Backup is long-winded, time-consuming and boring. That’s why many people risk their personal and even small business data by failing to do it and let’s face it, the design of many backup programs hasn’t helped, especially the ones shipped with the various versions of Windows over the years.

Enter Symantec with the Norton Ghost series now in its 2003 incarnation. It’s got stiff competition in the sector from Powerquest Drive Image 7 but the latest version means serious business. Ghost became necessary in our testing of the Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card or any speed based benchmarking where a clean install of Windows was needed, so the .GHO image file could be re-applied in minutes to speed up testing.

You’d have thought the grand old days of business software never went away when you see the 230-page manual, but those allergic to PDF format, which you’d have to print out, appreciate it. It’s certainly fair to say that almost every detail is contained within. However it’s just written with no respect for the home users it’s targeting, whether standalone or integrated into a Systemworks package. Basically get ready to return to reading the manual if you find it too intimidating. To be fair to Symantec, the murky world of partitions is a minefield at the best of times, even to experts. Anyone fearing the fallout from the words “Non-DOS partition” when trying to use early versions of Partitionmagic will remember the lack of ease of use of even the tools shipped with the operating system, let alone third party solutions. This all changed with the graphical era of Windows 95, so it’s a shame the manual writers failed to sharpen their own skills.

Thankfully they are helped out by the interface designers. The legacy testbed (PIII/933, 512MB PC133 RAM, 40GB 7200RPM Seagate Hard Disk) was getting a hard disk upgrade. Ghost is in the school of utilities that work best straight after a fresh install of Windows. The only decision is then to decide whether to include the essential programs you couldn’t live without, WinZip and an alternative web browser for example; it all depends on the destination of your backup; if sending the image file to an CD- or DVD burner, that will decide the extras on top considering it’s 700MB for the average Windows ME and 2.5Gb for the average Windows XP installation nowadays.

These figures aren’t as daunting as they appear considering the Windows ME operations were finished in a quarter of an hour when we had a typical home system reinstall hassle. The first restoration was needed when the upgrade from XP to ME went wrong, deciding system files were missing. We held our breath- but on reboot, there was Windows ME, present and correct and waiting for the next attempt at upgrading, which worked. We were happy but then we deliberately employed an ancient Creative double-speed CD-RW drive just to see how slow the program would become when sending the image file straight to blank disks, and varied between CD-R and rewriteable media.

Without prompting the drive was working at its top speed without a choice, once the machine had rebooted into its own PC-DOS environment; so at double speed the images burned in 37 minutes. Users of more modern drives shouldn’t be waiting for more than five or ten in this case, although DVD Burners would vary according to format - but of course squeeze on a lot more data.

The other impressive feat was the compression, putting 990MB onto a 650MB blank CD, while remaining at standard burning speed. So our XP partition took three blank CDs to back up. If the program requests a new blank and you insert a CD-RW that’s not erased, the program will do it for you after you ignore the message twice, continue the burn until a new one is needed or it’s finished. One minor complaint is that the status bar is at the very bottom of the screen in tiny lettering rather than the normal dialogue box. If you just saw a blinking drive light, you might have wrongly suspected a crash.

The swapping of multiple blanks shows up Ghost as ahead of its time- it assumes a DVD burner is on hand and the 4.3GB true size of a writeable DVD could contain a fresh XP install with no extras. Multiple CD-Rs are part of what makes backup a chore to home users. There’s no escaping the usefulness of another hard disk in the same machine. Certainly this is the favoured solution by Ghost above removable media, whether the partition in question is FAT/32, NTFS or even Linux EXT2/3; and it’ll also backup over a network too, at the network’s top speed. So the faster the network, the shorter the wait. Home users with 10/100 Ethernet, a venerable standard, won’t wait that much longer for Ghost than for any other data and backup could be the use that brings the old PC back from doorstopper status once a network card is installed and it’s plugged into a hub. However unlike an application such as Laplink, no extra cables are included in the box; you’d need all the physical connections yourself.

The other problem is CD-RW drive support. We tested the oldest and slowest Creative drive we could find at double speed. However its eight-speed model sourced from a different Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), wasn’t compatible. This is where the 60-Day money back guarantee is useful. LiveUpdate ships with Ghost for this additional reason as well as bug fixing.

The core function of Ghost, when it’s compatible with your hardware, is hard to fault. However the literature accompanying Powerquest Drive Image 7 is of higher quality and it’s got the perceived advantage of not needing to reboot to do everything- it can stay in windows. Even if that’s slower, some people may prefer this more Mac-like flexibility at the expense of a little extra time- home backups are hardly a matter of urgency.

Everyone in the sector has had to sharpen up their products due to making them fully XP-compatible and Powerquest has had a head start in this regard- Drive Image 7 kills off the bootable floppy disk creation for good, sticking with CD. Since Symantec has the two-month refund guarantee, that gives you time to wade through the manual if you think you need it, and also return it in the event of any incompatibility with present hardware.

Ghost 2003 is fast but recourse to the manual may hamstring you further if you want more advanced functions. Drive Image 7 is just a little slower but stays in Windows for all its operations. With the help of magazine giveaways of old versions 3 and 4 for cheap upgrading over an 18-month period, Drive Image 7 leads the market. A 2004 version will cause the race to start again but for the moment the tortoise beats the hare for the total Windows approach.

Price when reviewed:

For the moment in spite of better literature and ease of use in Drive Image 7, neither package wins any awards on user support. Removing everyday drive management from Drive Image 7 (as Powerquest still wants to sell you PartitionMagic) puts Ghost back into contention. As the price of both is in the £40 range, your choice is to get Ghost as part of Systemworks if you desired Norton Antivirus at the same time, or just try Ghost alone and refund it for Drive Image 7 if it fails on you. We'll see you back here when the 2004 or 2005 version arrives, where we'll see if there's really anything left for either vendor to do other than keep drive support up to date anymore