Macrium Reflect Free is one of the more polished free disk imaging tool currently on the market. The user interface is intuitive, and is quite snappy and responsive unlike some tools which can be a bit clunky in places. However, it is missing several important features available in premium tools (presumably because it’s a free tool). There is also a paid version of Macrium Reflect with all the typical advanced disk imaging features, although it is a bit more expensive than other popular backup tools.
One strong point of Macrium Reflect is that it automatically sets up the Windows PE environment during installation to make creating restore media as seamless as possible. Also, unlike many other free tools (and some paid ones), it has advanced backup plan management, allowing you to specify how frequently differential vs full backups are run, when to discard old backups and a disk space threshold to delete old backups.
The main window is straightforward and simple to understand. Different tasks are accessed from the left hand side, and there are tabs in the main area on the right for setting up backups, managing different backup configurations and job scheduling.
Similar to other tools, in order to make a backup you select the source partition(s) or disk you want to backup and then select a destination. As usual, the destination can be on the local disk (typically a poor choice), removable media or a network attached storage device. The backup speeds are very competitive, although it does have the limitation that you can’t exclude personal files and folders you have backed up elsewhere.
There are some advanced options when setting up a backup job, although they are a bit sparse due to this being a free version of the tool. Under advanced options, you can change the level of compression being used but this is probably best left to the default value. You can also split the backup files to a specific size if needed. Features that are available in the paid Home edition also appear in the Free edition, but when you select them you get a notification saying the feature is not available in the Free edition. This has the advantage of giving a clear picture of what features are available in the Home version should you decide to upgrade, but is a bit annoying if you are trying to use a feature that’s not available. One example of this is the backup encryption option. In advanced settings, there is an option to select a password and encryption level, but it will not work in the Free version, showing a notification popup instead. This also happens when setting up email notifications, although this might be of less interest to most people.
The advanced backup plan configuration is one of the strong points of Macrium Reflect compared to similar imaging software. Macrium Reflect Free gives a lot of flexibility for how frequently full backups and differential backups are automatically run. Typical usage will involve running an occasional full backup and more frequent differential backups in between to save disk space. There are predefined backup plan templates, to define when each backup type is run, and you are also free to create your own custom plan.
Importantly, you can also specify retention rules for each backup type, so if you had monthly full backups and weekly differential backups, you could retain 6 full backups and 8 differential backups to have 6 months of backups, with the last 2 months available at weekly increments. You can also automatically purge the oldest backups by setting a limit on remaining disk space on your backup device. These advanced backup plan and retention features are particularly useful if you want to have your disk image backups running on a regular basis, where you can set and forget your backups. One caveat is that while incremental backups appear as an option in the form, they are not available in the free version. Incremental backups can save a significant amount of backup space, so is something to be aware of.
Once the backup is setup, the configuration is saved to an XML backup definition file. Interestingly, you can create a desktop shortcut for this XML file which allows you to start the backup job manually from the desktop.
As mentioned above, you can use a predefined backup plan template which specifies the frequency of each backup and the backup type. Typically you would want to run occasional full backups and more frequent differential backups. The schedule for each backup can be edited separately, and can be scheduled by month, week, day, or at logon or startup.
Recovering individual files from a system image backup is very straightforward. The necessary drivers are installed with the initial installation so there is no messing about with downloading and installing extra files when you want to use this feature. Mounting system image files from the restore tab is fast and seamless, and Macrium Reflect even opens the mounted drive in Windows Explorer, which although simply done is the attention to detail that is missing in some other tools.
When you’re done copying files you wanted to recover from the mounted drive, it’s straightforward to unmount the backup image from the restore tab.
Macrium Reflect is a bit different to some other imaging software when it comes to system recovery setup. By default it downloads and installs the Windows Preinstall Environment (PE) and Automated Installation Kit (AIK) when installing Macrium Reflect. Some other tools offer the option to do this as a separate step afterwards, but Macrium Reflect does it out of the box, which is simpler. It’s missing the option to create a linux based recovery disk, which is often the easiest option.
However, they seem to have integrated Windows AIK seamlessly enough with the tool that it doesn’t seem to matter, and you get the automated handling of drivers without having to worry about it. When using AIK it validates and lists all the drivers for your hardware and injects them into the recovery media. This gives assurance that the recovery media is set up correctly, although as always, you should check this for yourself by manually running the recovery media after you create it.
Disk cloning is available to clone a system to a new hard disk when the old one is failing, or migrate to an SSD for improved performance. As with other tools, the second hard disk should be connected and enabled in Windows computer management window before it will be accessible. There is a “Clone this disk” option in the main backup window to select the partitions to clone and choose the destination disk to clone onto. There is an option to only clone used sectors (which is the recommended approach) or do a forensic copy to clone everything. There is also a feature called “SSD Trim” which apparently flags unused blocks to improve SSD performance.
Once the cloning operation is complete, the BIOS must be updated to select the cloned disk as the first disk to boot, after which the system should boot into the cloned disk and start Windows normally.
As typical with free disk imaging tools, Macrium Reflect Free is missing some advanced features expected in a premium tool. Probably the most important missing features are the inability to exclude files and folders from backup, and the lack of an incremental backup option. Both features can significantly impact the speed and size of backup with typical operation. If you can’t exclude personal files backed up elsewhere, you are backing up extra data needlessly. Similarly, using differential instead of incremental backup means most backups will contain redundant data. Both features are available in the paid Home version, although it’s more expensive than similar tools. Other notable features missing from Macrium Reflect Free are encryption and email notification. There is also no backup to cloud option, although if you can map your cloud storage to a drive or folder, this should work as an alternative.
Macrium Reflect Free is one of the better free disk imaging tool on the market. It has a straightforward and responsive interface, which takes little effort to learn. It allows highly configurable backup plans, so is good for those who want a set-and-forget setup for their backups. It appears to run all operations with minimal overhead so is unlikely to slow down your machine significantly. Recovery operations can be run without any additional setup. System image files can be easily mounted as drives to recover files, and the Windows AIK is automatically installed with the tool to simplify creating recovery media. However, it doesn’t offer incremental backup and file/folder based backup exclusions, which would probably be the main deciding factors to go with another tool instead.