The best free drive imaging program

Acronis True Image may be the best drive imaging program on the market [1] but at $79 it’s not within everyone’s budget. In this review I looked at free alternatives. These included: Drive Image XML, g4u, HDClone Free Edition, SystemRescue CD, and the Ultimate Boot CD.

Unfortunately, not one of the freeware drive imaging programs comes close to matching the extensive feature sets of True Image but there are several competent products to choose from.

Many of the freeware drive imaging programs work by booting from a diskette or CD, loading a lightweight Linux environment, and then executing a command. This limits their use to offline imaging – only meaning that they cannot be used within Windows while it is running. However, these programs are small and fast and while they might not offer the entire suite of features that the commercial programs boast, they do perform the core drive imaging tasks quite well.

If the only functionality that’s needed is to clone one disk to another larger disk, then take a look at HDClone Free Edition [3]. It is a relatively small download, can be run from either a diskette or CD, and has a graphical user interface that makes it super easy to use. HDClone requires no command line interaction and is perfect for upgrading from one hard drive to another. However, the Free Edition of HDClone is not capable of cloning from a larger disk to a smaller disk, working with individual disk partitions, or creating or restoring image files (locally or otherwise).

For a more comprehensive set of advanced features such as those mentioned above, g4u [4] is the freeware drive imaging program to use. g4u is an extremely small program that can be downloaded in either boot diskette or CD format and offers a lot of features. Not only can it clone disk to disk (any size) and copy disk partitions, it can also create and restore image files both locally and from a FTP site (if the workstation is connected to a wired network with a DCHP service). This feature is great for backing up a workstation directly to an image file stored on another computer for either safekeeping or for deployment to multiple workstations on the network. The various features of g4u are implemented by executing commands via the console, but a reference of the simple commands is displayed immediately after booting using the g4u boot media.

Users running Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 needing an online disk imaging solution are encouraged to try DriveImage XML [5]. DriveImage XML utilizes the Volume Shadow Copy Service to backup drive and partitions to image files or clone drive to drive while Windows is running. Because of this, a Windows task can also be created and scheduled to automatically create backup images. While this program can perform the tasks it promises, backups do take longer than using one of the offline programs previously mentioned. However, it is the only program reviewed that can create scheduled backup images while Windows is running which is great for making "incremental" backup images between full offline backups. With its attractive GUI interface, it will be an easy first choice for many XP users. Note from Gizmo: Many thanks to regular contributor Crag Vollmar for preparing this excellent review.

[3] Freeware, OS Independent, 3.5 MB
[4] Freeware, OS Independent, 1.36 MB
[5] Freeware, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003, 1.60 MB

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