A drive image lets you either restore the whole system to the working version you were using yesterday or restore old versions of your files by copying them from the backed-up images of your disks. For years, StorageCraft's ShadowProtect Desktop has been PC Magazine Editors' Choice for drive imaging, and version 4.0 upholds the tradition. ShadowProtect Desktop 4.0 features unchanged core features as well as new features that make it easier and faster to get your system up and running from a backup even after a complete hardware breakdown makes your original hardware unusable.
ShadowProtect Desktop doesn't offer features that you can't find elsewhere, but it performs those features more smoothly, reliably, quickly, and easily than any rival software—see the end of this review for quick comparisons. Like previous versions, 4.0 excels at making, restoring, and exploring images of one or more partitions on your hard disk. Like previous versions, it also includes a Hardware Independent Restore feature that lets you restore a backed-up image of a Windows system to completely different computer hardware. This is something you normally can't do simply by copying a system from one computer to another, because Windows often won't boot if it doesn't find the hardware on which it was originally installed. I've used ShadowProtect Desktop's Hardware Independent Restore feature many times to transfer my Windows system from one computer to another. Each time, it saved me many hours that I would otherwise have wasted installing a fresh copy of Windows and all my applications on the new system.
Booting Up A Virtual Backup
ShadowProtect's new version adds a feature called Virtual Boot that lets you run a backed-up system as a "virtual machine" in Oracle's free emulation software, VirtualBox. This feature is different from the familiar feature that lets you copy files from a backed-up image in that you can actually boot and run the backed-up system and run software that was included in it. You can use Virtual Boot to test new software on a "virtual" image of your current system before installing the new software on your actual system. Or, if a computer on your network goes down, you can run an image of it in Virtual Boot and gain access to the "virtual" copy of the computer while you restore the actual system to real hardware.
The Virtual Boot feature automates a complex series of steps that you could also perform manually, using a ShadowProtect drive image and a VirtualBox or VMware Workstation. But Virtual Boot makes it easier to perform those steps, especially when you're in the agitated, distracted condition that you're likely to be in after a hardware failure.
In practice, the Virtual Boot process is either effortless or slightly complicated, depending on the system you're trying to run and the version of VirtualBox on your system. The first release of ShadowProtect Desktop 4.0 lets you use Virtual Boot with VirtualBox versions 3.1.0 through 3.1.6. At press time, later versions of VirtualBox only worked with Virtual Boot after I downloaded some updated files from StorageCraft's website, though the updated files may be included in the shipping product by the time you read this.
I tested Virtual Boot by running a backed-up Windows XP system as a virtual machine. I had to import the drivers for the "virtual" network card in the virtual machine before I could add the virtual machine to my network. (Intel's legal eagles won't allow ShadowProtect to include the drivers automatically.) This driver problem doesn't occur with backed-up Vista or Windows 7 machines, because those Windows versions make network drivers available by default.
How to Back Up Locally
The one step you need to take before you start using ShadowProtect Desktop—or any drive imaging program—to back up your system is to burn an emergency CD that lets you start up an otherwise unbootable system and restore your hard drive from a backed-up image. The ShadowProtect emergency disk is packed with up-to-date hardware drivers and other utilities that make it smooth and effortless to use. It even provides two different environments, one based on Windows Server 2003, the other based on Windows 7. You can choose the one that's closest to the system you're going to manage or restore. Use the Server 2003 environment for Windows XP and Server 2003 systems; use the Windows 7 environment for Vista, Server 2008, and Windows 7 systems.
ShadowProtect Desktop is designed mostly for IT professionals, but its wizard interface makes it easy enough for everyone except complete beginners. Here's how I use it to make regular backups of my desktop and laptop machines. In the two-pane interface, I click on Backup in the list of Tasks, and follow the prompts in the Backup wizard to set up a backup schedule that makes a full backup of my system once a week, and smaller "incremental" backups daily. Incremental backups include only files that are new or changed since the preceding backup.
I store my backups on an external USB drive, and I use the "retention" option in the backup wizard, which lets me saves space on the external drive by keeping only the three most recent full backups and deleting older backups. The retention policies are fully customizable, which is handy. I use a program option that sends me an e-mail message if the backup fails because there isn't enough space on the USB drive or if I forgot to plug it into my laptop. When I plug in the USB drive, or clear enough disk space, the backup continues automatically. Once I set up the backup schedule and close the ShadowProtect application window, ShadowProtect runs in the background, even while backing up my disk. I can forget about it entirely—until something goes wrong on my system and I need to recover an old file or restore a disk partition.
What About the Competition?
ShadowProtect's rivals include the venerable Symantec's Norton Ghost 14.0, Acronis Backup & Recovery 10, and Paragon Hard Disk Manager 2010 ($129.95 direct, ). Informal testing of recent and current versions of all these products showed no particular problems, but I've experienced problems with earlier versions of the Symantec and Acronis products, while I've never had problems with ShadowProtect Desktop. The excellent Paragon suite is the app I prefer for partitioning and other hard disk management. But, for drive-imaging, I prefer ShadowProtect's proven reliability; unlike the Paragon and Acronis products, it's focused entirely on drive-imaging. ShadowProtect's authors aren't distracted by the kind of feature bloat that tends to lead to problems in less-focused products.
ShadowProtect Desktop isn't a product for everybody—casual users who are happy keeping their data in the cloud probably shouldn't bother with it. But if your data and your system are of critical importance to you, you're simply being reckless to operate without a local back up—preferably a complete drive image. And for drive-imaging software, there's simple nothing better than ShadowProtect 4.0.