The best free disk imaging program: a comparative analysis (updated)

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What is the best way to safeguard your computer and undo a system disaster? Most would agree that is done best by making a  so called ‘disk image’, where your entire system partition is backed up and cloned, and the image saved on a different physical hard drive.

Disk images are also an excellent way to keep data entire hard drives or partitions backed up and optionally compressed and/or encrypted.

But not all freeware disk imaging tools are created equal. This article aims to find out which free disk imaging software is the best .

To answer this question we conducted head-to-head tests on four of the best free disk imaging programs that are available on the internet: Paragon Backup & Recovery 2012, DriveImage XML, Easeus Todo Backup, Macrium Reflect, the Windows 7 built in imaging, and Redo Backup. See the results below. Last updated: Nov 30th, 2012

hard drive imaging illustration

In our last update of this article we added 2 programs to the mix (Redo Backup and Windows 7 own internal imaging function), we fixed some data in the comparison table, and editing the article according to the new info.

The list of programs that were considered:

  1. Paragon Backup & Recovery 2012 (Advanced) Free (v 10.1.19.15786 / 28.05.12 )
  2. Easeus Todo Backup (v 5.0)
  3. Macrium Reflect (v 5.0 build 5167)
  4. DriveImage XML (v 2.44)
  5. Redo Backup (v 1.0.3)
  6. Windows 7 built in imaging

We excluded a number of programs such as CloneZilla and Seagate Diskwizard (for various reasons; see why).

Note: if you would like you can skip the analysis below and jump straight to our results section (download links are under the results section).

The criteria:

  1. Imaging and compression performance: which program is the best in both speed and compression. This was the most important factor we looked at.
  2. Restoration speed: we measured this, which may be important for users who need to restore images frequently.
  3. Feature comparison: we considered a handful of functions that we think to be important.

The Test:

We installed all four programs on a Windows 7 64 bit OS. Next, we imaged that partition with each program across all compression settings (i.e. 3 or 4 times for each program). Next, we restored these images back one after the other, to gauge restoration speed. Here are the results.

The Data:

[expand title=”Click here to see the data”]

Original partition size = 18.7 GB

ProgramCompression ModeBackup SecondsBackup SizeCompression %Restoration Seconds
EaseUsNormal3437.61 GB41%495
EaseUsMedium5196.38 GB34%648
EaseUsHigh6806.25 GB33%638
ParagonFast6429.67 GB52%603
ParagonNormal5526.64 GB36%513
ParagonBest6505.55 GB3%482
Macrium ReflectNone66111.5 GB61%577
Macrium ReflectMedium4786.74 GB36%577
Macrium ReflectHigh6166.52 GB35%575
Driveimage XmlNone84017.3 GB93%1585
Driveimage XmlFast81911.4 GB61%1516
Driveimage XmlGood14416.04 GB32%1644
Redo BackupN/A6646.9 GB37%173
Windows7 BackupN/A173011.7 GB62.6%663

[/expand]

1. Imaging and compression performance:

Backup Chart Nov30

The pink box above shows the best performance: the fastest image creation and the smallest file size. Easeus ‘normal’ profile is the best bet (small file size and very fast imaging speed).

Generally speaking, Easeus comes out on top IMHO, but if you are looking for the smallest image size then Paragon is your best bet (i.e. Paragon’s best compression mode). Macrium Reflect also does well generally speaking, but if you are using Macrium Reflect because you think it is the fastest, as I was, our test shows Easeus is fastest, and Paragon does more or less just as well on speed. Redo does pretty well as well with a fast, small size backup.

DriveImage XML did not fare so well (all of the datapoints outside the pink box), and Windows 7 took by far the longest and created a large backup file (the second biggest in our tests).

2. Restoration speed

Restoration Snapshot Nov30

Four things to say about this chart:

  1. Restoration time = the red bars, the smaller they are the better. The grey bars are imaging times, just for reference.
  2. Redo Backup is the fastest to restore. Considering that it’s backup time and size was very good as well, it is definitely a good option.
  3. Restoration time is roughly similar for Paragon, Easeus, and Macrium Reflect. DriveImageXML stands out for taking way longer
  4. Easeus ‘normal’ compression profile (my favorite profile from the imaging performance section above) is one of the fastest to restore, which pretty much confirms Easeus as my favorite free disk imaging program.

3. Features:

Note: we are discussing the FREE versions here. The paid versions typically have more features. This is not an exhaustive list of features but rather a list of what we thought most noteworthy.

EaseUs freeParagon freeMacrium Reflect freeDriveImage XMLRedo BackupWin 7 imaging
Support for hot processing: i.e. the ability to create images of the system partition without a reboot.Yes.Yes.Yes.No. LiveCD only.No. LiveCD only.Yes.
Selective restore:i.e. the option to or restore specific files from an imageYes (also allows mounting images).Yes (also allows mounting images).No.Yes (also allows mounting images)No.Yes. Allows browsing backups and restoring files and folder.
Option to backup and restore system files only.Yes.Yes.Yes.No.No.No.
Ease of bootable Media Creation:whether on CD or USBEasy (from within the application)Easy (from within the application)Easy (from within the application; Linux based). WinPE bootable media also available; but is a large download.Difficult. You have to download WinPE; add a plugin to it; and make a live CD. (Or DL and burn Ultimate Boot CD).Large download. 250 megs; have to burn ISO to media.Easy . It will burn a recovery DVD on demand; but strangely will not burn to a USB stick. Or use your Windows disc.
Incremental / selective backup:i.e. to change an existing image to only reflect changes in the source.YesNo. Not in the free versionNo. Not in the free versionNo. Not in the free versionNo.No.
The ability to restore an image to adifferent size hard drive.Yes. Uncheck sector by sector to do so.Yes. Will let you specify the new size of the partition before restoring.Yes.Yes.Yes.Yes.
Support for GPT formatted disksYes.Yes.Yes.No.No.? Unsure.

Excluded programs:

We excluded CloneZilla because we found it too complicated and not user friendly. Seagate Discwizard was excluded because it only supported hard drives made by Seagate and Maxtor.

Results:

[+] is a pro, [-] is a con

EaseUS ToDo Backup Screenshot

Our FIRST choice: EaseUs ToDo Backup Free

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick

 

 

  • [+] Easy to use and friendly
  • [+] Excellent performance for both imaging speed and recovery speed, as well as compression
  • [+] Easy creation of bootable media
  • [+] A good set of features overall. The only free program to perform incremental backups.

Paragon Backup and Recovery 2012

Our close SECOND choice: Paragon Backup & Recovery 2012 (Advanced) Free

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick

 

 

  • [+] Easy to use and friendly
  • [+] Excellent performance for both imaging speed and recovery speed, as well as compression (although EaseUs above might have a slight edge)
  • [+] Easy creation of bootable media
  • [+] A good set of features overall
  • [-] You need to register the program with a valid email (for free).

Redo Bakcup Screenshot

Tied for second place: Redo Backup

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick

 

 

  • [+] Excellent performance for imaging speed, but also the best recovery speed recorded in our tests. If you need to frequently restore images this may be the one for you. Without a doubt one of the best free disk imaging options out there.
  • [+] Redo Backup performs truly byte-for-byte, “bare metal” disk imaging (thanks Gregg DesElms for pointing that out)
  • [+] The Live CD contains many tools that could be helpful in recovery situations, including file recovery.
  • [-] A 250 meg download, you will need to burn into bootable media.
  • [-] Somewhat un-user friendly, and requires getting used to. Also LiveCD only, operating from outside the OS. For some, a disadvantage, for others not so much.

Macrium Reflect ScreenshotOur THIRD choice: Macrium Reflect 

  • [+] Easy to use and friendly
  • [+] Excellent performance for both imaging speed and recovery speed, as well as compression
  • [-] Provides a comparatively small set of features in the free version.

DriveImage XML screenshotOur FOURTH choice: DriveImage XML

  • [-] Lags the others on every other front: Performance, ease of use, and creation of bootable media, etc.
  • [-] Creating bootable media can be labor intensive, requiring downloading a huge WinPE ISO and adding a DriveImageXML plugin manually to it before burning. An easier option (thanks to commenter Richard below) is to burn “Ultimate Boot CD for Windows” which comes with DriveImage XML plugin preinstalled.

Windows 7 imagingOur fifth choice: Windows 7 internal imaging

  • [+] Preinstalled with Windows, so there’s nothing else to install. You can use the Windows installation CD to perform a restore.
  • [-] Takes the longest time to perform a backup in our tests by far. Restoration time is reasonable though.
  • [-] Very low on features in general.

Download links


We would love to hear your opinion on your favorite free disk imaging software. Did we miss something above, a feature that you think important?, a program that is not listed?, etc… let us know in the comments section below.