidence that there’s not an incomplete change or other configuration problem lurking somewhere to cause you grief when you least expect it.

Some backup programs attempt to address this issue: they can try to reconfigure an image taken from one machine and “restore” it to new hardware. Macrium Reflect includes this feature, called “ReDeploy”, in their Professional version. I have used it at least once1, and  it did “OK” — there remained a few issues, but it served my needs at the time.

Image backups are incredibly valuable and useful for many different scenarios. But their primary purpose is not transferring to new machines; it’s backing up your existing one.

When you move to a new machine, the best solution — for many, many different reasons — is a fresh start with a clean install.

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Footnotes & References

1: I restored a friend’s Windows Vista installation to a virtual machine so as to be able to refer to it later, after upgrading their machine to Windows 10.

35 comments on “What Good Is an Image If I Can’t Restore an Old Backup to a New Computer?”

  1. So what is your process to move from an old computer to a new? Reinstall everything? I run backups – I use Macrium. Copying data from old to new is not that hard. My issue is with all the programs – I have custom settings (Excel 2010 ribbon as example). Sure would like to know how to move all these software settings without having to completely start over.

    Reply
    • Leo’s recommendation is to install the OS and the programs from scratch, but he does mention some exceptions in this article. Can I restore the complete backup of one computer onto another and have it work?
      I’ve gotten it to work by restoring a system image onto a new computer and then installing the needed drivers and uninstalling the ones I didn’t need. It was quite a bit of work, and you have to be pretty computer savvy to do it. And I don’t recommend restoring a Windows XP installation to a new machine for a few reasons. Some include: XP will no longer be supported in about 10 months. You probably won’t find XP drivers for the devices in your new machine.

      Reply
    • Personally, I start over from scratch every time. Yes, I lose all the customizations that I might have made on the old machine, and as a result I find myself customizing less and less as the years (and systems) go by. I honestly believe that a clean reinstall of everything (or rather, everything that you still use) is most appropriate for a new machine – it’s the best way to get rid of all the cruft that accumulates over time. There are applications that claim to move programs and settings, but I have no direct experience with any of them.

      Reply
  2. I have found the best way to backup a harddrive is, install 2 removable harddrives
    And use your choice of backup software.
    Copy one drive to the other, your backup drive, and then disconnect the backup drive.
    Usually just the turn of a key on the tray holding your backup drive will disable it
    until next backup.
    Then if you have to buy another computer just install it as a second drive after you
    install windows again at least you can use the files on the backup.
    Just install the programs as necessary to read them.
    Saves a lot of time installing everything.

    Reply
  3. I will never understand using image backups for the reasons shown in this article. It’s very difficult to use the image while transferring to a new machine. There are any number of backup programs that use a file by file total backup, and is bootable. Casper is just one, but the one I chose. I can boot to the second drive or ext drive to ensure the backup worked. How do you test an image backup?

    Upon HD failure, I simply replace it, boot to the backup, and then copy back to the new drive.

    Upon a total computer failure, I install the backup as an ext to the new computer, and boot to it. I quickly see all the driver problems but can fix them. If things go badly, I can always boot to the new HD in the new computer.

    I see no advantages of an image backup over a complete file by file bootable backup.

    Reply
  4. Even restoring on the same computer isn’t easy for those of us not so computer literate. I re-configured mine manually after a repair, and then got the files back from an online backup and flash drives. I might try Macrium Reflect again sometime, but it was quite disheartening to fail just when I thought I could rely on the numerous backups I’d made.

    Reply
      • Thought I could just put the recovery disk into the computer after it crashed, but the computer was not able to read anything until I got a technician to reinstall Windows 7. Then I couldn’t figure how to get the newly repaired computer to “see” the Macrium Reflect backed-up info on my external hard drive.

        Reply
  5. I do a Windows 7 image backup about once a month and a backup of my documents weekly. Recently, I did the monthly Windows updates and renewed my Norton AntiVirus program, with an upgrade to the new version. I had a problem with Norton AntiVirus scheduled scans and contacted Symantec support. A couple of days later when I did my regular Windows 7 image backup it took 3.5 hours instead of the normal 1.5 hours. I re-installed my computer from my last image backup, did all the updates again and did a new Windows 7 image backup, which went correctly. I don’t know whether the original Norton upgrade, contacting Symantec support, or the first Windows updates caused the problem. But I am glad I had a image backup to fall back on.

    Reply
  6. I use EaseUS backup program (free) and it has saved me in a number of occasion. This application can also backup applications like Microsoft Office, Adbobe Acrobat, etc. I am quite happy with this software. Having said this I am a computer novice, not an expert.

    Reply
  7. I have an old HP Vista computer which has been infected and “fixed” many times. It works but has glitches that I suspect are due to damaged windows files which were damaged during the fixes of the virus and malware problems . Would making an image of the drive and saving it to a hard drive, then wiping and reinstalling Vista before restoring the image be of any used in bringing this computer back to it’s full potential?

    Reply
    • That would be a good way to go – but only to use the image file as data recovery after you fully wipe the hard drive and reinstall Vista. The reason a full image would be useful is because it’s difficult to do a thorough backup of data only. It’s easy to think that you have everything, and then later find you missed something critical like an Outlook pst file. So yes. That would be the safest way to go.

      Reply
    • From an actual copy machine? No. If it was a scanner that first scanned and saved the files somewhere, then possibly.

      Reply
    • Maybe. Photocopy machines have hard drives capable of holding large numbers of documents. So unless the machine automatically wipes the files after the job is finished (some do) or the file hasn’t been overwritten it may still be available. A data recovery company might be able to get it back. As every manufacturer is different, you’d have to contact the manufacturer to find out.

      Reply
  8. I’m probably missing something in this thread but have been trying to find a reason to switch from “old reliable” CLONEZILLA, so I’ve been searching high and low for an answer to this exact sort of question. I think that most folks are dancing around the issue here. Say for instance I’m on the road, far from home and my main laptop hard drive fails. I have a backup on an external hard drive or usb thumb drive that I made with, oh say macrium or EaseUS or some other high powered backup / cloning software. I stop by a local staples and buy a hard drive replacement and a small screwdriver and replace the hard faulty drive. Now since my old operating system is ded, then how do I go about restoring the wonderful backup that I’ve created when my laptop was working. In other words the PC with the software to restore the backup is no longer functional unless I restore the backup which I can’t do without the program that is backed up and is on the failed hard drive, etc… I hope I getting through here. I mean how do I go about restoring the backup if the system is crashed?? I know there is probably a simple solution that I’m overlooking, but with clonezilla I just boot off of the external hard drive that has the backup on it or a separate thumb drive and do the restore with the copy of conezilla that I had set up previously… So how does that work, if I have no computer with which to do the restore with?

    Reply
    • That’s what the rescue disks are for. They are standalone bootable CD’s or USB flash drives which boot directly into the backup program either under Windows PE or Linux depending on which you prefer. With that, you can restore from your backup. If for some reason you don’t have the bootable rescue media, you can burn it on another computer which doesn’t even have to be a Windows computer.

      Reply
    • You boot the machine with the empty hard drive with the “emergency disk” you created using the backup software you used. That then allows you to restore the backup image to the replacement hard drive. The emergency disk can be created on a different machine at the last minute if you don’t have one ready.

      Reply
  9. My Lenovo laptop, crashed after or during creating an Image Backup using Acronis 2020. It wont boot by any means. another problem, as it has a hinge failure before (hardware) the repair shop replaced the full bottom of the laptop and gave me the old one that has the windows information..etc. It is about 4 or slightly more years old. But I really depended a lot on it, for some of my personal business.
    My question is now, if I get it repaired again, will I have to “revalidate” Windows-10?
    If I buy a new Lenovo machine, (all new ones have SSD hard drives, not the “regular” old ones., if I copy the existing software of the old machine, i.e. their Windows portion of thr available Image, will it work? Trying to get the old software again, may be a challenge!!.

    Reply
  10. When my old laptop’s hard drive failed, the shop I took it to for repair said that image backups were useless, and I would have to pay £75 for a system clone to be done in the shop even though I had with me the external drive containing several months’-worth of image backups (this raises a question – what’s the difference between a system image and a system clone?). I was puzzled by this, and the shop said that a new hard drive was essentially a new computer – an image backup was only suitable for reinstalling on the same hard drive from which it was taken. Not convinced by this argument, I have to say… I still take image backups on a regular basis, AND back up all my files, including my downloaded software, to a different external drive AND save all my files to OneDrive. I think I’m pretty well covered!

    Reply
      • Sorry Mark, don’t agree with those definitions of Image and Clone. Using Macrium Reflect’s implied definition:

        An Image is a copy of one or more partitions contents into a single file. Typically you’d store this somewhere on an external drive and select partitions or files from it to restore later, possibly on another system.
        A Clone is a copy or one more partitions from one disk to another disk on the same PC. This can be to/from any attached disk but you’ll typically copy from internal to external and connect or install the external drive into another system.

        Reply
    • Sadly, Hazel, there are too many incompetent Pc Repair Shops with employees who don’t fully umderstand PC and Windows data structures. He was clearly mistaken to think that images can only go back on their original disks. If he’d said
      “an image backup was only suitable for reinstalling on the same SYSTEM from which it was taken”
      then he’d be nearly correct.

      Your situation, with a broken hard disk is an ideal one for image restoration. Typically you need a bootable copy of the backup software, but once booted onto your laptop with a new blank disk, this would have allowed a stand alone restore of any of your selected images onto the new blank disk, as long as it was at least as big as the data content of the image.

      This situation is exactly what you can do so as to convert a traditional hard disk system into a solid state one – HDD to SDD.

      Reply
  11. This topic is getting old, at least for me. Leo explained the purpose of an image backup and it’s good to have those. But, if you really want a truly reliable backup of your own personal data, an image backup is not it. An image backup carries too many dependencies to be reliable for my personal data files. One of those dependencies is your own technical expertise. The alternative is to copy and save your files somewhere else. Those you can recover without reliance on specific proprietary software or specific hardware or any particular OS. That’s what I call a backup.

    Reply
    • The risk, as I’ve also said before, is that you need to know what needs to be backed up and risk overlooking something. An image backup contains everything and can be used for everything from a catastrophic failure to an accidentally deleted file, and everything in between. Now that’s what I call a backup. Smile

      Reply
    • You make a good point about Image and file backups. In my view everyone should be considering the need to do both, regularly.

      As I see it [and I’ve seen it for over 35 years], there are two data components of our PC systems:
      a) – Microsoft’s stuff – Windows and all the installed applications.
      b) – My stuff – the files I created on MY PC.
      You don’t need to, but I always store my data ‘somewhere else’ than the C: drive. I have several PCs and Laptops; some of my systems have my data on a seperate volume, typically the D: drive [for Data] and others have a Network Attached System [NAS] connected on the local LAN and defined as the N: drive.

      For a) I use Image backups to take a copy of my Windows system [which is obviously tailored to my settings and apps] about once a month to an external drive so that I can restore to a good version of Windows. Every time I make a major change, for example, Windows monthly update or update App software level, I take a new image.
      For b) I use ‘file copy’ software [Syncback Free, in my case] to copy my added or updated D: drive or N: drive files onto an external disk, maintaining the folder and file structure.

      If Windows breaks, I restore an appropriate image, without needing to restore my data; if I lose or delete files, I restore them individually from the backup folders, without needing to restore Windows and its apps..

      Reply
  12. I run Linux Mint Cinnamon, and use a marvelous program called Aptik. Aptik backs up all the settings and the software sources you’ve added to the basic operating system since you installed it. To restore, either to the same or an updated OS (for instance upgrading from Mint 19 to 20) you just do a clean install of the new OS, then before doing anything else you run Aptik. It goes out to the internet and fetches all the software and tweaks you made to the old OS. It just remains to restore your personal data from a data backup (I use BackInTime). You wind up with an operating system containing 95% of what you had before. A few minor tweaks and you’re back where you started. I recently did the upgrade from Linux Mint 19 to 20 using Aptik and BackInTime. The whole process took a couple hours total.

    Reply
    • Forgot to mention, I recently lost my desktop computer to a lightning strike. Ordered a new one, different brand (went from Asus to Dell), wiped out the pre-installed Windows 10, installed Linux Mint in its place from a live flash memory stick, then installed and ran Aptik and BackInTime from my external backup disk drive. Back in business.

      Reply
  13. I have used the licensed version of Macrium Reflect to transfer data to a new computer several times, using the Redeploy method. I’ve had no problems with drivers, likely due to using Windows 10. Usually, I go to the manufacturer’s websites to do a software update as the final step to complete the process. Most of the time there are only a couple of proprietary drivers that need to be installed, but I have been able to have the computers start and run everything on the first reboot.

    Reply
  14. None of my PCs are new, and they fail.
    My main PC is XP Pro SP3, and I do need the ability to restore an image into a different PC.
    I have done this on quite a few occasions.
    The trick is to Restore the image, and NOT boot into windows.
    Use the MS XP install CD to do a Repair Install (Not the one using recovery console).
    Whist doing that, the (repair)installer adjusts to the new hardware.
    I have W8.1 and W10 in the other PCs, but because they are not my main PC, I have never attempted that with them.
    If anyone reading this post, knows what I am talking about, and know a way to do a Repair Install with 8.1 and 10, I would appreciate their feedback.
    Rob
    PS I use the free Seagate Disk Wizard for my images (Free if you have a Seagate drive connected whilst imaging or restoring
    (WD users can get a free WD version)

    Reply
    • Sorry, those good old days are gone. For Windows 10 to be in any way “repairable” you need it to be bootable and mostly functional in the first place! Try holding down the F11 key at boot time and see what options it gives you, if any. Search online for “how to repair windows 10” and you’ll come across “SFC /scannow” and “dism”. Again, you’ll need the OS to be functional to do this. Of course, with Windows 10 you can let the next update do its thing and see if it repairs anything or totally renders the computer useless. According to some rumors, another thing to try (I haven’t tried this) is to turn your computer on and off three times and Windows should go into some type of recovery mode. So, boot up Windows and as soon as you see the Windows logo turn off the computer. The 3rd or 4th boot should get you into the repair options. If you have a computer with UEFI, you can get lucky and the repair component of Windows 10 can detect a faulty boot and show you the repair options. One other option is to create a Windows 10 installation media (USB) on a working Windows 10 computer and then use that to repair the bad computer. One final option: Buy a retail copy of Windows 10 installation media!

      Windows 8.1 isn’t even worth talking about. Convert that to Windows 10 so at least you have one problem to worry about.

      Reply
      • When I want to repair Windows, I use the Windows installation media, either DVD or USB Flash drive. Since you can download Windows 10 from Microsoft and create the medium, it’s my go to choice. Then you’ll have repair media for the future. If your problem is with Windows 7 or 8, you can use it to upgrade to Windows 10.
        I agree with aa1234aa. It’s best to upgrade to Windows 10.
        Where Can I Download Windows?

        Reply
  15. The best way to keep an old Windows installation alive for me is not a backup (which I have too of course) but a running copy: Either as a bootable USB drive preferable on a SSD with an exact copy of the Windows that one wants to “backup”. A universal Windows to Go version comes from Hasleo, its WinToUSB works reliable for me. It can boot from every PC in our household.
    The other solution is virtualisation of the “old” windows. dsk2vhd produces VHD files that can be imported an run under VirtualBox or VMWare Player. This has the virtue that one can have the old installation in the VB while installing the new Windows just one window away.

    Reply

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