New app makes backups easier

Everybody knows you should back up the important data on your PC often. In fact, if I stacked up all the issues of PC World magazine that recommend this important task at least once, the pile would eventually collapse--trapping the smaller members of our staff underneath.

You get the picture.

Unfortunately, backing up is a tedious, sometimes lengthy process. And when you're done, your PC doesn't actually go any faster. So where is the fun in that?

Well, actually, the fun is in still having all your important data--from family photos to MP3s to financial info--in the unhappy event your PC goes kaput.

There are lots of ways to back up your hard drive (many of them free), but I've always preferred to use drive imaging software. As luck would have it, that method just got a little bit easier thanks to a new product from Symantec. More on that in a minute.

What's a Drive Image?

But first, a brief primer on imaging: A drive image is essentially a snapshot of your hard drive. More specifically, it's an extremely detailed representation that contains every single bit of data that you'd find on the original drive. You take this image, compress it, and then store it someplace safe--on another hard drive, a CD or DVD, a backup tape, whatever. Should disaster strike and your original drive is destroyed, you simply put the imaged version on a new drive and you're back in business.

There are lots of other things you can do with drive-imaging software. For example, if you're like me and you love to run a PC with a cleanly installed operating system, you can create backups after reinstalling Windows. That way you can always go back to that happy time before some poorly designed program starting slowing down everything. I covered this topic in depth a few months back.

Until recently, my favorite drive-imaging software was PowerQuest's Drive Image 7. Then Symantec, which owned a less-satisfying imaging product called Norton Ghost, bought PowerQuest and I figured that was the end of Drive Image. Happily, I was wrong. Symantec's US$70 Norton Ghost 9 (shipping later this month) looks an awful lot like what could have been Drive Image 8, and it makes creating backups easier and noticeably quicker.

Getting Incremental

One of the drawbacks of Drive Image 7 was it could only take a full snapshot of your drive. In other words, if you used the software to back up your hard drive, then added another file to the drive, you had to create another full image to include the new data. That could be a pain. For example, doing a full image of my one-third-full 30GB Windows XP partition using Drive Image 7 takes upwards of 15 minutes with the data verification feature turned on, and the result is a 7.6GB file.

Norton Ghost 9 adds incremental backups, and that's a huge improvement. Basically this feature lets you add subsequent changes to a base image. First you create a full snapshot. The next time you create a backup, the software images only the changes you've made. This saves time because most incremental backups take just minutes. Each incremental backup holds only the changes you've made--but when you restore to a particular file, it uses all the previous files to create the full image. If you're like me and you want to save multiple variations of your image, this can save you lots of storage space over time.

Also, since incremental backups are quick and easy to do, you're more likely to do them more often. In fact, you can schedule these incremental backups to happen once a month, once a week, or even multiple times during the day. Since the process doesn't take long, you won't mind the slight performance slowdown that occurs if the PC performs an incremental backup while you're using it. (You can turn off this feature during long bouts of Doom 3.)

With a product this easy to use, there's no excuse for not backing up.

Restoring those images is simple. You can easily bring back a non-OS drive or partition from within Windows. But what if you're restoring your operating system partition? Norton Ghost's updated restore environment makes that easier than ever, too. You just boot your PC from the Ghost CD into Symantec's Windows XP-like interface, where you'll find easy access to your backup images as well as a host of other Symantec extras including a basic version of Norton Disk Doctor and even a virus scanner.

Not a Perfect Ghost

I should note that while a beta copy of Norton Ghost 9 has certainly won me over, it has aspects I really don't like.

First and foremost: Like most Symantec products, this one requires activation. Piracy stinks, but activation is annoying.

Second, like PowerQuest's Drive Image 7, Norton Ghost 9 forces you to install Microsoft's .Net framework, which I'm not crazy about. Symantec says it uses the .Net framework "because it's quickly becoming a standard technology that most Windows applications will use in the future."

Finally, this program is for Windows XP and Windows 2000 only. So if you're thinking about doing yet another clean install of Windows ME, I guess you're out of luck--in so many more ways than one.

Norton Ghost 9 is far from the only game in town when it comes to drive imaging. In fact, some of my technically inclined friends have voiced a preference for Acronis True Image 7. Acronis--which has offered incremental backups for some time--just launched True Image 8 for US$50. Before I plunk down my US$70 to buy the final version of Norton Ghost 9, I may have to give that one a spin, too.

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Tom Mainelli

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