New Ghost draws from drive image

Symantec has updated its Norton Ghost image backup program, and the new version reflects technology in Drive Image from PowerQuest, the former rival Symantec acquired last year.

Norton Ghost 9 is "built on Drive Image technology," according to L. D. Weller, a Symantec senior project manager. But it also offers incremental backups and an improved emergency boot disc, features that weren't in either product previously. Ghost 9 is in beta testing now, and final versions of the software will likely be ready in late August. The package will have an estimated street price of US$70.

New Features

Image backup, also known as drive imaging, or ghosting, is the most reliable way to back up your entire hard drive. It records an image of your partition or drive, sector by sector instead of file by file. After a major disaster like a hard drive crash, you can easily re-create an exact duplicate of the drive, including the boot sector and hidden files. After a lesser disaster, such as accidentally overwriting an important document, you can restore individual files.

Judging from Symantec's description, the new Ghost is very much like Drive Image 7, which was released last year. For instance, it can back up your drive from inside Windows. You'll still have to boot to a separate environment to restore the full drive (some miracles are still impossible), although you can restore individual files from within Windows.

Also like Drive Image 7, it works only with Windows 2000 and XP. But this time, it comes with an older version of Ghost that supports 16-bit versions of Windows (Drive Image 7 came with an earlier version of Drive Image).

Symantec promises the new Ghost is compatible in other ways. It can restore images from older versions of Ghost and Drive Image. It can also write images to and restore them from a number of media types, including CD, DVD, and local, network, and portable (USB and FireWire) drives.

But Ghost 9 also appears to come with some of Drive Image 7's flaws. Weller acknowledges that the new Ghost still requires Microsoft .Net, which can add a lot of code and complexity to your system. Still, it adds more features than the previous update, which was criticized as not being sufficiently user-friendly.

Sum of the Parts

Ghost 9's biggest improvement over Drive Image is probably incremental backup, which copies only what has changed since the last time. This should correct the biggest flaw in the very concept of image backups: You should back up daily, but it's a waste of time and media to copy your entire hard drive every day--these backups are done by sector, not file.

The other improvement that could prove extremely useful is the Symantec Recovery Disk. All image backup programs need an emergency boot disc, but judging from Symantec's claims, this one might beat all the others. In addition to restoring images, it can scan for viruses, check for disk errors, and generally repair an unbootable system. Such emergency disks are common for Windows 98 and Me, but ones that fully support NTFS are rare. Symantec plans to include this recovery disk in other Norton products, although Weller did not give details.

Now that Drive Image and Ghost have merged, their main competitor is True Image from Acronis. In several ways, True Image appears to be the real trendsetter; it offered imaging from within Windows before Drive Image, and incremental backup before this Ghost/Drive Image hybrid.

Symantec's Weller notes that PowerQuest's enterprise backup program, V2i Protector, has included incremental backup "for some time."

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