As suspected, you get as many different answers as you have people respond. All the above suggestions are valid (except i have nothing but trouble with Windows native imaging - but that may be me).
I have tried most any imaging program around. Ghost was my good companion during the Vista times. It always worked, but it took me 6 months to discover all it's intricacies - not what you would call an ease of use example.
My bottom line after 4 years of experiments is that free Macrium fits me best. It is easy to use, has no "automatics" that can confuse you, has a lot of functions, it is fast, very reliable (I must have done 50 recoveries for real and for demo in my classes) and it is free.
I have made an extensive tutorial
on how to image and how to recover with Macrium. The recovery part is usually not well documented that's why I added it to this tutorial. But as one poster said above, you should really make the full cycle including the recovery yourself to check whether your recovery disc works and whether you feel comfortable with it.
But a smart man does not make experiments with his system. That is why I have developed a small guideline (for my students) on how to do it without any risk to your system. It looks more involved than it really is, but my students are seniors with little computer knowledge, so I had to describe every step.
PS: You can, of course, use this test with any imaging program (product specifics may be different though). Imaging test 1. Shrink 2GBs from C and define a logical drive (partition) - let's call it Y 2. Move some files (any files) into Y - I always also move the sample picture folder in (you'll see why) 3. Define a test folder on your external backup disk - call it Mtest 4. Make an image of Y to Mtest - requires that you make a new definition 5. Delete a couple of pictures from the sample picture folder on Y (I always use the 2 animals) 6. Reboot and tap (ESC, F2 or whatever it is on your system) to get into the BIOS boot sequence 7. Set your boot sequence to CD/DVD reader 8. Put in the Macrium recovery CD and let it run, then hit Enter 9. Now you are in the recovery wizard, set it to Mtest where it says "Locate Image" and to Y where it says "Choose partition to overwrite with the image data". Note: the partition letters may not be the same as on your system. Macrium uses its own lettering. Best is to go by the size of the partitions and open it with the little + in the front. 10. Watch out when it asks whether to replace the Master Boot Record - say no. 11. When you have to specify whether the partition is “active”, “primary” or “logical” – take “logical”. 12. When you get the little window saying "Your computer will now reboot", you have to hit "Cancel" (on the bottom) to get it to reboot. That's a little strange way to end the session, but that's the way it is. 13. Check whether the 2 animals in the sample picture folder are back. That shows you that the recovery worked. When you have done these steps, you did the whole cycle and have learned 1. That your recovery disc works 2. How to recover 3. That you are not the dummy you thought you were Now you can delete the little 2GB partition and add the space back to the originating partition. If you are not familiar with the creation and deletion of partitions, watch this tutorial: http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/72427-data-partition.html