There are tons of backup program (free and otherwise) out there in the market right now. I am constantly being asked “how does backup software A compare to backup software B”. Now in some cases this is a valid question. However in many instances, the two software the person wants me to compare are backup software of different nature – one is usually a file backup software while the other is an image backup software; they serve different purposes and therefore are usually incomparable.
In my post about 7 free software to image/backup/ghost your computer (free alternatives to Acronis True Image, Norton Ghost, etc.)  I tried to give a quick explanation about the differences between file backup and image backup software. However the confusion between the two types of software is so vast, I figure this topic deserves a post to call its own. So here goes…
File Backup Software
A file backup program is a program that allows you to backup select files on your computer, such as documents, movies, audio files, installation files, email, etc.
The main purpose of these types of programs is to allow you to make a backup of select files (that you feel are important) so you can restore them easily in case you ever lose them (in a computer crash, accidental deletion, etc.).
How to recognize
You can recognize a file backup program in one major way:
- While you may also have the option select whole partitions, when trying to create a backup you have the option to select individual files or folders to backup.
Three other clues that the program you are dealing with may be a file backup software:
- The files will tend to be backed up into a .ZIP file (or a similar non-proprietary archive type) since it allows for easy restore.
- A file backup software may have a feature where it allows you to select the data/settings of installed programs to backup, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Outlook, etc.
- With most file backup software, you first need to create a “task” or “job” before you can do the actual backup. After the initial time when you create the “task” or “job”, you can easily run the backup again
GFI Backup 2009 
Cobian Backup 
Image Backup Software
An image backup program is a program that allows you to you to backup your whole computer or individual partitions/hard disks, such as your C:/ partition.
The main purpose of an image backup program is to allow you make a backup everything on your computer or select partitions/hard disks and restore everything if your computer ever crashes or hard drive fails.
How to recognize
You can recognize an image backup program in one major way:
- When creating a backup you are asked to select a partition (or multiple partitions) or a hard drive (or multiple hard drives) but do not have the option to select individual files or folders.
Some other clues to help you recognize an image backup software:
- The word “image” should be all over the program. For example, when creating a backup it may say “create image” or when restoring it may say “restore image”.
- Since image backups tend to be large, there may be an option to allow you to “split” your image backups into equal or predefined parts.
- Most image backup software, as opposed to file backup software, allow you to create bootable discs/media so that you can restore your backup easily if your computer ever crashes and you can’t login to Windows.
Macrium Reflect 
Now being in the IT age, developers are continuously expanding the reach of their software so some commercial backup programs are now tending to be a mix of image and file backup software (i.e. able to do both). However most free ones are still either or.
So now the question of the day: which one is right for you? Well first keep in mind while the purpose of each type of program is different, they both usually allow for selective restore (i.e. being able to restore individual files from within the backup instead of restoring the whole back). So both types of programs may work for you. However to narrow down your search, ask yourself these two questions:
- Are all the files on my computer important or just a few?
- If my computer crashed would I be in desperate need to recover everything or just select files?
If the answers to the questions are, respectively, “all the files” and “recover everything” than you need an image backup software. Check out Macrium Reflect .
If the answers to the questions are, respectively, “just a few” and “just select files” than you need a file backup software. Check out GFI Backup 2009 .
Hope this post helps clear up a lot of confusion!