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Q. What's the best way to back up my data?

I have a PC running Windows XP, and currently back up my data regularly using copy and paste onto an external hard drive. The problem with my current drive‑to‑drive method is that, in the case of a full windows reinstall, it means that I still have to reinstall some software (and this eats into my downloads and licences from the developers' web site). Is specialised disk cloning or imaging software a better option?

Paul Allerton, via email

SOS contibutor Martin Walker replies:

You're very wise to back up your data regularly, but there's a fundamental difference between copy and paste backups and disk imaging or cloning: the latter takes a snapshot of everything on the chosen partition or drive, including all the hidden and system files, although it's clever enough to ignore such things as huge page files that only contain temporary data, to keep the image file sizes to a minimum.

Each image file is, therefore, a time capsule, since when you 'restore' it your computer will return to exactly the same state it was in when you created that image file, leaving your licensed software intact. Most imaging utilities also offer compression options, typically squashing the data to about half the original size, while still letting you explore and restore individual files contained within.

It's always safest to store these image files onto external media, such as DVD or an external hard drive, to cope with the worst‑case scenario of your entire computer blowing up or being struck by lightning. In which case, when you get your replacement PC, you can restore your external backups onto this and avoid days of reinstalling Windows and applications, and authorising copy‑protected software. However, if, like many musicians, you have several hard drives in your audio PC, you can also store routine images of one drive to another, so that if one drive goes belly‑up, you'll still have a recent image file on your other drive to restore when you've replaced the faulty one.

We explored different strategies for backing up your data in the October 2007 issue of Sound On Sound (see /sos/oct07/articles/data_protection.htm), and it might be worth giving that a read for more information.

There's a bewildering array of imaging utilities on offer, so here's a quick rundown of some of the best alternatives. Windows 7 now includes its own Backup & Restore application that many users find perfectly sufficient, and for Windows 7/XP/Vista a very popular commercial package is Acronis True Image, especially since free licensed versions are available from various hard-drive manufacturers, for use with their own products.

An imaging utility (such as Paragon Backup & Recovery, shown here) will create a complete snapshot of your computer's hard drive and save you having to reinstall software after a crash or drive failure.An imaging utility (such as Paragon Backup & Recovery, shown here) will create a complete snapshot of your computer's hard drive and save you having to reinstall software after a crash or drive failure.There are also various utilities that work with all makes of hard drive and are totally free for the home user. After trying out quite a few, I've ended up using Paragon Backup & Recovery 2010 (www.paragon‑‑express), which has a free advanced version that is fairly unique among the free utilities in offering an incremental backup option that only stores files newer than your previous image files. I've been very pleased with its clear and easy‑to‑use interface, and my slimmed‑down 10GB Windows partition takes just four minutes to back up to a compressed file of some 6GB.

This free version of Paragon Backup & Recovery 2010 runs on both 32‑bit and 64‑bit versions of Windows 7, Vista, XP and Server 2003/2008. It can create a Linux/DOS recovery environment onto CD, DVD or Flash memory (so that you can boot your PC from these media and restore image files even if your computer refuses to boot up by itself). You can even assign a drive letter to 'mount' an archived partition, so you can access the files within using Windows Explorer. More sophisticated versions are available, but to date I've been perfectly happy with the free one.