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 backup if I just want to backup and restore my data?

Having read your answer about what backup to use, I still don’t get one
thing – if I am backing up a hard drive using a drive image backup program, but
then switch computers (and upgrade to windows 7), and THEN want to restore my
data to the new computer, an image won’t work, correct? What program works on
backing up just my data, so I can have it available on my new computer?

Not necessarily correct.

An image created by most backup programs will work just fine for the
scenario you outline. In fact, I often rely on it myself.

Let me explain how that works.


The “trick”, if you want to call it that, is just because you created an image of your entire hard disk, doesn’t mean you have to restore the entire image of your hard disk.

“You can use the backup programs restore function to extract individual files from the image.”

An image backup – as I’m using the term here – is simply a backup of every file on your hard disk. Every file.

That’s important, in my opinion, because it relieves you of having to decide just what is, and what is not, “just my data“. Not only does “my data” often mean different things to different people, it’s also often scattered around different locations on your hard disk.

The risk that an image backup avoids is wanting something only to find that you missed including it in a backup of “just my data”.

An image has everything – whether you’ll need it or not.

Image backups can be used in either of two ways:

  • As you’ve already noted, I’m sure, you can restore the entire image, returning that drive back to the exact state, and with all the exact data, files and settings, that it had at the time the image backup was taken.

  • You can use the backup programs restore function to extract individual files from the image. In other words, you can go in and get “just your data”.

That second point is the important one. You didn’t need to remember whether or not the file was important or not, you backed up everything using an image. It’s not until you need the file or files that you can go back to the image and know that they’re there for restoration.

Now, exactly how files are extracted from an image will depend on the specific tool you’re using. And yes, some image backup programs don’t include the ability to extract individual files from the image. (If you find yourself stuck with such an image, restore it to a secondary hard drive, and then copy off the files you need.)

But most – including my favorite Acronis TrueImage Home – do include the ability.

Although I consider them to be the “safest” backup, in terms of accidental data loss, the biggest issue with images is that they can be large. Even compressed (which, again, most backup programs will do) they can easily add up to many gigabytes in size – mine’s around 90GB.

But there’s a lot of security knowing that every file that was on my hard drive is in there.

A couple of side notes:

The size issue can be alleviated somewhat by using periodic full and daily incremental backups. I generate that 90GB backup only once a month, while the every-other-day incremental’s are more like 2-6GB in size.

Even so, I don’t do image backups on all my machines, since I have so many. I have defined what “just my data” is, and backup only those files and folders on several machines. And yes, as a result of this approach I have, in fact, lost data in the past.

Do this:

Subscribe to Confident Computing! More confidence & less frustration -- solutions, answers, & tips -- in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

10 comments on “What good is an image backup if I just want to backup and restore my data?”

  1. I definitely agree, in most cases. I have found that by setting all my data to save to folders within My Documents (it took some minor tweaking to do that in Win7) backing up the My Documents and the Local Settings and AppData folders I was able to save all of my personal data. However, I definitely don’t think that’s a good idea for the average user.

  2. Is is possible for the backup program to incrementally back up to the disk IMAGE, as well as to a “regular” backup? I’ve been trying to puzzle out the settings in Acronis True Image, as well as a couple other such programs, and their docs are ambiguous.

  3. Does an image back-up include the operating system? If my internal hard drive dies, what is required to restore the back-up to a new replacement hard drive? Is an image back-up the same as a mirror image (or did I just make that term up)?

  4. Tom,

    Yes, the image back-up includes the OS, it’s literally everything, including settings and drivers (the software that makes your hardware work). When you create the image, the software you used will probably have you make a boot CD or some way to boot the system after a crash. This CD or flash-drive boot image will be how you start the computer after you remove your crashed drive and put the new/empty hard drive in (new drive usually has to be the same size or bigger than the one that crashed). That boot process will then tell you something like “click here to restore your image”. Typically this image file that it needs will be stored on either removable media (like an external HD) or on a network (which may or maynot be accessible from the bootup process…usually best to use the external HD)

    Most important thing…DO NOT store your image file on the same hard drive that you made the image of…if it crashes, you’ve lost the image file too.

  5. “I’ve been trying to puzzle out the settings in Acronis True Image, as well as a couple other such programs, and their docs are ambiguous.”

    I agree. I am quite disappointed with the Acronis user interface. You would think a 130 page user guide would provide the answers but I continue to struggle. The product does not seem to do what it says. Example – it asks you for a limit on the maximum number of backup files to store. Then, it just keeps adding them beyond that limit. What’s up with that?

  6. If you want to get at your data only, make sure you do not use the native Windows7 facilities. The backup files it creates you cannot mount/read. That is different with free Macrium (that I always recommend) or Norton Ghost or Acronis. Here you can mount the data and manipulate it at your will.
    Using imaging for data is especially easy if you have a seperate data partition. Then you can image the data only one day and the system another day.

  7. Acronis has gotten to the point of doing TOO much and is over complicated for the general user. Their newest 2010 system has a bug in the “One Click” desktop icon. They don’t monitor the forum complaints and one must set aside “reserved spaces” for the backups. Much of their requirements can/should be simplified.

  8. I use Clonezilla to image only my OS’s.
    All my data is on a large NTFS partition and I manually back that up to an external drive regularly.

    The OS images are stored on a 16 GB flash drive and
    on external drives as well.
    I create new images frequently and perform a restore with each while in Clonezilla to make sure
    the images are OK. I then save them to my external
    drive and delete the oldest images.
    I can restore from the flash drive and the process takes a few minutes.

  9. I also use Acronis TrueImage, and it works great.

    Recently I tried Google Chrome browser. I did not like it. And when I uninstalled it, it did not completely uninstall. So I copied my “My Documents” folder to my backup disk, reinstalled from my last image backup, deleted the “My Documents” folder, copied the saved “My Documents” folder back, and in 40 minutes I was back up and working again.

    No problem! Acronis TrueImage is great.


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.