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What’s the Difference Between an Image Backup and a Files and Folder Backup?


Recently, I bought a one terabyte external hard drive and Macrium Reflect backup software as you recommended. But now I’m very much confused about two features of it… and that is “Create Backup Image Wizard” and “Backup Files and Folder Wizard”. What is the difference between the two? What are the respective purposes? I’ve Googled about this and even searched on your site, but I couldn’t figure it out, so I finally decided to write you my first

In this excerpt from Answercast #48, I look at the difference between a full image backup of a hard drive and selectively backing up files and folders.

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Images vs. Files

They are two different things. It’s actually very confusing and very important to understand the difference.

A backup “image”

When you create a “backup image,” you are creating an image of the hard drive, of all of the data that’s stored on the hard drive. So what that means is:

  • You’re backing up all of Windows;
  • All of the programs that you have installed in Windows;
  • All of the settings;
  • All of your data;
  • All of everything that happens to be on the drive that you’re backing up.
  • You create an “image” of a drive.

So, you might backup by creating an image of your C drive.

Backup files and folders

Usinf the files and folder wizard (“backup files and folders”) means that you are choosing not to backup everything, but in fact, you will determine which folders are going to get backed up:

  • So you might elect to then backup only your documents.

Recovering from a failure

Bad Computer Day Now, the reason that’s important is that, if there is a failure, if your hard disk drive fails, it rarely fails in such a way that only your documents are affected.

A hard disk drive failure (which is in my opinion the biggest reason for backing up) is going to take away everything on the hard drive. That means you would want an “image backup” to restore to a replacement hard drive.

Backing up files only

Now, on the other hand, there are definitely scenarios where you don’t need to do that.

  • You may have other ways of dealing with hardware failure;
  • Or you may be backing up for other reasons.

In which case backing up only your documents, or only the files you choose to backup, may be an appropriate way.  It certainly uses less disk space. Clearly, if you’re only backing up your documents, that’s going to be significantly smaller than backing up your entire computer. Your entire hard disk includes not only your documents, but all of Windows and all of your applications;

So it really depends on specifically what your intent is behind creating this backup.

Image backup is safest

In most cases, what you want is an image backup. You want to be able to restore everything and anything.

And that’s the other virtue of an image backup. When you are creating a file and folder backup, you need to be right. In other words:

  • You need to know everything that it is that you want to back up and list it.
  • You have to tell Macrium, “Backup everything in this folder”, “Backup everything in that folder…”
  • If you miss a folder, if you forget a folder, it’s not going to get backed up.

If you create an image backup, then everything on that hard drive gets backed up; And I do mean everything! Everything except the space that isn’t used.

Recovering with your backup

What that means is that you can use that in either of two ways – the scenario that I mentioned earlier:

  • Your hard drive fails;
  • You replace the hard drive;
  • And then you restore that image onto your replacement hard drive;
  • And you pick up where you left off.

Or if for some reason, you suddenly realize, “Oh, crap! I deleted a file yesterday that I didn’t mean to delete,” you can still use that image backup to:

  • Go and extract just that single file;
  • And restore just that single file,

No matter what file it was – because the image backup included everything – including that file.

So, like I said, in general, in most cases, I honestly believe that most people want “image backups” for their routine backups, for their ongoing maintenance, for their disaster preparedness.

“Files folders backup” is something that you would consider generally for special needs… and I’ll put it this way: I don’t use it. I only do image backups of my machine. That’s all I need; that’s what my backups are for.

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15 comments on “What’s the Difference Between an Image Backup and a Files and Folder Backup?”

  1. Hi Leo, windows 7 pro 64 bit : I did an image backup of C: I burned it to DVD’s–It used 8 each. That took 2 hours and 26 Minutes. My
    system has a 1T internal HDD. It copied the D:
    and the special partition too. Love the Mecrim Reflex software.

  2. I use three external drives for backup purposes and alternate between them, so that no backup is older than two weeks. (It beats doing incremental backups.) I use Acronis and it works well.

  3. Got to love Macriun Reflect. I image 68 G in less then 20 minutes. Haven’t had to restore yet, I trust it works. I guess you can’t simulate a restore.

  4. I will never understand why people love image backups. You don’t know if the backup worked, and you can’t boot to an imaged backup. And you don’t have to just backup “files”. With the right software, you can backup [copy] the entire C drive to an external. That backup is fully bootable so you can test it. My two ext drives have full copies, every file including Windows. I can enter Setup and change the boot sequence for booting to the ext drive. I keep one onsite and one offsite. The first backup might take and hour, but after that, only a few minutes. Why use an ‘image’ of a drive instead of a real, 100% file by file copy?

  5. The article describes the importance of an image backup but when I downloaded Macrium Reflect I was faced with two options which confused me.

    The Macrium help states:
    Clone Disk: Create a clone of the selected disk. If this is a system disk, it can be redeployed to a different system without any further configuration required. This is useful if you are upgrading your disk

    Image this disk: Runs the ‘Image Local Drives’ wizard, selecting the current disk and associated partitions by default.

    Those descriptions mean nothing to me. According to the article we only need an image backup to recover from a faulty hard disk. Can someone end this confusion?

    I did not find Macrium Reflect easy to understand. The “Overview” in the help section contains sections on “Disk Types” and “Partition Alignment”, which were double Dutch to me.

    I have spent hours downloading and creating image files and a recovery disk but I am still unable to restore one file that I deleted for practice.

    The terminology is definitely confusing. Myself, I ignore the “clone” options completely and use “Image” always. You can restore an image, as long as you include all partitions on the original disk, to a new disk. You might be interested in the series of videos I did on using Macrium: Backup and Restore with Macrium Reflect 5.0, in particular #7, Restoring a File from an Image Backup.

  6. Thanks for the question and thanks for the answer. For some reason, I can’t wrap my head around a lot of the “backup” information I read. I searched online, but I guess what I needed was a “for dummies” explanation :) and wasn’t finding it. Although I understood the difference between the two kinds of backup, and the idea of an image backup, I couldn’t find a more specific explanation of how to make one and how it’s used practically–At first, I didn’t even know I needed software :). So this article helps.

    I normally just make copies of my files and folders since I don’t have much to save and I wouldn’t mind having to start from scratch, but I would like understand “backups” better.

    I bought a Seagate FreeAgent Go external drive, but I don’t really know how to properly use it :). For now, I use it to copy personal files and folders every month. I did “do a backup” with the Seagate, but I don’t understand how I’d use it. The file says “Microsoft Backup File” and the backup report says “Active backup destination: File…Backup (via shadow copy) of “C:”…Backup Type: Normal”
    ….is this an image backup :)?

    If I needed to use it, would I just click on this file and it would “tell” me what to do and restore everything?

  7. My HP Computer (Windows7 Home) came with an HP Recovery partician. I assume this would just reset my computer back to the factory default if something crashed. So, I use an external HD to drag all 3 users folders to this external HD which I assume is just the users Libraries (like the docs, pics, videos, and music). I can always reinstall my Norton and Malwarebytes if needed.
    Should this method actually be ok for adding user Libraries back onto my Hard Drive if needed? This is the only method that I actually feel comfortable using or am I being naive?
    I do not have other added programs.

  8. Could you discuss using an image backup (Windows 10 or EaseUs ToDo) on a computer where the hard drive is protected by BitLocker? Would the image be encrypted and would there be problems trying to restore it to a replacement hard drive should the original one fail? I am just wondering in general what the issues would be and how BitLocker would affect things. Thanks.

  9. How do you boot up from an image copy on a ssd. My original hard drive crashed so I made a copy from another computer. No backup

    • You don’t. Images created by backup programs aren’t designed to be booted from. You need to create a rescue disk using the backup software, boot from that, and then use the backup software to restore the backup image to the hard drive.


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