You can create a disk image in the Enterprise, Business, and Ultimate versions of Windows Vista, but if you use Vista Home Premium, you need a third-party app to image a disk or partition. I was delighted to find a disk-imaging component added to the Backup and Restore applet in the Home Premium version of Windows 7.
Why it took Microsoft so long to include disk imaging in a nonbusiness version of Windows is a mystery. Even more puzzling is why the company didn't try harder to make Win7's disk-imaging tool as fast and simple to use as freeware backup alternatives.
(The backup function in earlier versions of Windows lets you create copies of your files and settings but not your Windows installation, applications, and everything else on your hard drive. For data backups, I prefer the free iDrive online service I wrote about in a post from March 2008.)
When I compared Windows 7's disk-imaging function with the disk imager in the free Easeus Todo Backup from Chengdu Yiwo Tech Development, the third-party backup app came out on top in every category. Easeus Todo Backup is fast, easy to use, and reliable. The program even managed to fit on two DVDs the 88GB partition holding my Win7 installation. Windows 7's disk imager required four DVDs to back up the same partition.
Disk imagers go head-to-head
I tested the disk imagers on a relatively pristine Windows 7 Home Premium installation, the only program loaded on the test system other than Windows itself was Easeus Todo Backup. Easeus Todo Backup installed without a hitch, although I had to restart the PC to complete the installation. The three main options on the program's start screen are to back up a disk or partition, restore a previous backup, or clone one hard drive to another.
Choosing Backup starts the program's Backup Wizard, which prompts you to select a partition to image. You can also choose to create the image sector by sector, which backs up the free sectors on the drive or partition as well as the ones storing data. The advantage of this method is that the resulting image will be the same size as the disk or partition being backed up.
Once you select the disk or partition to be imaged and click Next, the wizard offers to use the program's default image settings or let you customize the backup. I stuck with the default and clicked Next again. The wizard then lets you annotate the image with a comment. Click Next once more to start the imaging process.
It took the program just 20 minutes and two 4.7GB DVDs to complete the image. Easeus Todo Backup's Restore Wizard is just as simple to use and almost as fast at restoring a previously created image. The program also lets you create a bootable disc, mount the backup file as a virtual image partition, and make sure a backup image file is restorable.
Win7's disk imager is slow going
After my pleasant experience using Easeus Todo Backup, I expected Windows 7's disk-imaging feature to work just as well. Not so. The process took more than four times as long and required twice as many DVDs to complete.
You access Win7's Backup and Restore Center applet by clicking Start > All Programs > Maintenance > Backup and Restore Center. A faster method is to press the Windows key, type backup, and press Enter. After the program opens, click "Create a system image" in the left pane to begin the process.
On the next screen, choose the device on which you'll store the image and click Next. Windows then gives you an estimate of how large the image will be and indicates which disks/partitions will be backed up. Click Start backup. If you chose to store the image on DVDs, Windows will ultimately prompt you to enter a blank, formatted disc in the drive (if the disc isn't formatted, Windows will format it for you).
I expected the imaging process to take about as long to finish using the Windows utility as it took Easeus Todo Backup to complete the task. Instead, I waited more than four times as long for the image to complete and ended up requiring twice as many DVDs. Restoring the image using Win7's utility was likewise slower than Easeus's image-restore component.
In this case, it makes a lot of sense to download and install the free alternative to Windows' own disk-imaging utility, at least until Microsoft starts taking disk imaging as seriously as it's starting to take security.