Macrium Reflect Free: superfast disk imaging and system recovery

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Macrium Reflect Free creates hard drives images and can restore them when you need it. It purports to be the fastest disk imaging software out there.

It can compress your image such that it is much smaller in size than the actual hard drive partition, and can create a bootable recovery CD that can be used to perform operations on the system partition, or restore images in case your system becomes unbootable.

To access data inside an image, Macrium Reflect Free allows you to right click an image file and browse your data in read only mode and/or copy individual files or folders into your hard drive.

If you don’t know what disk images are or if you simply don’t make images of your hard drive (at least your main, boot drive), you should really consider doing so.

A disk image is like a snapshot in time of your hard drive that, should your system be compromised by malware, suffer some physical damage, or even become slow because of too many programs installed on it, will allow you to simply revert back to that state when all was well.  It is like an “undo” option for your hard drive.

Here’s a quick list of PROS and CONS for those in a hurry: (see the discussion below for a more in-depth

PROS:

  • Fast: this app is likely the fastest (or at least one of the fastest) imaging programs out there. (Note: this is based on subjective impressions/reports and not on an actual timed test).
  • Windows context menu entry: will let you browse your image and quickly access files inside it.
  • Compression: offers 3 levels of compression. I was able to compress a 30 gig partition into 8 gigs.
  • Recovery CD: very useful for system recovery or modifying the system partition.
  • Reliable: it just works
  • Can backup sector by sector, including the “blank” areas of a hard disk: not my preferred mode, but is possible for forensic reasons or in situations where you would like to recover deleted data later on.

CONS:

  • Does not do incremental backup: in the free version. Incremental backups allow you to append only the data that has been modified or added since your last backup rather than creating a new image altogether.
  • Does not dynamically resize an image: very strange. I created an image of a 256 gig hard drive that had only 30 gigs of data, then resized the hard drive to create two partitions, then attempted to restore the image to a resized 100 gig partition. It wouldn’t do it (I did this sort of thing before so I know other disk imaging programs do it).

I’ve mentioned a few hard drive imaging programs on Freewaregenius, but recently received an email recommending Macrium Reflect Free from Bear of the “Bear Bottom’s Freeware” site. I quote our (slightly edited) email back-and-forth below (“B:” for Bear, “S:” for myself):

B: I have a suggestion for your Freeware Top 30. System recovery is more important than malware prevention and I find that many people aren’t prepared for it, either lacking skill technically or system recovery disks (only on-hard-drive vendor images). Making an image of your active partition is the single most important part of a security plan, in my opinion, and very easy to do. I think it is the single most important thing anyone who owns a computer should do… Anyway, I suggest you list an imaging program in your top 30. I like Macrium Reflect.

S: Thanks so much for the suggestion. As it happens, I am looking to expand the Top30 … and looking for an imaging program to recommend… I would be very grateful if you could share your thoughts on why you like Macrium Reflect. I am planning to look into Redo Backup for a possible review.

B: What I like most about Macrium Reflect is the rock solid and speedy boot CD…something I didn’t like about Redo Backup-which I used for a while before MR. MR is also dead simple to use and more intuitive. The only limitation is incremental backups which I do not like anyway. Besides, you can mount MR images with a right click/explore image in Explorer which assigns a drive letter, and all of the folders and files are accessible read only…though you can open or copy any file/folder. The second thing I like most is it is faster than Redo. It takes me 23 minutes to make a 55gig image and 30 minutes to restore it. Redo took longer… Though I listed Redo first on my site and really gave it a chance…it just frustrated me at times and I had difficulty with the boot CD a few times…none of which happens with MR.

B: MR is too simple. When you first run the program, it prompts you to make a boot CD. Then the wizards guides you through the image – dead simple-what partition(s) to image-where do you want to put it-make the image–simply straight forward. Booting to the CD just works and fast….anyone can do it with little or no frustrations.

B: MR doesn’t do incremental backups which is the only potential negative about the free version. I don’t like incremental backups anyway. Why bother with them when you can make a new image in 23 minutes?

S: Personally I have been using Paragon Backup Free Edition, and have used DriveImage XML; wondering if you had any thoughts on those in comparison!

B: tried all four of these plus a few others. Of the bunch, I personally like MR the best as it was the easiest to use and the fastest. However, I also list DriveImage XML and Paragon Backup and Recovery along with Macrium Reflect on my website and they work fine. I used to list Redo, but had so many issues with it and it was slow, that I de-listed it. After all was said and done, I was most pleased with MR. I would be interested to see the results of your comparison.

B: I likely over-use imaging as I use it for another purpose (replace VM in testing malware.) I tried those and a few others and Macrium just performed flawlessly every time. So did DriveImage though it was a bit slower. I ran into a few bothersome issues with Paragon, but they were minor. I became frustrated with Redo. It likely comes down to personal preference or taste between those three (Redo is not yet ready IMO or wasn’t a few months ago). MR pleased me the most and was faster.


The verdict: definitely a contender for best free disk imaging program. The free edition’s handicap (no incremental backups) is made somewhat redundant by the fact that the program is designed for fast backups anyway. The only real drawback, IMO, is that it will not let you restore your image to a resized partition, a flaw which can be a real hassle to work around if you’ve already gone ahead and done the resizing.

Aside from the speed factor, which is definitely this program’s main draw, the second most appealing thing about this program is the ability to simply right click on an image file and grab files stored within, a rare feature and one that can potentially be very useful. All in all this is a very solid program; definitely check it out.

Version Tested: v4.2.2952

Compatibility: XP, Vista, Windows 7. 32 and native 64 Bit.

Go to the program home page to download the latest version (approx 31.4 megs).