Switched On: An image to protect

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

In January, I wrote about my experience with PC Mover from Laplink Software, an effective solution for migrating your applications from one Windows PC to another, even (with some caveats) when those computers are running different versions of Windows. But there is another kind of migration that PC users often face, upgrading their hard drive. Unfortunately, backup applications that rely exclusively on file-based backup can't restore a working Windows installation because they don't capture what is known as the master boot record. (Apple, incidentally, notes that Time Machine, which creates browsable, file-based backups, can be used to restore or migrate to another Mac, but that Time Machine archives themselves are not bootable.)

So, in recently upgrading a PC hard disk, I tried Acronis True Image 9, a utility that can create an "image" or exact copy of one's hard drive as well as file-level backup. TrueImage automates much of the hard disk migration process, even expanding the partition on the target drive to its maximum so that your new drive is ready to go after reinstalling.

TrueImage's interface is pretty simple. You select your source drive and target drive and let it copy over the contents of the hard drive. TrueImage then reboots the PC and anoints the new hard drive with booting information. Unfortunately, my first attempt to do this booting from the original hard disk didn't work so I had to resort to Acronis' own backup plan, which involves booting from a CD you have to set up in advance. The CD runs Linux with an interface that convincingly mimics XP.

The CD-based system worked and after a few tugs and taps of a SATA cable, I had a new hard drive installed with minimal interruption to my configuration. Unlike with the PC Mover migration, iTunes did not complain about its new home. However, Microsoft Office required reactivation. Furthermore, much as PC Mover includes a handy startup manager that provides value after startup, TrueImage also keeps working after riding its otherwise one-trick pony. It can apportion part of your drive to an emergency boot and restore partition similar to those preloaded by HP, Gateway and other companies.

Of course, upgrading a hard drive isn't the only reason to use imaging software, which also enables easy recovery if a hard disk fails. However, while image-based backups are great for restoring entire hard drives, they can be complicated for restoring individual files; a good backup strategy should include both techniques. Microsoft will embrace a new image format with Windows Vista that will be the basis of its installation and should enable users to drag and drop Windows installations onto hard drives bound for different PCs.

For its part, Acronis is now working on a product that will add system migration like PC Mover to its disk imaging capabilities. Furthermore, with the price of hard drives continuing to plummet, imaging is on the watch list of several companies creating network attached storage such as Seagate and Anthology Solutions. That's all great news as no one should have to install Windows and their applications more than once.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at