Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

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.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

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 to 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. Most people and businesses will simply go out and get a replacement hard drive (often a bigger one to increase the capacity while they’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. Yes, you may have clean scans, but you never really know you’ve actually cleaned everything unless you restore to a backup image taken prior to the infection.

This is actually 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 copy or restore to your machine.

The reason images are so wonderful is because they contain everything, by definition. 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 want 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 have features attempting to address this issue. When they restore to reinstall they can attempt to reconfigure the image taken from one machine being restored on 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 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.

If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,

Leo

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.

21 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

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.