We all know that the only officially-sanctioned way to interact with modern computers is by pointing and clicking on hieroglyphic icons. But many tasks are more easily done with an “old fashioned” command line. JP Software’s Take Command for Windows ($100 for new users, $50 per year for unlimited upgrades) is a powerful replacement for Microsoft’s Command Prompt (CMD.EXE). If you’re a software developer, system administrator, or a “power user” who spends any significant time using the Command Prompt, you’ll surely find Take Command a tremendous improvement. It adds hundreds of powerful commands and enhancements, and incorporates a number of commonly used console-mode utilities.
Commands and Editing
A complete list of added commands would be too lengthy to include here. But a (very) few examples can give you an idea of what Take Command offers:
Nearly all the standard Microsoft commands are enhanced. A (very) few examples:
Most commands have so many option switches that no mere human can possibly remember them all. If you enter /= as the parameter, or press “alt-F2” after typing one of many (but not all) commands, a dialogue box will pop up to help you select the options you need. Or type the command with /? as the parameter and you’ll get a list of options with a concise explanation of each one. If that doesn’t fully jog your memory, typing HELP before the command brings up the appropriate section of the comprehensive help system.
Take Command provides enhanced command line editing. You can recall the previous command with the up-arrow key, select previously-used commands from a list, or use control-0 through control-9 to select an individual parameter of the previous command. Function keys open pop-up windows for selecting command and directory histories; the windows include a search bar to find entries, and buttons to edit or delete selected commands. You can also cut and paste text from a scroll-back buffer, or from anywhere in the command interpreter window; or use a separate command input box that provides a text editing facility.
For most of its existence, Take Command had an annoying quirk involving cutting and pasting. You couldn’t use “control-C” to copy selected text within the command interpreter window. You needed to press “control-shift-Insert,” or right-click on the selected text and choose “Copy” from a pop-up menu. Take Command uses “control-C” to stop execution of a running command, or to abort whatever you’re entering. There must have been a good reason for that behavior, but it’s caused me enough trouble to constitute a blemish on an otherwise excellent product. Version 17 at long last corrected the problem. If you have selected text, “control-C” copies the selection to the clipboard and clears the selection. If you haven’t selected text, or if you press “control-C” twice, it aborts the current running command as before. “Control-V” does paste text from the clipboard as expected. And perhaps to compensate for the longstanding “control-C” confusion, the right-click menu has options to paste the text you just copied directly into the command line, or to paste the text and then immediately run the command line.
Batch Programming and Aliases
Take Command expands and greatly enhances Microsoft’s batch file capability into a comprehensive and powerful programming language.
An integrated development environment, editor (using the same Scintilla core as Notepad++), and debugger are built in. Despite all the enhancements, the developers have gone to great lengths to ensure “99.9% compatibility” with all the Microsoft quirks (documented and otherwise) often exploited in batch files.
In addition to batch files, you can create command aliases— think of them as miniature batch files that stay in memory— and optionally map them to keys. As a simple example of Take command’s extensions, I have an alias to show the total size of the files in the current directory and all its sub-directories. When I’m working on a travel photo essay, I create a directory for all the pictures, with separate sub-directories for the 16-bit master files, full-sized JPEG versions, small JPEGs for the Web, camera raw files with their Adobe Camera Raw .xmp “sidecars,” and miscellaneous working files. When I’m finished with all the pictures, I archive everything to two sets of DVDs.
To determine how to fit it onto the disks, I need to know how large all that data is. I use DIRSIZE, an alias defined as ECHO %@comma[%@filesize[/s *.*]]. It uses two variable functions: %@filesize does the actual scanning and totaling— the /s tells it to include all subdirectories— and %@comma formats the resulting number with commas. (A variable function is referenced like an environment variable, beginning with %; the @ identifies it as a function.) The old-fashioned ECHO command writes the output.
The %@comma function actually isn’t necessary here, but it demonstrates how variable functions can be combined. The %@filesize function allows optional parameters that format the output number with commas and specifies the units: %@filesize[/s *.*,bc]] returns the total size of the directory in bytes, formatted with commas. I could get the result in kilobytes or megabytes rather than bytes with, respectively, %@filesize[/s *.*,kc]] or %@filesize[/s *.*,mc]].
The comprehensive integrated help system, of course, explains all the options and syntax for each of the 300-odd variable functions.
The Graphical Console
Take Command is actually a GUI “environment” for TCC, the command interpreter. TCC is a console-mode program that can run on its own, from a shortcut icon or the Run line of the Start button. (It was originally called 4NT, intended for Windows NT.)
One or more console-mode applications (including multiple instances of TCC) can run in Take Command’s tabbed console window. JP Software claims that a console application running in a tabbed window displays text significantly faster than running it directly on the desktop. That’s why there’s little reason to run TCC separately. Running a console application in a Take Command window gives the application a cut and paste capability it may not have had before.
In addition to the console window, the Take Command GUI includes a basic file explorer much like the one built into Windows. You can navigate directories and run programs from it. You can also set up a toolbar with buttons to launch your favorite applications, configure Take Command or TCC from a menu, or launch a separate integrated development environment to edit and debug batch files. If you aren’t using the file explorer or other GUI elements, you can quickly toggle them out of the way or automatically hide them until they’re needed.
The file explorer isn’t as powerful as some dedicated file managers. But the integration between the command interpreter and the GUI “environment” into a “graphical console” lets you easily switch between a graphical and a command line interface to suit whatever you need to do, all within one application. That integration brings other advantages. You can drag and drop a file from the explorer (or from any other application, or from the desktop) to the command line window. The name of the file then gets added to the command line, enclosed in quotes if the name has embedded spaces. That’s certainly easier than typing long file names!
Past, Present, and Future
Now at version 21, and supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows, Take Command is the latest in a lineage of advanced command interpreters that began with 4DOS in 1989. 4DOS was a replacement for the primitive COMMAND.COM, the intimidating text-based face of MS-DOS in the days before Windows and mice made computers user-friendly. I started using 4DOS in 1990, on a 12 MHz 286 machine running MS-DOS 3.3. I’ve relied on it and its various descendants ever since, under DOS, OS/2, and 16-, 32-, and 64-bit versions of Windows.
I have seen 4DOS and its progeny evolve an impressive array of features over the last two decades. But now that JP Software has adopted an “annual subscription” business model ($50 for a year of updates and upgrades), I have to wonder whether the features they add in the future will be truly useful, or merely bloat to keep the “upgrade treadmill” running. That’s not a complaint about Take Command, but a general concern with any mature, feature-laden software product.
Adobe addressed that concern about Photoshop (and its other professional products) by switching to “rental” licensing in 2013. You pay a monthly or annual fee to use the software, and Adobe pushes updates to your computer whether you want them or not. If you stop paying the rent, the software stops working. You also lose access to the files you created, if you can’t find a competitor’s program that can read the Adobe format.
Fortunately, the subscription model for Take Command retains the customary perpetual license. You can continue to use the version you currently have for as long as you want, even if you don’t buy an annual upgrade. That means JP Software, unlike Adobe, has a strong incentive to add useful improvements that make users want to subscribe.
I find Take Command indispensable. If you’re a software developer or a technically-advanced Windows user, you definitely should download it and try it. After the first few days of the 30-day trial period, you’ll probably wonder how you ever did without it.
JP Software also offers a free version of the TCC console-mode command interpreter called TCC/LE. It’s missing the GUI environment and some features of the full version, and its development was frozen at version 13. But it provides a very useful subset of Take Command’s features at an unbeatable price.
Disclosure: JP Software offers “a free permanent registration key to anyone reviewing Take Command, for any kind of media (ezines, blogs, podcasts, magazines, newspapers, radio, tv, etc.).” I have taken advantage of this offer. But I wrote the foregoing review well before I was aware of the offer, and have since updated the review only to reflect a price change and noteworthy new features. As I noted in the review, I have been an enthusiastic (paying) user of JP Software products since 1990. I have also included a review of JP Software products on this Web site since its inception (this Links page from April 2001 is the oldest version in the Internet Archive). The JP Software Web site also includes an excerpt and link to this review on their Reviews page. I became aware of it (and the free registration offer) in 2015, when I noticed a backlink to that page in the Google Webmaster’s console.
Notepad++ (free; Windows only) nicely meets my needs at a price that provides unbeatable value for money. As a general text editor it offers an uncluttered (and customizable) user interface with tabbed multiple documents. It provides all the features you’d want and expect in a text editor: Advanced find and replace including regular expressions, multiple documents, and a separate window showing all occurrences in a file or set of files; file comparison; word wrapping (based on the width of the window); macros; and spell checking.
For programming, it includes syntax highlighting, folding, and bracket matching for over 50 programming and scripting languages (users can add their own; one of these days I’ll make one for Take Command). The main thing it’s missing are the project management tools that large programming teams need; but there’s an ongoing effort to add them.
Don Ho, the Chinese-French author of Notepad++ who has no connection with the late Hawaiian singer, likes to emphasize the editor’s lean and efficient code. By reducing CPU usage, he says he is “trying to reduce the world carbon dioxide emissions.” While I can’t say whether this actually results in a “greener environment,” it is a refreshing exception to the trend toward gratuitous software bloat.
Consistent with that lean approach, many of Notepad++’s features are implemented as plug-ins. They include HTML Tidy (an HTML validator); “TextFX” that provides text sorting and a variety of formatting and conversion functions; file compare; a hex editor; a spell checker; ftp; and multiple clipboards.
Worth special mention is the “Preview HTML” plug-in. It provides a dockable window that renders the contents of the editing window as HTML using Microsoft Internet Explorer (with a choice of three different versions). By updating that display in real time, it gives Notepad++ a very useful “WYSIWYG” editing capability. There’s also a plug-in that keeps track of your plug-ins and notifies you when new versions are available, and another that lets you customize the icons on Notepad++’s toolbar.
Mr. Ho provides some of the plug-ins, but most are developed by users. There’s a fully-documented interface for writing plug-ins in C++, and also an interface— through an oddly-named plug-in called “Pork to Sausage”— for processing text with an external stand-alone program written in whichever language you prefer.
The extensive use of plug-ins creates some quirks and installation difficulties, however. Vista and Windows 7 require administrator privilege to write to the C:\Program Files directory, where applications reside. (That’s why you get a message asking for authorization when you install software.) Applications that are written for Vista and Windows 7 write their data and configuration files to a separate directory— specified in the %APPDATA% environment variable— for that purpose. Notepad++ itself follows that convention, but provides an option to write its files in the directory where it’s installed. That option is intended for “portable” installation on flash drives.
But several useful plug-ins have not been updated for Vista and Windows 7. They write to the directory where they’re installed, as was the standard practice with Windows XP and earlier. If you install Notepad++ in the normal C:\Program Files directory, those plug-ins won’t be able to write their files unless you run Notepad++ with administrator privileges (not a good idea). They’ll display strange error messages or crash. This is a particular problem with the spell checker, which relies on the open-source Aspell package. The Windows version of Aspell was last updated in 2002. (Newer versions exist for for Linux; the developers of some Windows programs that use it have built their own custom versions from the Linux source code.) The plug-in that interfaces with Aspell is supposed to be able to use the Aspell installation in any directory you specify; but it only seems to work when the spell-checker is in the Aspell sub-directory of the Notepad++ directory.
The simplest way around these incompatibilities is to install Notepad++ in a directory other than C:\Program Files, using the “portable” option. That can make installation a bit tricky. I have prepared some installation notes, based on my own experience and some posts in various forums, that I hope will smooth the way. Notepad++ is a fine editor at an unbeatable price (free). It’s well worth working through the small installation hassles.
Before I switched to Notepad++, I used UltraEdit ($60 for new users, $30 annually for upgrades; Windows, Macintosh, and Linux) for nearly a decade. UltraEdit is a widely-used, highly-praised editor that tries to be everything to everybody. And it largely succeeds at doing that. Now in its 18th major version (as of February 2013), it has every feature you can imagine, and more. And it offers preset “environments” for different types of users and tasks, including Web development, technical writing, programming, and system administration. You can configure any of the “environments” to your own preferences. You really can’t go wrong with UltraEdit.
So why did I switch to Notepad++? It’s mostly because I concluded that I didn’t need all those features. Notepad++, which I had been using on another machine, had everything I did need, with a simpler, uncluttered interface. Yes, UltraEdit has a similarly uncluttered “Notepad replacement” preset. But it really doesn’t make sense to use such a full-featured editor for that.
IDM Computer Solutions, the company that sells UltraEdit, operates on an annual subscription model. The $30 annual subscription fee entitles a user to any upgraded versions released during the year. With a product this powerful and mature, an “upgrade treadmill” is probably the only way to realize a continuing revenue stream. The problem is that it inevitably results in bloat, as the company is compelled to keep adding features to a feature-laden product and tweaking the user interface. Obviously, UltraEdit is far from the only software with this problem. And there’s no requirement to upgrade if you find that a “legacy” version continues to meet your needs.
I decided to try version 17.2 when it came out. (My registration code for version 16 would not be valid for it, but UltraEdit is shareware that allows a 30-day trial.) Whenever I upgraded to a major new version of UltraEdit, I always lost the customizations I had made to my toolbars and “environment.” There’s surely an installation option that preserves the customizations, but I always managed to overlook it. This was no exception. After trying the new version, I concluded that the improvements over what I had really weren’t useful enough to justify renewing my subscription. Then I realized that I’d have to redo all my customizations if I reinstalled version 16. When I discovered that I had misplaced my copy of the version 16 installation file, I decided to switch to Notepad++.
There was one other factor in that decision I’m almost hesitant to mention. Ian D. Mead, the founder and president of IDM, is an Evangelical Christian. A page on the IDM Web site explains his faith, and how it guided him to start his company. That said, this page— along with occasional low-key personal notes in the e-mail newsletter IDM sends out— is the only direct expression of Mr. Mead’s faith in connection with UltraEdit. There’s nothing to suggest that the Lord’s direction to him was anything other than “Go forth and make an excellent text editor.”
When I first read Mr. Mead’s “full story” some years ago, my reaction was to marvel at the First Amendment (the provision of the United States constitution meant to guarantee the rights of free expression of religion and free speech). But now, with the increasing politicization of Evangelical Christianity in this country, I had the nagging (though most likely unfounded) suspicion that an UltraEdit subscription might indirectly support things I don’t agree with. That wasn’t a major factor, but it was the proverbial tiny straw that finalized my decision. Conversely, if you do share Mr. Mead’s faith, it may be a reason to choose UltraEdit. But the real reason to choose it is that it’s a great editor at a reasonable price.
Another shareware competitor to UltraEdit worth considering is NoteTab. NoteTab comes in three versions, “Light,” “Standard,” and “Pro.” The “Light” version is freeware, but it is anything but light on features. It’s a great replacement for Microsoft’s crippled Notepad editor, and handles large and multiple files in any available font. The “Standard” version includes a spell checker and thesaurus, better text formatting, and the ability to search and replace text in files on disk. The “Pro” version adds HTML syntax highlighting, faster text replace, bookmarks, outlining, and numerous other features. The “Standard” and “Pro” versions are sold together for $40. You’ll want to use the “Standard” version if you use proportional fonts and right-to-left languages.
It can be difficult to decide between NoteTab Pro and UltraEdit. NoteTab is cheaper and, perhaps, slightly friendlier to use. But I think UltraEdit has enough additional useful features to give it an edge. Try both and decide for yourself. Even if you don’t need a full-featured editor like UltraEdit or NoteTab Pro, it’s well worth downloading the free NoteTab Light and Notepad++. Try them both to see which suits you best.
A “drive image” backup is an exact copy of an entire hard disk or partition on CD, DVD, tape, or some other external media, preferably with compression to save space and writing time. It can be a real life-saver— or at least a system-saver— not if but when a hard drive suffers a catastrophic failure. That has happened to me twice (so far). Just plug in a new hard disk, restore the image from an external hard drive or set of CDs or DVDs, boot the restored disk, and you’re up and running again. A usable backup approach typically requires both a drive image backup and a file-level backup solution. The latter provides ready access to individual files, but it can’t restore a bootable system drive.
Searching for a Backup Solution
I first discovered Terabyte’s Image products in 2003, when I bought a Memorex “True 8x” DVD writer. The drive came bundled with Nero Express OEM, which included an adequate file-level backup feature. But it lacked a drive image capability. Version 2 of NTI’s Backup NOW!, which I had been using for years to make file-level and drive-image backups on a CD writer, didn’t support any DVD writers. So my first thought was an upgrade to the then-current version 3. Its Web site claimed “extensive backup device support” including the “widest range” of DVD writers. In the fine print was a note to check their Web site for a list of supported devices. My DVD drive wasn’t on the list, and their prompt reply to my e-mail query was an apology that they had no plans to support it any time soon. So off to Google I went.
Although the Web site for Symantec’s Drive Image claimed it would work with “virtually any internal or external drive,” my drive wasn’t one of them. And even if it did support my writer, it required Microsoft’ then-new .NET Framework. Putting another reeking pile of Microsoft bloat and security holes on my machine wasn’t particularly appealing. Acronis True Image, PC Magazine’s “Editors’ Choice” for drive backup, could only write DVDs using external UDF packet-writing software— and the one that came with my drive can’t format DVD+R disks. Paragon’s Drive Backup couldn’t burn an image directly to DVD at all under Windows 98. (I later replaced that computer with a new one that ran Windows XP, and replaced DVD backups with a USB external hard drive.)
Having exhausted the realm of commercial shrink-wrap software, I turned to shareware. I found exactly what I was looking for in Terabyte Unlimited Image for Windows. This is a straightforward, no-nonsense tool that can create a bootable CD or DVD with a compressed image of a hard disk partition. At $39, it’s about half the price of its cheapest commercial competitor. Its user interface isn’t fancy or pretty, but all the features are easily accessible. And mirabile dictu, it could write directly to my DVD writer! How could a little shareware company manage what NTI or Symantec— heir to the famous Norton Utilities— can’t? I don’t know. But it works. And it most likely works with any DVD writer (a real advantage of shareware is that you can find out if it really works on your system before you buy it).
The Image for Windows purchase price also includes licenses for Image for DOS and Image for Linux. The Windows package installs PHYLock™, a driver that can lock system files and files in use by applications, allowing the backup of a running system (C:) drive from Windows. That would seem to make the other versions unnecessary for Windows users. But a stand-alone bootable floppy disk (with Image for DOS), or a CD or flash drive (with Image for Linux), is an absolute necessity. It provides the only way to restore a failed hard drive, or a corrupt Windows installation that won’t start. If you’re still running an ancient DOS-based version of Windows (95/98/Me), you’ll need the DOS or Linux version to back up your C drive because PHYLock won’t work.
All three Image versions have the same capabilities, options, and user interface, although the DOS version uses a 1980s-style text interface rather than Windows graphics. Since they work directly with hardware, they can access just about any IDE or SATA internal hard drive or CD/DVD burner, or a USB or FireWire external drive. They can also read and write NTFS partitions.
The Windows package includes a utility that creates a bootable floppy disk containing Image for DOS and TBOS, Terabyte’s DOS clone. The Image for Linux package includes a Windows installer that creates a turnkey bootable CD, DVD, or USB flash drive with a complete Linux installation. You don’t need to be a Unix wizard, since it starts up with a user-friendly menu system (in a choice of text or GUI versions) rather than an intimidating console shell (though a shell is available as one of the menu options). It also identifies hard drive partitions by volume name rather than as opaque Unix “devices.” You’ll need to use Image for Linux rather than the DOS version if your backup media is an external USB drive and you have a USB keyboard. DOS can’t handle both devices simultaneously.
Image offers optional encryption of backup files. It can also optionally omit the Windows paging and hibernation files to save time and space on an image of a system partition. (Those large files contain no useful data, and Windows will just re-create them when you start it from a restored partition.) You can also make a differential backup of only the files that have changed since the last full backup. That should make frequent backups quicker and much more convenient. With either type of backup, Image can optionally verify the integrity of a compressed backup file, or do a byte-by-byte comparison of the backup with the source. Either option increases the time it takes to complete a backup; the byte-by-byte comparison exactly doubles the time. But it can provide an extra measure of assurance for critical backups.
Image for Windows includes two add-on utilities that let you easily extract individual files or directories from a disk image backup file. They effectively make Image for Windows a reasonably convenient file-level backup tool as well as a drive image backup program. TBIView™ is a Windows Explorer extension that lets you navigate and extract individual files from a backup image file. (Image for Linux also includes a command-line version of it.) Double-clicking an image file (with the .TBI extension) opens a navigation window, with the image’s directory tree in the left pane and the contents of a selected directory in the right pane. From there you can drag files or directories to your desktop or to another application. TBIView has saved me from stupid mistakes more times than I’m willing to admit.
The newer TBIMount provides another way to extract files from a disk image backup. It’s a stand-alone program that lets you “mount” an image file as a (read-only) disk drive, with the drive letter of your choice. You can then search, read, and copy files and directories using the Windows explorer, Take Command, or whatever utilities you prefer. Run it again to “dismount” the image file when you’re done. You may need to run TBIMount as an administrator on Vista or Windows 7.
Image in Action
I had been making regular backups with Image for over five years before I had any reason to use its restore capability. My old 160GB Seagate 7200.7 drive didn’t fail, but it was getting uncomfortably close to the end of its warranty. When I found an irresistible price on a 640GB Western Digital Caviar Black drive, I decided that Image would be the ideal tool for copying the old drive to the new one. It can resize a partition after restoring it to a larger drive, and of course I’d also have a complete backup when the upgrade was finished.
My hard drive has a complex setup, with a bootable partition and two data partitions. (I back up the data partitions by copying files directly to an external drive.) Terabyte’s documentation is extensive, but it isn’t entirely clear about how to back up that type of setup and restore it to a new larger drive. I posted a question on Terabyte’s newsgroup (available through an interface on their Web site) and promptly got exact instructions from one of their people. I’ll describe the process, as an example how Image works and some of the options it provides.
Using Image for Linux booted from a USB flash drive, I first backed up the entire old drive onto an external hard drive. Image provides the option of backing up either individual partitions or the entire drive at once; the latter option backs up all partitions. Then I powered down the computer, swapped the drives, and rebooted from the Image for Linux flash drive. As with the backup process, Image can restore the entire drive at once, with the option of resizing the restored partitions to fit a larger drive in proportion to their original sizes; or it can restore (and resize) individual partitions separately.
I restored the C partition first, selecting the options to restore the first track, adjust the Windows BOOT.INI, and make the partition active. Then I entered the new size of the restored partition (39 GB on the old drive, 48 GB on the new drive) in the “resize after restore” text box. Restoring the first track creates a master boot record (MBR) that includes all the old partition letter assignments. It also includes the hidden data some applications (such as Adobe Photoshop) write to the MBR as part of their anti-piracy schemes. Some disk imaging software creates a new MBR when restoring rather than saving and restoring the first track (Image can also do this if you select that option); so any applications that hide data in the MBR will have unexpected problems. The “make active partition” option makes the partition bootable. If you’re like most Windows users and have only one partition on your system drive, the restore process is done after Image restores this partition.
I un-selected the options I listed above when restoring the other two partitions. For each one, I entered the new size for the restored partition in “resize after restore.” That text box displays the minimum partition size for the restore and the maximum available free space on the drive. You can specify any new size within that range. Because I restored the MBR with the C partition, Image correctly created the necessary extended and logical partitions on the disk. It then adjusted their sizes after restoring the data. Note that Image reports free space and specifies partition sizes in Mebibytes, units of 1,048,576 bytes. Manufacturers of disk drives specify capacities in megabytes or gigabytes, units of 1,000,000 or 1,000,000,000 bytes respectively. So you’ll have to do some arithmetic when determining the partition size to select in Image.
When Image for Linux finished restoring the third partition, I powered down the computer, disconnected the external drive, and rebooted from the new hard drive. Windows started up flawlessly, although it informed me that it had “found new hardware” (i.e., the new hard disk), which it “installed” and asked me to reboot. I did that, and it again started up flawlessly. Because an image backup restores the sectors of a partition exactly as they appeared on the original drive, the system partition’s volume serial number is the same as it was on the old drive. That helps to avoid triggering Windows’ anti-piracy scheme, which requires “re-activation” if too many hardware items change. I found everything in order, including Photoshop and several other applications that require “activation.”
Commercial products may now have caught up with the DVD writing capabilities of Image. But I can definitely recommend Image for Windows as an excellent and inexpensive drive image backup tool that doubles as an excellent and inexpensive file backup and recovery program. And it’s impressive proof that software can be powerful and useful without unnecessary bloat or fancy bells and whistles. Image for DOS, which fits handily on a floppy disk, proves that the art of writing elegant and compact code is not lost. Microsoft and Adobe could learn much from Terabyte!
Note: I mention copy protection mainly to illustrate the frequent contention that, like so many “security” measures, it tends to cause more difficulty for legitimate users than for the pirates. But I also need to point out the potential legal pitfalls of tools like Terabyte Image. In the United States, Section 117 of the Copyright Act specifically allows backup copies of software that you legitimately own. But any contrary provisions a software publisher buries in its license “agreement” will take precedence. And Section 117 does not apply to other types of copyrighted files, such as music or movies. So making image backups may violate copyright law as well as the license “agreements” for one or more of the software programs on your hard disk.
That said, I believe that the very real benefit of making regular backups specifically to protect yourself from an inevitable disk failure outweighs the theoretical risk of becoming the sacrificial defendant in an overzealous corporation’s test case. (As far as I know, no appellate court has yet ruled on the issue of making this type of disk backup.) Don’t keep backups on networked drives publicly accessible through the Internet that the RIAA’s or MPAA’s vigilante squads— or actual hackers or pirates— might find. Do keep backups on one or more detachable external hard drives in safe locations.
This is all, of course, entirely different from using imaging software to “clone” hard drives for multiple computers without specific authorization or license, or to create images for unauthorized distribution. Anyone who does either fully deserves to be ripped to bloody shreds by a shiver of squaloid attack-lawyers.
About Upgrading Serial ATA Hard Drives
When I did the hard drive upgrade I just described, I had an Asus A8V Deluxe motherboard that uses the VIA K8T800 Pro chipset. This chipset— specifically its VT8237 “southbridge”— is one of several older controllers that have a known and documented incompatibility with current SATA 2 hard drives. The motherboard also has a Promise PDC20378 controller (also called “FastTrak 378”), but when I was researching my hard drive upgrade I could find no specific information about its compatibility with SATA2. For the lack of any better place to put it, I’m including this note here to answer that question.
The Promise controller does support SATA 2 correctly. My Caviar Black SATA 2 drive and an older Seagate 7200.9 both work perfectly with the Promise controller in “IDE” mode with no jumpers needed, though almost certainly at 150 megabits per second. I suspect the Promise controller also works with SATA2 drives in RAID mode, but I haven’t tried that. Since my old drive had been running from the Promise controller all along, it had the correct Windows driver installed. But if you are upgrading an older SATA drive that was connected to the VIA controller, you’ll need to first move it to the Promise controller, install the driver, and verify that it works before you make the backup. (By the way, the Promise controller’s SATA capability is only for hard drives. As the Asus motherboard manual clearly notes, it doesn’t support SATA CD or DVD drives.)
If you’re wondering what this all means, current Serial ATA (SATA) hard drives use an interface that is usually (but incorrectly) called “SATA 2” or “SATA II.” It’s an upgrade to the original Serial ATA standard that offers a maximum data throughput of 300 megabits per second, twice the rate of the original standard. (A newer version of SATA can transfer data at 600 megabits per second.) In practice, this enhancement is yet another one of those features more useful for marketeers than for users. The old 150-megabit standard is faster than any mechanical disk drive can read or write data. The higher throughput rate could theoretically be beneficial when transferring a small “burst” of data from a hard drive’s cache, or when used with solid-state drives that may one day supplant electromechanical platters.
The developers of the SATA 2 standard included a provision for compatibility with controllers that don’t support the faster rate. When the controller first detects an SATA 2 drive during initial start-up, it “negotiates” a data transfer rate with the drive. If the controller can’t support the faster rate, the drive will configure itself to the older standard. But some first-generation SATA controllers, such as the VT8237, were designed before the SATA2 standard and don’t support the negotiation protocol. They won’t even recognize an SATA 2 drive. To work around that problem, many SATA 2 drives include a jumper option that manually sets the drive to the old standard. But some drives— notably Seagate 7200.11 models larger than 320GB— don’t provide that jumper (all sizes of the newer 7200.12 drives have the jumper). And some others, like my Caviar Black, don’t fully document it. Western Digital’s knowledge base article describes the “OPT1” jumper, but the drive label and the “quick start guide” both state only that the jumper block is “for factory use.”