Related article: Using Acronis, Step-by-Step
- Don't fool with Ghost; by Acronis 2009/ or better, 2010
First, disclaimers: I am a fan of Ghost version 8, which looks a lot like a DOS program. The program was functional and ran without installing, but it is ancient, with no support for DVDs, SATA or external USB drives. I also like Acronis's product, True Image, and I have owned both version 8 and 10, but these older versions could not write to DVD and they were abandoned when my stacks of CDs became hazardous.
Recently, I purchased a Maxtor External USB drive and have been using the free backup utility that came with the drive Review: Maxtor External USB. While the hardware is wonderful, the software was simple-minded and it has several serious problems, such as only being able to write to the USB drive. I have also experimented with several free-ware Linux-based programs, but found them inadequate in speed and features.
As you can see, I have tried a gauntlet of products. Here are my observations on the two largest players in the field: Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image.
I have owned Ghost version 12 for approximately a year but had not installed it until recently. Why wait? Ghost version 8 was still doing fairly well, even though it couldn't write to DVD. But the older Ghost had one important benefit: It does not need to be installed as a Windows client. I had jury-rigged my copy to boot from a Bart-PE disk and this allowed me to make a backup when Windows was not running.
But as time wore on, the shortcomings of this method became apparent and it was time to change. I suppose in order to have USB, DVD and SATA support, there is no escaping a locally-installed Windows client, but the real reason is probably more legal then technical. An installed client allows the vendor to enforce licensing. Although it was illegal, the old versions allowed you to backup both your desktop and laptop with the same bootable CD. I digress.
Norton has since shipped version 14, but from all accounts that I have read, version 12 and 14 are nearly identical, with only esoteric differences (version 13 was never shipped).
With high hopes I installed Ghost 12 but was ultimately gave up in frustration. In the end, I uninstalled the program. Here are the problems I found.
The install went well, installing both the program and a "Live update agent." But, after repeated attempts, the update agent refused, with no reason given. Suspicious about version 12 vs 14, I tried to manually download the latest patches from Symantec's site but found downloads for every version but 12. Their website offered no hope of resolving this, so I continued using the program as-is.
Backups to DVD went well but restores were annoying. Ghost, rightfully stores an index of each file on DVD, but I could not find that same database on the hard disk; this forces you to use the DVD copy. When restoring a single file, Ghost repeatedly prompts for the first and the last DVD, and then prompts for intermediate disks (contrast this with another backup program called Retrospect -- It stores a complete restore database on the local hard-disk as well as on the backup media).
While I theoretically understood the need to retrieve the backup database from the media, I still question why it didn't just ask for the last disk and write the database to the hard drive. To make matters worse, the disk-swap dialog boxes looked like a badly-written error message; the dialog was several hundred words long and at first glance, they look like a terrible error had occurred. If you took the time to read them, and made it to the last sentence, you would find it said "Insert the last disk in the set." It should have said that first and dispensed with the rest message.
It also failed at building the Emergency Recovery CD (a bootable CD that allows you to restore a Ghost backup to a 'bare-metal' disk -- this is an absolute requirement for any type of backup utility). Symantec's Help and online resources were useless. As it tried to write the disk, it displayed an uninterpretable error, apparently written by inebriated monkeys.
I then told the utility to write the CD to an ISO file so I could use another program to spin the disk. But even here I ran into problems. None of my CD/DVD programs would write the disk -- even Windows Explorer failed. All CD/DVD-write programs inexplicitly died. I found many other people on the web with the same problem and none had a solution.
After several hours of research, I concluded the ship was sinking. Most online reports said Symantec's phone and web-support (out of India) was futile, pointless and often wrong. Quips, such as, "For God's sake, use any product but Norton's" were common. Not being able to use the DVD-writer was the last straw. The software had other issues too mundane to detail and the product, despite years of updates, seemed unpolished. In the end, even with the best expectations, I uninstalled the program. Blessedly, this fixed the DVD burner.
Acronis True Image Home 2009 (aka ATI 12, now shipping Acronis True Image Home 2010)
As recently as last year I had used Acronis 10 and generally liked the software. But that version could not write to DVD and like the newer versions of Ghost, it only ran as a Windows client. This meant no more booting from CD to run your backup, like I could with Ghost 8 and Acronis 8. (Version 2010 now allows you to run directly from CD)
The downloadable-upgrade to version 2009 (12) was $30, or new for $50. When I registered the upgrade, I had to type a 64-digit license code plus the previous version's 24-digit code. This has to be a world-record for the longest code. Usually, I write license-codes on a burned CD with a sharpie; I had to make an exception here.
The software installed well and the first backup went smoothly. But once again I was surprised at the DVD restore. Restoring an entire DVD-set would not be a problem; the restore would simply work, but with my first test, I selected an individual file. Acronis had issues. If I thought Ghost was bad about asking for disks, Acronis was worse, prompting for the first and last DVD's so often I could recognize them in the dark. Ultimately, the file restored but I wasn't happy. Literally there were several dozen disk swaps.
A second test-backup was made to an external USB hard-drive, but it failed with an "unable to read" error. Fortunately, Acronis's site was actually helpful, suggesting a "CheckDisk /r" followed by an Acronis driver update (this was not the patched version that I alluded to). This did the trick and 20 minutes later I had a backup. Restores from the USB drive were fast and trouble-free (no disk swapping).
[Update: Since this article was originally written, I've had the opportunity to restore several full-disk backups, recovering from a variety of self-induced mishaps. All restores have been flawless. Be sure you choose an "Image" and not a file-by-file backup. Also, version 2010 has been released]
The restore screen is particularly nice because of the calendar view (illustrated) and bare-metal restores are smooth and uneventful.
Although I tend to only run Full-backups, you can also run incremental, or differential backups – which means all subsequent backups will be faster. You can also choose to backup individual files and folders and the program can create a full-system backup on a hidden disk-partition, all of which are great tools, especially for laptops.
Acronis has several other tools that come with the Home-edition and I admit that I've not spent time with them. There is a drive-wipe utility, a file-shredder, a system-cleanup (wipes out passwords, user-names, etc). It also has an interesting "try and decide" feature, which lets you build a sand-box environment; install software or drivers, and if you don't like them, you can perfectly unwind the install, removing *all* traces of the experiment. This is worthy of further consideration.
I recommend Acronis TrueImage Home 2009 (now 2010) over Ghost. When it comes to backups, Acronis does most everything I need and the price is $20 cheaper. Plus it comes with extra utilities that are icing on the cake. Compared to Ghost and other backup software, this is a capable program that is also easy-to-use. On several different occasions, my computer's health was in serious jeopardy and Acronis recovered the disk perfectly. You can't ask for more.
The program has only two drawbacks that I can find: If you are recovering a small set of files from a DVD set, be prepared to swap disks numerous times. Secondly, I wish licensing were liberal enough to allow my desktop and laptop to share the same program or at least have a discount on the second copy.
When ever you run any kind of backup, be sure to follow the steps recommended in a previous article: http://keyliner.blogspot.com/2008/05/disk-imaging-cleanup-steps.html.
This can easily cut the backup times in half and cut the number of disks you need.
Disk Cleanup Steps
Using Acronis, Step-by-Step
Maxtor External USB
Trashing a Home Computer