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Guide To Acronis True Image

author: Chris Price
2007-08-08 -- this site
Previously on Pelaginox.com
© 2006 - 2008 A3webtech

Guide to Acronis True Image disk images

Acronis TI is now the application of choice for many professional and expert PC users who wish to create disk images for fast recovery from a crashed Windows system. However, like many - if not most - companies in the computing sphere, Acronis do not provide a simple 1-2-3 guide to using the program. It will take most users at least one failed restore to achieve a faultless crash-recovery procedure, and unless they have a perfect memory they will need to make their own notes on the routine. This article therefore attempts to present a clearer picture of how best to use A.T.I. for a right-first-time system restore.

Especially, this guide shows how to use Acronis TI for USB disk images. There are three requirements here:

1. To present a clear routine for back-up and restore success
2. To discuss issues that may prevent a working backup image
3. To describe the USB disk image process

The Acronis Guide - Part 1  [this page]
The Acronis Guide - Part 2   [page 2 of the guide]

What is a disk image - and why?

How long does it take you to reinstall Windows, plus your favourite programs, plus your main useful data - either for a brand new disk, or to copy it onto another machine? Answer: a long time. A disk image does it in one shot, sometimes in less than an hour. This is also called a cloned disk or ghost disk.

Why Acronis TI?

ATI has emerged as one of the favourites in this field because Acronis have succeeded in developing a product that both works extremely well, and fits user requirements. Their competitors have not necessarily achieved this.

How to store your disk images

In the end, the only sensible option is an external USB hard disk These are an excellent choice for this purpose and of course for most data backups. Commercial versions may not be optimal because all USB disk enclosures need a cooling fan, and it seems that most pre-built enclosures don't have one. Without a fan the box can get so hot you can't touch it, and the disk will be at 90 degrees C or so. This is not good for the health of the disk...  Here is a link to our page that describes how to build a 500GB USB external disk with a fan.

Acronis TI version notes

This Guide refers exclusively to versions 8 and 9. Some issues in v8 are detailed here that will assist users of that version. These issues were resolved in v9 and later. Versions 10 and later are not covered, though the basic information is essentially the same. Especially, the use of USB disks is well covered here. There are also some notes on the new freeware v8 version, Acronis Personal Edition 8, which follow.

New Acronis 8 version

A new version of Acronis 8 is being distributed as freeware, here:

That offer has now ceased; however, you can still get Acronis free:
1. In one of the many magazine promotions.
2. If you buy a new Seagate hard disk or USB disk, the free Seagate Disk Utilities contains Acronis True Image 8.

You must download the software from the Seagate website; it is about 105MB, so not a 5-minute job. It's well worth getting this, and since I recommend Seagate disks, this is another good reason to buy this brand. The version notes here in this Guide can be applied to the new Acronis 8 version in Seagate's tools, except that the 'file exclusion' default config error has been fixed - so this is now an even better application.

The faulty image creation configuration that meant system files weren't included by default has been fixed; all images now include hidden files by default. Therefore you can safely ignore this issue if you are using ATI Personal v8 build 896 onward, from this source.

Acronis 8 has trouble with SATA RAID arrays, especially when the PC mainboard uses the ICH9 controller chip. There are some workarounds but these are too lengthy to explain here. Ask in our forum.

Acronis with Vista and SATA disks

At mid-2008 it looks as if there are serious issues if running Vista and SATA disks, and especially with disk arrays. Until this is resolved you may find another application is a better choice, if you are running the latest software and hardware, certainly with RAID arrays.

How long does an Acronis disk image take to create ?

Hard disk size is not relevant, only the data is copied. It is normally compressed to around 50 - 70% of the original size.

Using the external image process (not the on-disk secure zone method), on a small XP system, a disk of around 6GB data takes less than 10 minutes to create an image of, and as stated the size of the disk itself is not relevant. It should then be verified, which takes about the same time. The actual times in a test run were 7 minutes for creation and 9 minutes for verification, but this should be regarded as the shortest viable time, it may take longer.

Also, a boot disc, on a CD, must be created - but this is a universal disc usable with any Acronis image. It's a one-click procedure and is created by the application in a couple of minutes.

How long does an Acronis image take to restore ?


The image described above took 15 minutes to restore, and a little longer to verify. In addition the disk reformat time prior to that was 20 minutes. With an Acronis image, it's not necessary to reformat the disk (much of the time) but this is an additional safety procedure that some may wish to use.

Acronis TI basics

There are two types of ATI backup image: a full disk image (or just one partition), and a file or folder backup. While some users will only want to back up their files, most will want to take advantage of the full disk restore capability that ATI offers. In order to use this facility, considerations must be given to aspects not obvious to first-time users.

ATI can restore a complete working Windows OS, plus all the added Service Packs, plus all the user data including programs and data folders, plus multiple partitions, in one shot. In other words, you can have a bare-metal crash and recover in one shot with an ATI image; or, of course, build a disk up from scratch. This is so useful that it's surprising more people don't take advantage of this capability. Most working PCs now will have a minimum of 10GB of OS, apps, and data on the HD, and often more than one partition. Many have 50GB-plus. To restore even a 10GB disk to full working original state is at least a day's work; but ATI will restore it in an hour or so. Faster, in fact, than the original OS install, never mind all the additional apps and data loading. To many, this facility is priceless.

It is unlikely, though, that a first-time effort will prove fully successful, since any app needs some working knowledge and experience for effective use. We aim to offer you a short cut.

What you need to know

The full system restore capability is the app's best feature, since a file and folder restore can be handled just as competently by a remote Briefcase sync, or just about any other networked or removable media solution. In any case, if you wanted to be certain your folders and files are replaced exactly as they existed before the crash, the best route would be to first make a full system backup image and then follow with incremental images to save the folders.

A 'system crash' can consist of any number of types of faults, or simply an accumulation of minor problems that make it desirable to return to a clean system. It may also be useful to clone the disk – to copy it to a new but larger disk for the same PC, or to set up another PC with the same configuration. Faults might include any of the following: an unrepairable fault in the Windows OS; a virus or multiple virus infection; the eventual instability of a long-term Windows installation; a general PC slowdown due to overloading with network connections and device drivers, many of which may be redundant but still hang on in the background; and so on. Returning to a known clean (and fast) state is a useful option.

There are several possible ways to store the backup image with ATI, though only one that will always prove satisfactory. These are:

1. Secure Zone / Recovery Manager backups.
2. Network disk backups (LAN solutions).
3. USB disk backups.
4. CD backups.
5. DVD backups.
6. Cloned disk backups.
7. Other alternatives.
8. Future possibilities.
9. CDs + USB disk - my personal choice.

Taking these in turn:

1. Setting an Acronis Secure Zone on the disk sounds a good idea. This method invokes the Acronis Recovery Manager, which manages the image creation and a backup restore if needed. This is the ideal method since it is the fastest to create, the fastest to restore, and much the simplest overall.
It would be perfect except for one small problem: it takes a lot of space. At a minimum it takes a quarter of the disk, and often more than a third - which most users simply won't want to sacrifice to something that may not be needed for a while. With a hard drive of only 20GB for instance, as on some laptops, giving away 5 to 8GB just isn't on. Although this is certainly the most trouble-free solution, there cannot be many users who will go this route. Perhaps office workstations with only 30 or 40% disk usage can use this method.

Using a Secure Zone on a PC's second hard disk sounds attractive. In practice it won't normally be possible, even for those who have two HDs, because you can't boot from the second drive on an IDE cable. Most people who have two drives have them both set up on the same cable; running with a HD as master on each cable usually needs extra-long IDE cables of 0.9 meter length, which few have. Of course, for an ATI recovery zone to work, you have to boot to it.

It will work on SATA disk PCs and laptops. However, the Secure Zone method is not foolproof: occasionally the restore fails, and you are stuck.

2. Network disks, i.e. a HD on a server or remote PC, may work for some. In the case of those who can boot from a network drive, this will most likely succeed. It may require something like Novell Network to be practical. To boot from a simple cable LAN, and especially a WiFi LAN, would be asking a lot. If you can actually boot from a remote PC, then this will probably work for you – but it would be advisable to test this solution fully before needing it for real. You will need the BIOS enabled for a drive boot sequence of: NIC (LAN card), A (FD), D (CD drive), C (HD). Some cases may need: A, NIC, D, C. The commonly-seen sequence of A, C, D will not prove workable in some situations and is best avoided; although this is frequently seen on unskilled user's machines when managed by experts (in order to avoid them inadvertently booting to a CD then wasting the IT department's time by claiming there is a fault). It overlooks the fact that C may have a faulty OS that will boot but is unworkable. If you can change the boot sequence by keyboard choice at boot-up, though, it's OK – but not every BIOS allows this.

3. USB external hard drives are a good solution. For a restore, you first need to load the Acronis Boot CD, and then you can follow with the image from a USB disk.

It's safer to get the first part of the image, the bit with the operating system, on CDs as well - for redundancy.

You can't use a USB disk for the entire restore process because (a) you first need to boot with the Acronis Boot CD, and (b) drivers for the USB hard disk aren't available in a bare-metal restore - they can only be used from Windows or a specialist boot environment (like the Acronis Boot CD).

So therefore they won't work for the first part of the recovery process (apart from one method detailed in the Appendix,
a custom solution that involves loading a bunch of proprietary USB disk drivers at boot-up). This is because you cannot access USB disks until Windows is running - but you are looking to start the image restore from a bare drive. Many USB disks will require their own specific drivers, and therefore to provide a mass-market working solution would involve an impossibly large number of drivers. For this to work, you will need to be able to access the drive letter for the USB disk on boot-up, in DOS.

Note: USB drivers in BIOS is nothing to do with this scenario; here we are talking about manufacturer-specific drivers for external hard disks. They are all different. USB disks often work faultlessly in Windows without any driver install because this is one of the things Windows – especially XP – is very good at: it has a lot of drivers built in. In fact some might say it's XP's best feature; and it's also one reason why XP is so big.

*** See Appendix 1 for latest USB disk image info***

4. CD backups always work and are a good all-round solution. ATI contains both bare-drive CD drivers for the restore process, and a burner app to create the image CDs in the first place. You'd need a lot of CDs, though, for a fully-loaded system restore. The image is compressed, of course, but still takes around 50% of the original data size (not the partition size) to store. Look at how big the Secure Zone needs to be, if you chose that option.

Note that the image CDs are not bootable: an Acronis Boot CD has to be loaded first – so don't forget to create that.

5. DVD backups are a good option if you have a DVD burner on the PC to create them with in the first place. ATI doesn't contain DVD drivers, so you need to load 3rd-party drivers with the ATI Boot CD for this to work. Again, there are too many different versions for ATI to encompass this method; you will have to provide your own solution here. On balance, the CD method is safer.

2009-08 update 
Most computers now include DVD drivers, so this option is now viable. If you can boot from a DVD, then an Acronis restore from DVD will work. Test it to see.

6. Cloning your HD to another disk on the PC is a good option. ATI is so flexible that the new disk doesn't even have to be the same size, though obviously it needs to be big enough to get the full image on. You could connect another HD, perhaps in a drive caddy so that it is removable, and clone your drive. If your first drive dies, then you can run straight away with your second disk (depending of course on the cable positions of each, which may have to be swapped around, as you can't boot from the second drive on an IDE cable). You could run with a 'hot spare', as some RAID arrays do. With SATA disks / mainboards this isn't a problem.

A basic argument against this, though, is that if you've got two HDs for your PC, you'll most likely want to use them both. If you have them available, you tend to fill them. Nevertheless, this option will suit expert users who are not afraid to fit two disks and/or swap them around. You could always get three disks for the machine. Experts will be aware of the issues surrounding 2-disk arrays, and the cable positions / IDE cable issues / jumper issues that have to be taken into account before this will work [this is now superseded by SATA]. And let's not get involved with SCSI just now...

7. There are of course other backup methods that may or may not be available, and that may or may not work. Firewire external disks for instance: but this does't sound like a workable method for a total solution since IE1394 drivers are not available on a bare drive. Like USB disks, this will work for the second stage (see later). Tape drives: same again. Zip drives: possible – but think of the number of discs, and the cost per disc.

8. The new Blu-Ray discs coming out now have a 25GB capacity at £5 / $8 per disc [at 2007-08-01]. This sounds good to me, and may well be the solution of choice soon. The same issues surrounding the use of DVDs will apply. At present, the £400 / $600 cost of a burner drive doesn't sound too clever.

This works

9. And finally, a method that will always work, with the minimum hassle: use CDs for the initial OS image, and a USB disk for the big incremental images with all the apps and data on.

Say for instance you are backing up a hard disk with 25GB of OS, apps, and data on. The initial OS install can be burnt to CDs. This will only take 1 CD for a basic Windows 2000 install without the Service Packs (the install may be up to 1.3GB but Acronis compresses it); and around two for an XP skinny install. In other words, don't load the OS up fully with all the options and SPs at first. Install the smallest OS version, then burn it to CDs. Then create the same image again on a USB external hard drive – this repeated first stage is for safety, and to provide a complete image on file in the USB disk's image folder. Then expand it with network options and SPs, and create an incremental full disk image on the USB disk. Then add programs and data, and create an incremental backup. Then create another at a later date, with all the added apps and data at that stage.

This solution results in the minimum number of CDs required to ensure an always-workable image restore, and also the entire image on a USB disk. It means you will be able to restore by loading first the Acronis Boot CD, then going straight to the USB disk. If by some chance the USB disk image failed, then you have the operating sytem image on CDs - always the most basic and reliable part of a solution.

USB plug-in hard drives are commonly available at around 100 to 300GB now, and price-wise are often a bargain per GB of storage – around 25p per GB – so there should be plenty of space available. USB 2.0 on both the PC and the USB disk means a reasonably quick procedure. USB 1.0 will be slow.

Laptop owners using USB hubs should be warned that there are very few hubs that provide full bandwidth to all connected devices – the bandwidth is split between all connected hardware, so eventual traffic throughput can be very slow indeed in the case of a USB 1.0 device anywhere in the system. For a start the hub needs to be powered (with an external PSU), and at present it seems only the Belkin TetraHub guarantees full bandwidth to all devices.

To create your first Acronis disk image, you can:
  • Install Acronis. Create an Acronis Boot CD. Create a full disk image on a USB external disk.
  • Or, replace your hard drive with a new one, and start from scratch. Install Windows and image it to both CDs and a USB disk; add programs and data, and create incremental images.
  • Do both, then all your options are covered.

In short

If you are starting with a bare drive, install a minimum OS and burn an Acronis image to CD. Also save this stage on a USB disk. Then, expand the installation and create incremental Acronis backups at each stage, onto the USB disk. Also create an Acronis Boot CD, which is required to boot a bare drive.

If you are starting with a fully-built and working drive, you can create a full image on a USB disk. Incremental backups will keep this up to date. You need to create an Acronis Boot CD, for the first boot-up on a bare-metal system (one with no OS, partitions, or formatted space).

I personally don't feel safe and secure unless the first part of the image, with the basic OS on it, is also on CDs - but that's just the paranoia that comes with having lost data. Remember, the world is divided into people who have lost their data, and people who will lose their data.

A real paranoid would get a full image on CDs - though even I'm not that bad. You could set the compression level to high when burning the image, to reduce the image size; but it then takes longer both to burn and to restore. Also there are issues with compressed images: they take much longer to restore, and the failyre rate is much higher.

To back up files and folders, simply use the USB disk. Of course, there is a popular saying 'If data doesn't exist in three places, it doesn't exist', and this has a lot of truth in it. Duplicate the image on other media for safety.

Plugging an image

You may decide at some stage to change your OS, for instance if you have Windows ME installed (as many still do) and wish to upgrade. In this case Acronis TI offers a very useful facility: you can create a full disk image before reformatting the disk, and then if you later find there was some data you forgot to retrieve before formatting the disk and installing the new OS, all is not lost. You can 'plug the image': that's to say you can connect to the image on the USB disk while in the new OS, and explore the old disk image in its entirety. All the files and folders will be accessible, exactly as if you were accessing the old hard drive.

Note that the data is accessible if discrete, but not if embedded in an application. You cannot normally run applications across the disks like this. So if the data you need is in a folder, that's fine - you can retrieve it. If you want an email out of Thunderbird, say - you are unlikely to be able to retrieve it.

Acronis images - quick advice

  • Don't use the Secure Zone - it takes a big chunk of disk, and it isn't foolproof
  • Get the first skinny OS image on CDs or DVDs, as well as on the USB disk, for redundancy
  • Don't use compression, it's the main cause of dud images
  • If you're using Acronis v8 or v9, and not one of the recently re-issued versions of them, make sure to adjust the file exclusions or you won't get a working disk image

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The Acronis Guide - Part 2    -- the guide continues on the next page

This page has been about: Acronis manual, USB disk image, backup disc, acronis exclude files

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