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Yet More Drive Image

It sometimes seems like my life consists of backing up computers. Yes, I know I'm paranoid about lots of things - it's a trait often associated with geeks - but I've been through the "Whoops, Oh dear, I wonder if I've got a backup..." experience a few too many times in the past. So I have multiple backup strategies active all the time, and most of the data on my network exists as multiple copies in so many places on my network, USB hard drives, CD-ROMS, and even floppy disks that I should - in theory - never lose another file. But, of course, it's the "How do I back up the complete machine" syndrome that is always the hard one to satisfy successfully.

As you may recall from several previous scribblings, I've generally settled on Acronis True Image to create disk images, stored in multiple locations around the network. I started with version 6, and have proved that it works by recovering machines on several occasions - including replacing the primary boot drive in a Windows domain controller. I hate to think how much effort would have been required to do it the "old-fashioned" way. Or rather, as I discovered when I upgraded my network some months ago (see Say Hello to DELILAH), I know how much work it would have involved...!

A while ago, Acronis were kind enough to furnish me with a review copy of version 7, which I'm embarrassed to admit I actually didn't get to try until a few months ago when I discovered that version 6 would not run on the old Dell laptop that I decided I needed to image before installing a heap of corporate network connection software. I used version 7 to create a recovery partition, and - though I've thankfully not had to use it in anger - it seems to be a great idea when traveling. What good is an image backup on the server or a USB hard drive if they are at home and you are in the U.S.? With today's baggage and travel restrictions, you're lucky to get to take your toothbrush on the plane (and they actually take your toothpaste off you at security unless you buy one of those miniature tubes!). With the recovery partition, as long as the machine can boot into the special loader, you can restore the disk image in a couple of hours. I just have to remember to keep the image up to date.

Unfortunately a suitable version of True Image wasn't available when I bought my newer laptop that runs Vista, and so I made sure I got the Vista Ultimate O/S so that I could use the disk image (disk shadow copy) feature it includes. As with everything else I try and do in Vista, the backup system seems to have evolved from a set of options and usable management features into a kid's toy. You only get two or three options at any point, and the word "description" doesn't really describe the description (if you see what I mean) of what each option actually does. So I don't know if I really have got a restorable disk image, and there's no way I'm going to nuke the machine and try a reinstall to see if I have! I suppose, like they do in "proper" corporate IT centers, I really should test the backup. But I don't have another machine the same sitting around to try it with. I suppose I can console myself with the thought, when it all goes wrong, that at least I did try and cover myself.

Meanwhile, version 7 of True Image is a big improvement, though the Linux kernel they use to boot into the recovery console still doesn't work with some exotic hardware (my old Sony laptop never did work with it). But since then Acronis seem to have switched to Internet time, because all of a sudden version 10 is out. Probably it's a good thing I don't review each version - I'd still be writing about version 8-and-a-bit. And now I can tell you that version 10 actually does seem to work fine - not only with Vista, but with some pretty exotic hardware as well! No, they didn't send me a free copy to play with - I think they got fed up waiting for the review of version 7 - so I actually bought a "real" copy.

Mind you, I was swearing at them quite profusely for a while. I downloaded the "demo" version that says it is "a full version time limited to 15 days" with the idea that I'd try running it and create a disk image before I splashed out a hard-earned 50 dollars on the full version. Download 100 MB, run to install, reboot, run True Image, enter your contact details, run the utility to create the boot CD, and then reboot onto the Linux start-up disk. Then work through all the options, and finally get to the screen where it says "this time limited demo version is actually broken and won't really do anything useful". Well, OK, so that's not the actual text they use, but the effect is the same. Probably there's some small print I didn't read on the Web site, but it is rather infuriating when you want to see if will actually work with your hardware...! I suppose they worry that people will use it to clone machines without buying a proper copy, or to create a backup image for free and only pay for a full copy when they need to restore a broken machine.

Anyway, at least the demo showed that the Linux kernel would run on my machine, and get as far as being ready to start the imaging process. So I felt fairly safe buying a full copy, even though I then had to do an uninstall and go through the whole process again of installing, creating the boot CD, etc. Any why did I go through all this hassle in the first place? Well, if you read my last diary note about our new Sony Media Center, you'll realize why I was doubtful. After all, it's got two disks set up as a RAID array using some exotic hardware, some weird graphics card, a Blu-ray drive, and a built-in wireless keyboard and trackpad system. Surprisingly, the Linux kernel coped with all of this, except for the trackpad where up and down was translated to down and up, and left and right was translated into down a bit (sometimes) and up a bit (kind of). Meanwhile, the Return key caused a lockup. However, plugging a good old-fashioned "gummy ball" mouse into one of the USB ports sorted that, and I was able to get the image process underway.

The image and verify process took about six hours (thank goodness I hadn't copied all our saved recorded TV programs from the old box first). Notice that this version does a verify as well. Of course, the only time I'll really discover how well it worked is when I have to rebuild the system. Hopefully, that will be never. And I can't afford to buy another Sony Media Center box the same just to test it. Mind you, Sony do provide a recovery utility that creates CDs of the original system so you can start again from scratch. But then the three days I spent configuring everything would be lost. And I'm sure I'm not the only one to wonder about the way that the proper backup and image features only exist in the Business and Ultimate versions of Vista, and not in Home Premium. OK, so they give you something clever that can do scheduled data backups, which I agree is a "good thing" and everyone should be encouraged to use it all the time, but it would be nice to have something more capable. I know there is System Restore Points and the File Protection feature, but it takes a lot to convince and old pro that you can get back an operating system in a workable state.

Meanwhile, the whole process actually turned out to be a waste of time...! Much as I raved about the build quality of the Sony Media Center in my last report, it has rather unfortunately ended up back in its original box and is en-route to the makers as a "thanks, but no thanks" product. Having set it up with a DVI monitor, and soak-tested it for a couple of days to make sure it was OK, I moved it to its intended lounge-based location and introduced it to a real TV and a TV aerial. That's when it revealed that it can't actually display either live TV, recorded TV, or even DVD movies, without freezing and skipping a few frames every five seconds or so. While you can kind of cope with this when watching those dark and slow-moving dramas my wife seems to enjoy, she reported a headache and sore eyes after half an hour. I tried watching the motorcycle racing, and you can imagine how missing a few frames when the camera is panning to follow bikes traveling at 150 mph is somewhat less than satisfactory.

I tried the updated drivers that Sony provides through their Web site, and the latest drivers from the NVidea site. I also followed the advice of several bloggers and forum members who suggest a range of tactics such as changing the screen resolution, disabling the wireless card, removing monitored folders from Media Player, and more - all to no avail. Obviously, I was suspicious of the HDMI-VGA converter, so hauled a 21" TFT screen downstairs and connected it directly using the DVI connector Sony provide. After trying every conceivable combination of screen resolution and refresh rate, we ended up at 800 x 600 with absolutely no effect on the frame skipping. That's when I made the mistake of thinking I'd restore the system back to its original state using the Sony recovery disks and see if it was possibly something I'd done.

So, follow the steps in the book to use the recovery DVDs. Step 1, read the manual installed on the machine. OK, except that the machine has spent the last two days trying to update this automatically from the Sony Web site, and failed at file number 191 every time - even when left overnight complete the process. And, guess what, you can't access the "un-updated" one once the software has decided there is an updated one available! Never mind, I can follow the steps in the paper book that comes with the machine. Reboot onto disk 1 and you get a message asking you which version of the O/S you want to restore. Except the list is empty. Click the "Load" button to load "drivers that the system may require" and look for the folder named VAIO that the book says contains them. Nope, no such folder. Perhaps it's on Disk 2. But the Blu-ray drive will only eject a disk using the Windows "Eject" short-cut command (I discovered this a couple of days ago) - however, thankfully this is available in the file selector dialog.

Insert disk 2, find the VAIO folder, and load the Intel SATA driver from the AHCP folder (you may remember from a previous diary entry how I love the SATA technology...). Then reopen the file selector to eject the disk and put Disk 1 back in. Message: it can't find the operating system folder. Ah, it must be on Disk 2, but there's no way to eject the disk! So, reboot and start again. This time, remember to leave Disk 2 in the drive. Message: "Can't find C:\Recovery folder". Reboot again, and manage to get the button on the front to eject the disk while the system loader screen is displayed. Message: "DISK FAILURE". Reboot, message: "DISK FAILURE". That's when I fetched the box and packaged the whole lot up and sent it back. What a shame, it really looked to be an ideal system.

Interestingly, talking to other Media Center machine manufacturers since then reveals that most still only offer XP Media Center 2005, though a couple I spoke to do both Vista and 2005 - but say they suggest using 2005 until the several bugs in Vista are resolved. I hear there is a whole new Vista Media Center release due later this year, but you would think that the current version should at least be able to show TV and movies. It's not much of a "media center" without. And you can't believe that Sony would ship a system that can't display TV and movies without skipping frames, so it must be that I was unlucky enough to get a faulty machine. But I think I'll wait for Vista Media Center R2 (or whatever it's going to be called) before I dive back into the market...

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