We tested disk imaging software to verify whether or not it could create a usable image of a targeted file, folder or entire hard drive. In our testing, we put each application through the tasks of imaging and restoring the system of our test computer, ensuring with each software that was done properly and thoroughly. We also evaluated the virtualization options to see how easy it was to get information to and from a virtual machine, as well as to create a virtual disk. The best software packages in our evaluations are the ones that perform well, are easy to use and have a wide variety of storage options. Below are takeaways we learned from our testing.
Imaging & Storage: Customize, Verify and Backup Your Backups
The best disk cloning software offers incremental and differential update options, so you have control over what exactly gets imaged each time the software runs a backup. Good imaging software also provides backup verification, which double checks that every part of the file or folder image you just created was set up properly and will run correctly whenever you need it, such as when your computer crashes.
Though computers are generally reliable, like people, they can have a bad day and completely crash. If your computer crashes, disk imaging software can come to the rescue, provided you previously created an image. Most programs allow you to create boot media, typically on a CD or DVD, with which you can access the software and your backup in a pre-operating system (pre-OS) environment, mount the image and get back to work as if the crash never happened.
If you’ve adopted a purely digital lifestyle and don’t want to store all your important data on a CD or DVD that can get scratched or lost, opt for a program that allows you to store your data on a different type of external storage, such as an external hard drive or cloud server. Typically, these mediums make it easier to share your image or distribute it to other computers if needed. If you’re worried about someone viewing or altering your image without your permission, you can choose a program that automatically encrypts your data and lets you put a password on it.
You can opt to compress any data you create with the software, which essentially squeezes your data in order to take up less space, making it great for storage on a smaller hard drive or for emailing or uploading it to a cloud server for mass deployment. If you don’t want to spend time compressing your files, you can instead split your image across multiple files or storage devices. This can potentially be a hassle, but it’s nice to have options.
Software with all of these features can clone images to your precise specifications. Most of the programs we ranked lower in this category generally work equally well at imaging a disk but aren’t as feature rich, meaning they may require more time, attention or even hard drive space to accomplish the same tasks.
Restoration & Mounting: Access Your Backup Whenever and Wherever You Need It
Using disk imaging software for its backup utility is almost a no-brainer, since one of the best features of an image file is its ability to run in a pre-OS state. It’s perfect for boot-time recovery operations, as it’s the tool that works when your computer refuses to. Some disk imaging programs even offer their own Linux-based mini-OS or work with WinPE – the Windows Pre-Installation Environment – which makes it easier to navigate through your cloned images when you need to restore or mount them.
Some programs simply won’t restore an image file to a hard drive having a different size, which presents a challenge if you’re restoring to dissimilar hardware. Most do, though, and many even allow you to restore individual files and folders, giving you full control over what’s imaged or restored. Good software can also resize your image as it restores it, eliminating extra space between images for accuracy and time-saving.
All of the programs we’ve reviewed here allow you to mount an image – either manually or automatically – to a virtual machine or drive. A virtual machine is essentially just a software computer, which can run programs just like a normal computer but isn’t backed by any physical components until you access it on a physical computer. Using a virtual machine is a convenient way to try out old or risky software or to go online without having to worry about your physical computer getting hacked. A virtual drive emulates a physical drive, like one within your computer.
Functionality: Ease of Use and Customization Are Critical
The software you choose should be easy to use, with an intuitive interface and a wide variety of task options – from creating a simple file image to merging incremental images or mapping a network drive. All tabs and options should be clearly labeled. The best applications have help and technical support built directly into the software so you won’t have to stop the program to open a webpage and track down solutions. Most of the programs we tested feature the ability to schedule certain tasks to run automatically, saving you time and effort.
If you opt to mount your image to a virtual machine or drive, certain programs allow you to set a limit on how much memory that virtual drive can use at any given time. This feature helps save some memory so you can continue using other programs on your actual computer at the same time. Similarly, you can also set a limit – either static or dynamic, depending on the specific program – of how much of your computer’s internal hard drive storage the virtual machine or drive can access. Again, this reserves space for both your virtual computer and physical computer, which is a must for multi-taskers.
For advanced users, consider an imaging program that has command line functionality. With this feature, anyone who understands how scripts work and how to write them can tell the software to run certain actions. It’s an especially powerful way to automate many of the common processes this kind of software can run.
Help & Support: Solutions and Customer Service Are Top
Maintaining a backup drive image in case of disaster – or simply to set up new hard drives – is both critical and time-consuming, and any confusion or trouble with the software can be frustrating. We looked for companies that offer direct telephone, email and chat support, along with online user guides, FAQs and knowledgebase materials. Video tutorials and online communities are excellent support options as well, and are something that you can rely on with most manufacturers of this kind of software. The best options offer a large selection of direct and indirect informational resources to you.