You don't need a complicated boot CD or expensive software to create a restorable system disk image for your PC: free utility DriveImage XML can save a full, working snapshot of your Windows hard drive while you work on it. (That's hot.) When your PC crashes and burns or just slows down over time, the best insurance you can have is a mirror image of your operating system, complete with drivers, user settings, software applications, and documents in one place. A while back we covered how to partition and image your Windows hard drive using the Linux-based System Recovery Boot CD, a process that involves command line work, disk-burning, rebooting, and video driver wrangling. With DiskImage XML, imaging your PC's hard drive is a matter of a few clicks, no reboots required. Let's check it out.
Create a New System Image
First, download DriveImage XML for free and install it as usual. You can store your system image anywhere you'd like, but I highly recommend saving it on a disk other than the one you're imaging. So if you plan to image your C: drive, purchase an external hard drive to store C:'s image, or right after you create the image, burn the files to CD or DVD. This way if your C: drive fails or breaks, you still have your image available on a separate physical disk.
When you launch DriveImage XML (DiX), click on the "Backup" button on the lower left of the screen. It will scan your PC and list all the hard drives connected to your system. To image your C: drive (most likely your system's primary, active disk), select it and click the Next button to launch DriveImage XML's backup wizard. Click Next again to set where DiX should save your image, and a few additional options, as shown.
The settings here will affect how large your image file is and how it can be restored. Here's a rundown of what each does.
- Raw mode. In "raw mode," DriveImage XML makes a sector by sector copy of your drive, including unused space. This means your image file will be the same exact size of the drive, and it can only be restored to a drive of that same exact size. For most home use situations, leave this box unchecked. (There's no sense in backing up blank disk space.)
- Split large files. If you plan to burn your disk image to CDs or DVDs, select "Split large files," which will break your image file down into smaller chunks. This way you can easily save them to smaller-sized disks later on. If "Split large files" is NOT checked, you'll get one giant image file, either as large as the disk itself or as large as the used space on the disk (depending on whether "Raw mode" is enabled.)
- Compressed. If space on your destination drive is at a premium, select the "Compressed" option to make your image file up to 40% smaller than in normal mode. Compression will slow down the imaging process, but it will help save on disk space.
- Hot Imaging Strategy. The hot part of DriveImage XML is that it can image your drive while you work—but that means that files you're using while it does its thing have to be locked to be copied correctly. DiX will try two strategies: locking the drive entirely (if you're not using the computer and saving files), or using Windows' built-in Volume Shadow Services to get the last saved state of the drive. Leaving this at the default—"Try Volume Locking first"—is fine for home use.
Click the Next button to start creating the drive image file. Depending on the speed of your computer, and the size of your hard drive (and amount of used space), this process can take a significant amount of time. Consider starting it before you leave your computer for the evening, or during your lunch break. DriveImage XML will keep a running counter of how much time it's been copying the disk and how much time is left until it completes, as shown.
DiX isn't fast, especially if you've got a lot of data to image. On the spare PC where I ran DiX, about 12GB of used space took about 35 minutes to image. When the imaging process is complete, you'll have two types of files stored on the destination: a single .XML file (hence DriveImage XML's name), and either one or several .DAT files (depending on whether or not you selected "Split large files.") The .XML file is a list of all the files in the image. The .DAT file(s) contain the actual image data. Here's what the file listing on my external drive looks like, once my image was complete.
Once you've saved a system image, you can use it in three ways: to restore individual files from their saved state; to restore your PC back to the exact state it was when you saved the image, or to make an exact copy of the drive to another partition or hard drive.
Browse and Restore Individual Files
To view and copy files contained within an image to your PC, click on the Browse button on the lower left of the DriveImage XML window, and click "Load Image." Then select the .XML file for the image you saved. (Remember, every image has exactly one .XML file associated with it.) DiX will read the .XML listing and display all the files contained within the image, as shown.
Navigate the folder tree as usual, and right-click any file to view it, launch it using its associated application, or extract it (restore it to your current PC setup.) You can also right-click on an entire folder—like "My Documents"—and choose "Extract" (or press Ctrl+S) to copy it to your current PC setup.
Perform a Complete System Restore
If your computer's hard drive crashed entirely, you can restore it to its past state using the DiX image you created. Restoring an image to a target disk will delete everything on the disk and copy the contents of the image to it. That means you cannot restore an image to a drive you're already using (because you can't delete the contents of a disk already in use). So if you booted up your computer on your C: drive, you can't restore an image to your C: drive. You need access to the target drive as a secondary disk. There are a few ways to do this. You can install the target drive as a slave in another PC in addition to its primary boot drive, or you can buy a hard drive enclosure and connect the target as an external drive.
Either way, to restore a disk image to a drive you intend to boot from, you'll need:
- A PC running DriveImage XML
- The saved disk image files, whether they're on CD, DVD, on the host PC or on an external drive
- A target drive with a partition at least the size of the drive image files. (You can use Windows built-in Disk Management console or your partition manager of choice to create a new partition to restore to.)
To start the restore process, in DriveImage XML, click on the Restore button, then click the Next button, which will launch the drive restore wizard. From there, select the .XML file associated with the image, and then select the target drive. (Remember, the target drive must be an existing partition that's the same size or larger than the image, and it must not be the active system drive.) All files will be deleted from the target drive on restore, so be double sure there's nothing there you need to save. Like the image creation process, Dix will display a progress bar and estimated time as it restores the image to the drive.
Once the image has been copied and restored onto the target drive, you'll have to make that drive the active, boot partition for your PC to start using it. Either install the disk back into your PC, or use the Disk Management Console to set the target partition as "Active" and reboot your PC. Alternately, you can create a bootable Windows CD with DriveImage XML on it. Here's more on DriveImage XML on a BartPE bootable CD.
More DiX Actions
You can also copy an entire existing partition to another blank partition without making an image at all, using DiX's Drive to Drive feature. (This could be useful to make a full copy of a data partition, for example.) Finally, you can schedule regular disk image operations using Windows Task Scheduler and Dix command line options. For more on that, in DiX's Help file, under the Feature folder, see "Task Scheduler."
Comparison to Commercial Alternatives, and Why DriveImage XML is Not Quite Time Machine for Windows
Commercial software that retails betweens $50 and $70, like Norton Ghost and Acronis TrueImage, do exactly what DiX does for free. However, DiX does NOT do incremental images like most commercial products and Mac OS X's built-in Time Machine does. Every time you create an image it's a full and complete backup of the disk, which means that regularly scheduled imaging can eat up hard drive space fast.
Also, DiX's image files aren't browse-able using Windows Explorer, the way Mac users can explore Time Machine's backups using the Finder. However, the developers say that DiX is not necessarily required to restore files from the images it creates. The .XML file is not proprietary and readable by any program out to do so, and the image file itself is just all your files squashed into one big .DAT file. The .XML file acts as a map to the .DAT file, and if DiX wasn't around, in theory other programs would be able to grok it pretty easily. Which is nice, but still not as transparent as Time Machine's backup files.
Finally, if you haven't had enough of DriveImageXML, here's a video tutorial on using it, posted by its makers on YouTube.
How do you insure a speedy recovery from a system crash—or just back to a clean and shiny Windows installation? Have you tried DriveImage XML? Tell us about it in the comments.