Last year's Editors' Choice winner, Acronis True Image, gained the technological lead in disk-imaging technology. Briefly, it lets you create exact copies of your hard drive, whether to another hard drive or to removable media, while continuing to work on the drive you're backing up. The latest version of True Image continues to innovate. One new feature is file-based backup, for targeted backup projects; another is Snap Restore, which lets you start working with a disk even before it's fully restored. But in terms of usability, Acronis True Image 9 falls behind its bitter rival, Norton Ghost 10. Its tools, while equally powerful, take more time to master and require more hands-on maintenance. Power users and those who have already mastered Acronis True Image should upgrade; they will welcome the new features in this fast and efficient application for protecting data. But beginners are better off with Norton Ghost 10, which completely automates the backup process, making it easy for anyone to create, update, and keep track of disk images.
Acronis True Image 9 installs easily. Upon launch, it greets you with a cleanly laid out screen displaying icons for all the program's features. Click an icon, and a helpful wizard pops up to guide you through whichever function you wish to perform; however, someone new to disk imaging might be bewildered by the various functions--for instance, the distinction between an incremental and a differential backup, or what it means to plug in or unplug a disk image. In some cases, you may need to carefully read the explanations in the wizard to clear up any confusion.
To combat desktop clutter, Acronis True Image 9 doesn't install an icon in your system tray. Instead, it relies on Windows' built-in task scheduler to automate backups. Simply follow the wizard; you can have True Image make backups daily, weekly, or whenever a specified event occurs, such as a system shutdown. The main control console displays a list of scheduled backups.
When it comes to managing backups you've already created, Acronis True Image 9 has fallen behind its rival, Norton Ghost 10. With Acronis True Image 9, you still need to locate backups via filename--a potentially confusing process if you create daily backups of your system and manually delete old ones to free up space on your backup drive. Norton Ghost 10 displays your backups in a more user-friendly interface and can automatically delete old ones based on criteria you specify.
Acronis True Image 9 offers power users a host of features they won't find in other disk-imaging utilities, including Norton Ghost 10. For one, it lets you create a so-called SecureZone, backing up an image to a hidden drive partition, making it inaccessible to viruses and most hackers. Another feature, the Startup Recovery Manager, lets you configure your system so that it can boot up and restore itself without a separate boot disk.
The biggest new feature in Acronis True Image 9 is the ability to back up specific files and folders. Though this may seem like an odd feature for a product that specializes in backing up entire drives, it's actually very useful. You may want to create archival backups of certain folders or off-site backups of particularly important data. In such situations, backing up files to removable media, such as a DVD-R or CD-R disc, is ideal. Acronis True Image 9 supports file-type exclusions, letting you back up a disk and leave out certain file types; however, it doesn't let you affirmatively specify types to back up--you can't, for instance, tell True Image to back up all your Office DOC, XLS, and PPT documents regardless of their location on the drive.
The software includes some useful extras that go beyond mere backup. The Clone Disk feature lets you copy the complete contents of one drive onto another, which is useful if you're upgrading to a larger hard disk. The "Add a new disk" feature lets you format and partition a new disk drive, readying it for use on your system.
Acronis True Image 9 offers password protection for archives, but unfortunately, it doesn't support strong data encryption. This is an important security feature that Symantec introduced in Norton Ghost 10. We hope to see it in future versions of True Image.
Acronis True Image 9 performed well in our informal tests, quickly and efficiently creating images of hard disk partitions. Backups of your system disk occur in the background even while you work; there's no need to reboot your system. Acronis True Image 9 supports three methods of data backup. A full disk image backs up a drive from scratch. An incremental backup lets you keep a backup updated over time, recording just those changes made since the last incremental backup. A differential backup--a new feature in this version of the software--records in one file all the changes made to a disk since the initial full backup. Once you've made a full backup, these partial backups can quickly and efficiently keep it up-to-date.
Of course, if you are making a complete copy of your hard disk, you'll need a large amount of storage space. By default, Acronis True Image 9 compresses the data and leaves out some things, such as the Windows swap file, that aren't necessary to restore your system. If you don't have a large enough external hard drive or network disk, you can store images on removable media, such as a rewritable DVD drive.
One cool feature, Plug Image, makes a disk image appear as a separate hard drive. We found it a handy way to access specific files or folders in an archive; you simply mount a disk image as a hard drive. If you've made incremental or differential backups, you can use the image as a virtual time machine to return to your disk to an earlier state (for example, before you installed some buggy software).
Acronis True Image 9 comes with a detailed, though poorly organized, printed manual and a detailed Windows help file. On the company's Web site, you'll find a FAQ and a link to an external forum where users of the software share information and tips.
Unfortunately, True Image 9 has no autoupdate feature, so to get an update you have to go to the Acronis Web site and download a large install file.
To get free technical support, you fill out a support ticket at the company's site. Acronis also offers fee-based phone support.