Let me be frank!
Sometimes my faithful servant lets me down... at the moment I can least afford it, my computer chrashes.
Will Acronis True Image Home version 11.0 come to the rescue?!
I have just put my trusted computer to the test.
Before I begin I just have to say this: although the thoughts bring panic, I just can't resist the comparison with my fear of fire! I hope it never happens, but I've purchased a good fire-hose, and a fire-blanket in the kitchen. Just in case.... it is there ready to use. Of course the computer breaking down in my personal situation is peanuts compared to fire. Nonetheless, it is a comforting thought I have put Acronis (for short) in place. As I said, the full name is: "Acronis True Image Home version 11.0".
Until now I have a set of cd's, with the original restore for windows XP, service pack 2, and other stuff like printer software. Then of course I tweak it with some intrusion protection, and my favorite browsers like Firefox, and Opera. And of course I personally like Ubuntu, so I install that as well. Backups of data I copied to a mobile disk towards the end of every month.
Somehow I have to do this ritual of restoring every six months to a year, because "the computer grinds to a halt", and it finally just freezes. All in all - with a few cups of coffee, and lots of patience - I manage to be a cd-jockey, and I get it up and running. My family members become happy again, and I can return to do the things I like to do. Computer maintenance is not my hobby, really ;-)
So now Acronis is entering my life. Join me in my discovery of what this tool can do...
My first session
To get Acronis up and running took me a few sessions, and I'll explain what happened along the way! Of course I made this fresh install on the first drive of my four year old Compaq (it has two hard disks: a forty Gigabyte (C: or hda), and a two hundred GB (D: or hdb)) I didn't want to make it too easy for myself, or for Acronis. So I threw in a multi-boot system with Windows XP, Debian 4.0, and Ubuntu 7.04. I thought: "That gives some partitions for Acronis to chew on when making a disk clone!" If I got you lost with the above: don't worry, I don't know much about hard disks, partitions, formatting either. It just happens to be that installing these three operating systems, they find their own way in sharing this one hard drive. And when I switch on the computer I get a chance to chose which operating system I want to use. Of course this is really a separate story.... so quickly back to Acronis!
After firing up Windows XP, I followed instructions in the e-mail I received to install Acronis True Image Home version 11.0 - and that was easy: even I could do it...
Straight after a restart, I double clicked on the new Acronis icon to open the application for the first time. I was greeted with the following screen:
I had read the features of this application on the site, and here my first impressions were confirmed: this is definitely a swiss army knife when it comes to disk backup, and utilities. This yellow colored background, the starting words: "System state: Warning" gave me the immediate reaction "It does have a sharp knife! I better be careful!"
At this point it might be helpful to tell you from which perspective I look at computers, and applications. I see it as tools to help me communicate. While working at a computer, I'm having a conversation with a machine. I give it instructions, and it "talks" back to me: a sort of discussion, a dialog.
In this case I double clicked on the Acronis icon for the first time. I was actually saying: "Please help me get my clean install safe!" And I was hoping the application would react in such a way, that it would help me with an "easy learning curve", in other words help me through the process step by step. Having "Home" in the version name gave me the expectation it is an application for the rest of us, not for the system administrator types.
Maybe my expectations were a bit too high: I would have liked a green background (the color green saying: you're safe!) With a text like: "Welcome! You have just succesfully installed Acronis True Image Home version 11.0 Let me help you to get things set up. Our advice is to use a secure partition: let's start with preparing one on your second hard drive. If you would like to explore on you own, choose one of the buttons below..." Well, something in this direction! I hope you get the idea.
Don't zap away just yet if you get the impression there's something wrong with the product; on the contrary: if you read to the end, you'll see an example of the old English saying "All is well, that ends well!" Here I am describing in some detail my perspective of things, and how I see an example of what I would call "technical communication", as opposed to "communication for the rest of us".
Please don't see it as cheap criticism of a good product, but as constructive remarks to make a good product even better.... While saying this I realize the big challenge for software engineers: work together with communication experts to make life easier for the average user, and making software even more complicated to design and build. I guess it's true: the easier you make it for the user, the more complicated the inner working of the software(system) gets. But in the end I feel it will be worth the extra effort!
Let's get back on the main track of this review: before just clicking on "Schedule backup creation..." I took a break before starting on the second session.
The second session
After installing three operating systems, and Acronis on Windows XP, I decided that I'd earned a break from drinking coffee. So I enjoyed a cool glass of beer. During those moments the best ideas come up spontaneously. This time was no exception: let me first explore the different options Acronis offers; then go for the option that looks best!
Clicking on the different options, I stopped short of actually changing the "System State". I also skimmed through the online help, and the User's Guide made available in pdf format.
The "Acronis Secure Zone Wizard" gave me a clue to the route I wanted to go: "The Acronis Secure Zone is a protected area on your hard disk that is inaccessible from ordinary applications and ensures that the backup archive once stored there will not be corrupted by the operating system or by running applications". Paragraph 3.3 of the User's Guide says that this Secure Zone is needed if you want to use advanced features like Startup Recovery Manager, Snap Restore and Try & Decide (I understand these features are Windows XP only, and not for Vista).
Under "Tools" I saw the possibility to create a startup disk, which one can use "to restore your computer in case it becomes unbootable":
There are some "viruses" out there that will do just that. They will creep in the places which cripple your machine. If you use a once-writable medium like a cd-rom, and you're sure that's safe it will be your best bet to restore your system.
This little outing in the documentation took me a half an hour or so, and made it clear that the the startup cd and "Secure Zone thing" was for me: I appreciate the functions that make my system a little safer, and protect it from the many threats of on-line life.
My impression is, that the product is well documented for technical people. I would have appreciated a simple question - just after the "green welcome message" at the first startup: "Would you like to use novice, intermediate, or expert-mode?" I would have chosen for novice-mode, which would have guided me through
- creating a startup cd-rom,
- the Secure Zone setup,
- first full system backup,
- and finally a daily/weekly/monthly data backup schedule.
No difficult questions, but a full- & foolproof simple method that is easy for the rest of us to understand. Ten minutes of my precious time, and the machine takes care of the rest! Make my life easier...that's what a computer is for isn't it?! And of course in the simple menu structure, the user can open up all the possibilities by choosing "change to intermediate or expert mode" - and for me: quicly back to novice mode of course ;-).
I've just saved you the puzzle of figuring out the safest route, and will give you the "ten minute recipe" to backup your system with Acronis Secure Zone in a minute!
If you want to follow my train of thought on "backup and restore for the rest of us", just jump to the next section. Here I want to explain how I prepared my computer to let Acronis handle a bit more complex situation than only Windows XP on my first hard drive. This preperation took a bit of experimenting, but I got it right: it's a story with a happy ending. When it comes to drives, partitions, formatting and the like I feel like this newbie, that needs to learn some more to get to the next level of "intermediate". And I'll never become and expert. To compare it to my car: I don't want to be a mechanic but a driver - if I can check the oil level, and top it up - I'm happy. For anything else, I'll take it to the garage.
In the course of the years, I have gained enough experience to handle the setup of a dual-/multi-boot system. So I can "drive my car on both gasoline and lpg". In other words: use Windows alongside with one of my favorite Linux distributions.
In this case it came in handy again. First of all because I wanted some free space on the first hard drive to install Debian, and Ubuntu. Secondly, because I needed a formatted second hard drive. Of course I might have missed something in Acronis, but as far as I could find out I couldn't just make a data drive and a Secure Zone alongside each other from within this application. That's why I first used Gparted to make two partitions of 100 gb on the second drive. After that Acronis took the second partition, and turned it into a Secure Zone. Just a few clicks. That was easy enough!
In the case of a Windows-only setup, this intermezzo wouldn't have been necessary. So why take this trouble? I love freedom of choice, and I like a bit of a challenge once in a while... so I wanted to see if Acronis would handle this kind of setup.
Ten minutes recipe
Once you know your way, it only takes about ten to fifteen minutes to set up a backup system after a clean Windows/Acronis install. That's ten minutes of your undivided attention. And about half an hour of leisure: reading a book, or magazine. Watch tv, or take a nap. In the meantime your machine will be whirring, getting things done.
This is the ten minute recipe I came up with:
- Get an empty cd-rom (writable)
- Start Acronis
- Choose "Create Bootable Rescue Media" from the Tools menu, and follow instructions
- Clearly name the cd-rom
- Restart with cd-rom
- Find the "Secure Zone Setup Wizard" in the "Management Tools", and follow instructions
- Find the "Backup Wizard" in "Backup and Restore", and follow instructions - use sector-by-sector for the complete drive
- My forty gigabyte took some 15 minutes, while I watched tv
- Take out cd-rom, and store in a safe place
- Restart system with Windows
- Start Acronis
- In "backup and restore" follow instructions to backup data to Secure Zone,
- and setup the automatic daily incremental backup in "Schedule backup creation..."
Congratulate yourself on a job well-done!
To be sure I can "compute with confidence" (the Acronis mantra), I did some tests. Normally after the ten minute recipe, one can go back to "business as usual". But this first time I wanted to be sure. In short this is what I did - just after my fresh install:
- start the two Linux flavors, and these worked fine also
- restart with Acronis CD, and use Drive Cleaner from the Disk Utilities to empty drive
- take out cd, and try to restart: yep, all gone!
- restart again with Acronis CD
- choose Restore, and followed instructions (got a bit confused by all the choices I could make....)
- the restore was faster than the backup: within ten minutes up and running!
Windows and Ubuntu worked fine, but Debian got stuck "looking for root file system". So we're on a score of 66,7%! Let's say Acronis passed my test... but why did it have a little hickup with some sectors?!
My conclusion in this situation: if I stick to dual-boot Windows and Ubuntu, use sector-by-sector - the system restore will work, as advertised. I can have confidence within known territory. Going into uncharted areas, I better check before using it. Better be sure than sorry!
This conclusion was re-confirmed when trying out "Try & Decide". I really like to give my Windows XP a face lift, so it looks like Vista...I tried every alternative to install Inspirat 2. But it didn't get past the "Installation complete. Restart System" stage. It just wouldn't do it for me. Then I did the normal install without the "Try & Decide"... lo and behold, my dated machine now looks like Vista and has worked fine since.
Did I do something wrong? Did I miss an option to switch on? Is it a bug? I had an hour of fun, and decided "Try & Decide" is not for me. A bit of humor here? Try, and decide... never mind ;-)
It's not really a problem, because I can use the normal backup and restore procedure: just to be sure I did try that once more. It worked for a second time. But it would have been nice if "Try & Decide" had done the job as advertised. In that case confidence would have grown to say 7/10 or even 8/10. Now I'll have to make it 6/10... it does still pass my "gut-feeling minimum confidence level", if you get what I mean.
All is well, that ends well!
After my "ten minute recipe" I ended up with a screen I really liked:
- Green background, a check mark, and comforting text:
- System Sate: Normal
- Result: Completed Successfully
- Backup State: Scheduled
Starting up Windows this morning the Acronis icon appeared in the taskbar, and in the background started making my data backup.
I did one more test, because I wanted to make sure not only my system, but also my data is safe...
What did I do?
- copied my last backup from the external usb drive to "My documents"
- made a backup to the "Secure Zone"
- deleted the 9 gigabyte of data from "My documents"
- check "yep, all gone" ;-)
- started restore - and didn't expect anything else: successful!
- like with any scientific experiment: check... "yes, it's back".
Q.E.D. - childhood memories of the mathematics classes :-)
Now "Acronis" is put in place, I expect to earn back the investment over the next year (or two?). Instead of spending a few hours changing cd's, it should be a matter of inserting the Acronis startup-cd, a few clicks... and relax, with the confidence that the "tested recipe" I came up with works.
Let me round up: Have you got about US$ 50 to spare? Are you a bit tight in time? Well, in my opinion it's worth to invest some time for a clean install, then choose your region, and download a 15-day trial version. Use the "ten minute recipe" - alright... maybe it turns out to be the 15 to 30 minutes recipe ;-). Or make your own cocktail. Try it out and decide for yourself!
To makers of software (not ONLY for Acronis True Image Home version 11 - it's my general wish list) I would like to say:
- Hire a communication expert, or a movie-script writer, someone new to computers.
- Let him or her in on the project from the start.
- A she? A woman is often better at communicating, and may bring some balance in a man's world?!
- Make it a dialog in plain language, so the rest of us understand...
- Why not build more intelligence into the software:
- by introducing skill-levels?
- in a core-application?
- making it more "context sensitive" ("System State" aware - to use an Acronis term)?
- and plugins to install only features the user wants/needs?
I will use version 11 for now, hoping I have years of trouble free computing :-) It's backing up in case I need it... for a quick restore.
It is always good to see a product, that is ok... but has room for improvement in the next version. Keeps the economy going, and bread 'n butter on the table.
I am looking forward to Acronis True Home Version 12 that asks the right questions, listens to what I have to say, and talks back to me in plain English, or Dutch, or... - but leaves out the Double-Dutch! And I didn't mean speech recognition, just yet ;-)