March 21, 2019 — Acronis

What Is Full System Image Backup and Why Should I Care?

Cyber Protect Home Office
formerly Acronis True Image

When it comes to backup, you have two options:

  • Back up the individual files from your computer OR
  • Back up a snapshot or image of the entire system or disk

What is an image backup?

Image backups take snapshots of all system components and their data. It provides MSPs and users the capability of restoring a system if the computer is damaged. A backup image is handy since the image backups are exact copies of the whole OS, including applications, configuration, and files on every partition. Robust backup services automatically create a backup image for your hard drive if it fails.

Data is stored and can be quickly recovered without any coding needed. It also prevents reinstallation and reconfiguration of systems when malware is detected, or a disaster happens.

Users can restore a single file, a partition, or an entire disk to the same machine or a different hardware device; they can even restore a backup to a virtual machine. Backed-up data can be stored onsite or offsite. You can choose different storage options - external drive (HDD), USB drive, network-attached hard drive, network-attached storage (NAS), and more.

A snapshot is an image backup that takes the entire content in a C: drive. This file contains an incredibly complete copy of the drive. Images are commonly referred to as system images, system image backups, or complete system backups.

System Image Backup and Recovery explained

System images are backup techniques that can be performed to recover all computer drives and restore the computer in its operating system at any given time. Generally called the image backup technique, Microsoft primarily uses this method for Windows 10 and 11. A system image backup is an excellent solution to protect against computer or software failures.

Does Windows 10 have a system image backup tool inbuilt?

Windows 7 includes a backup and restoration feature. The feature remains present on Windows 10 and 11. However, the in-built backup and restore tool has several crucial limitations.

With Backup and Restore, you have two primary options - "Let Windows Choose" and "Let Me Choose". If you wish to customize backed-up folders, Windows will deny including the following:

  • Files in the Recycle Bin
  • File stored on FAT-formatted hard drives
  • Temp files (smaller than 1GB)
  • Disks and partitions without a drive letter
  • Files in Windows System folders

Can't restore single files

You won't be able to restore single files from the image backup. If you wish to restore a single file, you'd need to recover the entire image backup to get it.

A limited number of System Images are available

You can only store one system image backup on a designated drive. If you want to keep multiple system images created by Windows' system image tool, you'd need to use multiple destination drives. Moreover, Windows system image copies only include files required to run Windows.

No Cloud backup

Backup and Restore and File History only allow backups to local storage. Neither of them allows for cloud storage; if you want to keep a system image on the cloud, you'd need to manually transfer it from local storage.

How do I do a system image backup?

You can do a system image Windows backup via the System Image Backup tool, available in all Windows versions (since Windows 7), including Windows 11. This way, if your Windows gets corrupted or malfunctions, you can restore the entire image and proceed with your day-to-day processes.

System Image Backup is recommended instead of the Recovery Drive or Restore Point features. Keep in mind, you can't restore individual files from the System image backup created via the in-built Windows backup tool.

The easiest way to create an image backup in Windows is via the Control Panel.

  • Type "Control Panel" in the Search menu -> select it from the results
  • Select "Backup and Restore (Windows 7) from the Control Panel icon view
  • Click "Create a system image" -> choose where to save the image (external drive, DVD, or a network location)
  • To use an external drive, you'd need to format it to the NTFS file format
  • Click "Next"
  • Confirm which partitions of the hard drive to include in the image -> click "Start Backup"
  • Windows will create an image file backup now

It's best to create a system repair disc to boot Windows if it fails to do so on its own. To do so:

  • Insert a CD or DVD into your PC's drive
  • Choose "Create a system repair disc" from the "Backup and Restore (Windows 7)" window
  • Confirm the chosen DVD drive -> click "Create disk"

You can also use a third-party solution to create full image backups.

How to create complete image backup with Acronis Cyber Protect home Office?

Follow the steps below to set up a complete image backup and restore option with Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office.

  • Start Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office
  • Click "Backup" on the sidebar
  • Click "Add backup"
  • The "Entire PC" option is pre-selected, so leave it as it is
  • Select a custom name for your backup (optional)
  • Click "Select destination" to choose where to keep the backup

If you have a Premium Acronis subscription or an advanced plan, you could back up the system image to the Acronis Cloud. If not, you'd have to use an external drive. If one is plugged in, the software will detect it and display it in the list of available backup destinations.

  • After selecting a destination, click "Options" to set up the backup options (schedule, scheme, archive cleanup, and more)
  • If you choose the "Do not schedule" option, you'd need to run the process manually every time you want to create a new system image via the "Back up now" button

Another thing to note: It's best to set the retention rate for backups in storage, especially if you use a USB or an external HDD. This way, you'll ensure not to fill up the storage too quickly. You can customize backup cleanup rates in the "Backup Scheme" menu. If you keep backups on the Acronis cloud, you can set up cleanup guidelines in the "Advanced" menu.

  • Once you're done with the settings, click "Back up now" (or press the "down arrow" button to pick another start time option
  • Acronis will now create a full image backup of your system

Where is the operating system backup image stored?

As discussed, system backups can be stored on multiple media carriers. You can send them to local storage - external hard drives, USBs, NAS, etc., or opt for cloud storage via a dedicated backup solution.

How do I create a system image backup in Windows 7/8?

Backup tools for Windows aren't the most comprehensive, but they still create image backups. Let's see the best ways to save your Windows data without third-party software.

Windows 7

  • Open the "Start" menu
  • Go to "Control Panel"
  • Select "System and Security"
  • Choose the "Back up your computer" option

Windows 8/8.1

  • Open the "Start" menu
  • Go to "Control Panel"
  • Select "System and Security"
  • Select "File History"
  • Choose the "System Image Backup" option (on the left pane bottom)

What is the difference between full image backup and file backup?

While an image backup creates an exact copy of all system data, a file backup aims to save specific files. You can use a full backup to do a system restore, while a file backup can't restore your entire hard drive.

A full image backup comprises the entire data set on your PC, so it takes longer to complete and takes up more storage disk space. With file backup, the process takes less time and storage capacity.

Both types can recover data on your primary device, a different PC, or a virtual machine.

Which one is better - file backup or system image backup?

There is no ultimate backup type. Any technical writer fluent in backup software will suggest creating multiple backup types to counter natural disasters, malware attacks, and accidental deletion.

A full backup takes more time to complete and is heavier on storage capacity. A file-level backup takes less time to complete and is lighter on storage capacity. Both are convenient recovery tools for Windows 10, Mac, or even Linux. (run on a local or a virtual machine)

A system image backup is mandatory to have and keep in at least one drive locally and another in an offsite location. However, as full backup takes up significant storage capacity, once you have an initial copy of your system, it's best to go for incremental backups. This way, you will only update the data in storage rather than keep multiple copies of your entire system to quickly fill up your storage space.

Multiple full system backups are great if you have enough storage, handle large volumes of critical data, and can afford a dedicated backup solution with advanced features to automate the process and encrypt your backups.

Individual users would more likely benefit from regular file-level backups. However, every backup strategy requires at least one system image backup. Once done, you can go for as many incremental backups as you need. Installing a dedicated backup tool can help you manage and audit them without much hassle. If you don't want to spend extra, you can still use Windows 10 backup features.

File backup vs Image backup: Which to use and when?

The term "backup" could only mean "backup". But MSPs understand that there are numerous tools for the task. The following section describes the differences between two primary types of backup: file and image backup, and shows the cases where each can be effective for a particular backup.

File backup vs Image backup comparison

In addition to the files, photos, movies, and videos you store on your computer, you also have other important information. This includes your operating system, applications, browser history, preferences, settings, bookmarks, device drivers, etc. If you lose these files, the worst case is that your PC will not start. The best case is that you will spend time re-creating information.

With disk image backups, the software takes an image of the entire hard disk. This lets you restore the whole system to another computer, including the operating system, applications, browser history, preferences, settings, bookmarks, device drivers, and all the files you created and downloaded. Disk images let you restore the system and get back to a previous state quickly.

Alternatively, you can restore to bare metal; that is, restore everything on your computer to a new one with an empty disk. This is especially helpful in cases where your original PC is destroyed, stolen, or lost.

File backups let you back up specific files and folders. For example, you can back up a single partition, two folders, or even a particular file. File backups can also create a full backup file if they comprise all user data on your PC. This way, you can copy the backup to other drives (external storage) and quickly access any file you need.

For example, let's assume you buy a new PC, and Windows 10 and Microsoft Office applications are already loaded on the computer. You do not need to install an OS on your new computer, so a full file backup will be enough to restore all your data to the new machine.

What is full backup?

Full backup relates to creating at least one additional copy of all data files residing on your computer at one massive go. Generally, full backup files include media files, folders, hard drives, SaaS applications, app metadata, and more.

For businesses, system administrators are responsible for configuring the contents of a full backup. As for individual users, they can decide what to include in a full backup depending on their available storage space, data loss concerns, and their backup process approach.

What is an advantage of a full backup?

Full backups are considered the most secure method to backup and restore all files stored on your PC. (be it Windows or Mac)

Additionally, we can outline several more advantages:

  • All data on your computer, be it folders or individual files, is backed up at once, enabling earlier versions access when needed.
  • It's quick to recover files because the backup is readily available.
  • Backup files are easy to locate as all are kept on the same storage space medium.

Is an entire system backup the same as a full backup?

As we've outlined, if you back up all data on your PC, that can be referred to as a "full backup". However, "all data on a computer" can mean different things to different users.

For example, casual users rarely include Windows system files in a "full backup" as the OS is often perceived as already there. Either you have installed it before creating any other content, or someone else has installed it for you. Either way, the key here is that full backups let you choose what to include.

If you create a "system image backup", that would mean creating an exact copy of the entire system disk without the ability to choose what to include. (you'd get a Windows backup whether you want or not)

How long does a full system backup take?

Creating a full system backup of your Windows PC is typically a time-consuming process. It depends on the amount of data on your hard disk (or SSD) and your chosen storage. If you're using local (physical) storage, the backup will depend on the write/read speed of the backup media.

If you wish to create backup copies of your operating system and upload them to a cloud, the timeframe will depend on your internet connection speed. As the upload speed is typically slower than the download speed, you'd spent more time uploading a backup to the cloud than restoring files from backup to your PC.

For example, a system image of 100 GB will take approximately 24 hours to upload at 10Mbps. However, your internet speed isn't the only factor in online backup uploads. Uploading system images to the cloud also depends on the cloud storage provider. If their infrastructure isn't optimal, 24 hours of upload can turn into days or weeks.

Another thing to consider is file compression - vendors use it to limit the storage space used by system images. Nonetheless, compression typically prolongs backup times. Lastly, encryption algorithms can also affect the upload speed, but at much lower rates.

How to create a system image for Windows 10/11?

If you want to create a new system image of your Windows 10 or 11, you have three primary options:

  • Create a system image via Backup and Restore in Windows 10

To do so, follow the steps below:

  1. Type "control panel" in the Windows Start Menu and select the "Control Panel" app
  2. Select "Backup and Restore (Windows 7)" (the function works on Windows 10 and 11 as well)
  3. Select "Create a system image" from the left pane
  4. Choose where to store the backup - on an external drive, a DVD, or a network location

Here, make sure that the storage carrier is formatted using the NTFS file system; otherwise, you won't be able to transport the backup to it successfully.

  1. Click "Next"
  2. Confirm which partitions of the hard disk (marked by a hard drive letter) will be included in the system image.
  3. Click the "Start Backup" button
  4. Windows will now create an image file
  • Create a system repair disc for Windows 10

To do so, follow the steps below:

  1. Insert a CD or DVD into your computer's drive
  2. Open the "Control Panel" app from the Windows Start menu
  3. Select "Backup and Restore (Windows 7)"
  4. Confirm that the CD/DVD appears correctly in the available storage list
  5. Click the "Create disk" button
  • Create a full system backup via third-party software

Suppose you prefer a more versatile backup process. In that case, Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office allows you to create system image backups with the option to restore individual files as well as full image recovery and bare metal installation onto a new PC.

To do so for Windows, follow the steps below:

  1. Start Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office
  2. Click "Backup" on the sidebar
  3. Select "Add backup"

Quick tip: You can rename backups by clicking the arrow next to the backup name; then choose "Rename" and enter a new name

  1. Click the "Backup source" area -> select "Disks and partitions"
  2. In the new window, mark the checkboxes next to the disks and partitions you wish to back up -> click the "OK" button
  3. Click "Full partition list" to view hidden partitions

Remember, backing up dynamic disks requires using the partition mode only.

  1. Click the "Backup destination" area and select a backup destination:Acronis cloud - sign in to your Acronis account and click "OK"An external drive - all external hard drives plugged into your computer should appear in the list; browse through and select the backup driveNAS - you can choose the NAS from the NAS devices list. If you only have one NAS connected, Acronis will use it as a default backup destinationBrowse - select a backup destination from the folder options
  2. Acronis cloud - sign in to your Acronis account and click "OK"
  3. An external drive - all external hard drives plugged into your computer should appear in the list; browse through and select the backup drive
  4. NAS - you can choose the NAS from the NAS devices list. If you only have one NAS connected, Acronis will use it as a default backup destination
  5. Browse - select a backup destination from the folder options

You can click "Option" to see specific details and configure settings for the backup. Choose "Add a comment" to add a comment to the backup version; this will ease finding an older backup or auditing backups to free up disk space after a while.

  1. When done with settings, choose one of the two options:Click "Back up now" to run the backup immediatelyClick the arrow next to the "Back up now button" and choose "Later" to run the backup later or follow a schedule
  2. Click "Back up now" to run the backup immediately
  3. Click the arrow next to the "Back up now button" and choose "Later" to run the backup later or follow a schedule

Quick tip: Once you start an online backup, you can close Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office. The backup process will run in background mode.

When you back up to the Acronis Cloud, the first full image backup may take considerable time. Further incremental backups will likely be significantly faster as they only backup file changes since the last backup.

How to restore system images in Windows 10?

If your Windows 10 is crashing or doesn't respond adequately, restoring the Windows 10 image from backup may be your only hope to bring it back to normal. Luckily, Windows 10 native restore software enables quick image recovery.

To restore an image backup, follow the step below:

  1. In Windows 10, go for "Settings" -> "Update & Security" -> "Recovery"
  2. In the "Advanced startup" section (on the right), click "Restart now" (under "Advanced startup)

Windows 11 users should follow the path "Settings" -> "System" -> "Recovery" -> click the "Restart" button. (next to "Advanced startup")

  1. You'll now see the "Choose an option" window - go for "Troubleshoot" -> "Advanced options" -> "System Image Recovery" -> "See more recovery options" -> select "System Image Recovery"
  2. From there on, follow the prompts to restore the Windows image file.

If Windows 10 doesn't boot, start your computer with the system repair disc. Hopefully, you'll be taken to the "Choose an option" window. Follow the same steps to restore Windows 10 to its previous, healthy state.

Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office - the best full backup software

Protecting your data is a top priority whether you're an individual user or running an SMB. Windows native features are convenient but offer limited backup and restore options. Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office lets you create a full system image and restore files individually via a user-friendly interface. It saves you time and effort to put into critical tasks and keeps your business at the top of its game.

Moreover, you get top-tier protection against malware attacks, smart alerts, and automated patching to fortify your system against any modern threat. All Acronis features are packed into comprehensive software, so you won't have to rely on multiple solutions.

More from Acronis