Using Windows’ built-in disk-imaging utility

Fred langa By Fred Langa

When the bits hit the fan, nothing gets your PC back in shape like having a complete known-good image of your hard drive to use for recovery.

Disk imaging — the gold standard of backups — is built into all versions of Windows 7 and some versions of Vista, but it’s also available for XP.

What’s the best way to back up your PC?

Nick Phillips wants to know more about PC disaster recovery:
  • “Very interesting piece by Fred [the Nov. 5 LangaList Plus column] about the order [in which] to install applications in a newly installed system. Could you go into more detail? If the old system becomes so badly damaged that it becomes unbootable, then the backup needs to be bootable, right?”
Yes, a good disaster-recovery plan has to include some means of restoring your data, even if your PC won’t boot normally. But let’s start at the beginning.

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My preferred system-backup method is to create a disk (or partition) image. Unlike a file-by-file backup that preserves a drive’s data, an image backup is a byte-for-byte replica of not only the hard drive’s data but also the drive’s structure. That’s the key difference.

Imaging creates an exact clone of your hard drive, all the way down to the physical placement of individual bytes on the disk. If you image a new, error-free, defragged installation of Windows and all your applications, restoring that image puts your entire system back to exactly that condition.

When you restore the image, everything’s installed error-free and the disk’s defragged precisely — precisely — the way it was when the image was made. No file-oriented backup technology can make that guarantee. That’s why imaging is the paragon of backups.

Manufacturers have long recognized the power of image backups. The “system restore” setups on most OEM discs use a factory-made image to totally reproduce the PC’s software configuration in its original, as-shipped condition.

Using an imaging tool on your own gives you the same power, but with an important added benefit: you get to control how the system is set up before the image is created.

And here’s some great news: Windows 7′s built-in backup system — the best ever built into Windows — includes imaging. (See Figure 1.) The Win7 backup applet actually offers three different backup types: a system image (best for preserving your entire system setup), a standard file-oriented backup (best for routine daily or weekly data backups), and a bootable “system repair disk” that lets you make selective repairs or restore a whole-system image you created previously.

Windows 7 backup and restore control panel applet
Figure 1. The Backup and Restore applet in all versions of Windows 7 includes a “Create a system image” option.

Vista also has disk imaging — called Complete PC Backup and Restore — but the feature is present only in Vista’s high-end Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions. Win7′s image backup is available in all versions of Win7, not just the most-expensive ones.

I don’t mean to gush, but as a backup fanatic who’s had to cobble together elaborate, Rube Goldberg–inspired backup/image/repair boot-disc systems over the years, having all this stuff built into the basic operating system is wonderful. It’s one of my favorite parts of Win7.

So — no joke — one possible answer to your question, Nick, is to upgrade to Win7. It has built-in tools that can handle all the backing up you need to do, and it walks you through the entire process.

Of course, you can accomplish the same tasks in any version of Windows using third-party tools such as Acronis True Image (more info), Norton Ghost (more info), and my personal favorite for non-Win7 systems, Terabyte Unlimited’s geeky-but-powerful BootItNG (more info). All three programs make disk images and bootable recovery discs that can be used to restore an image even to a raw, unformatted drive.

You might wonder about the practicality of storing images of today’s huge hard drives. Fortunately, all the best imaging tools — including Win7′s — are smart enough not to copy empty space. The programs merely note blank areas, so they can be recreated without actually storing the emptiness.

And because the backup utilities employ lossless data compression, analogous to a .zip file, an image can be stored in far less space than the original disk or partition.

A second factor in determining the size of an image backup is whether your drive is partitioned into manageable chunks. Backups become quick and painless when you store various components of your configuration in separate partitions of your hard drive.

For example, my main system has a 500GB boot drive. To make my backups manageable, I divide the drive into two somewhat arbitrary partitions: a 75GB C: partition and a 325GB D: partition. (On its own, my Win7 Ultimate configuration reserves a 100GB BitLocker partition that’s normally hidden.)

I put my system files and my most-important and most-frequently-updated data files on the 75GB C: partition that’s the focus of my backup activities.

Currently, about 25GB of the C: “drive” is in use. When I let Win7 create an image of the C: partition, the final compressed file is only about 16GB, and that’s all I need to store. I keep a “live” copy on my secondary internal drive. For certainty’s sake, I also copy the file to a network drive and to DVDs for safe, off-machine storage.

Instead of having to store 500GB, I have to store only 16 gigs — 4 DVDs’ worth — which is not much of a burden at all!

So, Nick — in summary:

  • Step 1: Partition your drives so you don’t have to back up everything all at once and your backups are a manageable size.

  • Step 2: On a regular basis, use an imaging tool — whether the one built into Windows 7 and high-end versions of Vista or a third-party tool — to make a “gold standard” whole-system backup.

  • Step 3: In between image backups, make simpler, traditional data (file-oriented) backups.

  • Step 4: Store at least some of your image and data backups offline, away from the PC you’re preserving.

  • Step 5: Relax in the knowledge that your data and your entire system setup are safe and secure!
(P.S. If you’re already using Win7 and want to go beyond the imaging “wizard” built into the OS’s backup applet, check out Microsoft’s tutorial, “Building a Standard Image of Windows 7 Step-by-Step Guide.”)

Where’d the Eudora e-mail client disappear to?

Bruce Cable needs to track down some favorite software that’s partially gone missing:
  • “I’ve used Eudora since version 5.0 in paid mode for years. After upgrading, I tried to pay for it and Qualcomm is not selling registration codes any longer. What’s a Eudora lover to do?”
Although Eudora was once an excellent e-mail client, Qualcomm’s primary business isn’t software; it’s making chipsets for cell phones. Several years ago, Qualcomm gave up on Eudora and turned its development over to the open-source community.

The open-source version of Eudora was conceived as a total software rewrite. But that plan has morphed into the simpler Penelope project, an attempt to layer “the Eudora user experience” over the guts of Thunderbird, Mozilla’s open-source e-mail client.

If you want more info, Mozilla’s Penelope wiki is the place to go. Or do what I and many other ex-Eudorians have done: switch to Thunderbird itself, which is available on the Mozilla site. It’s not Eudora, but it’s pretty good.

Long-distance attempt to repair a ‘PXE’ problem

Bob Boysen is faced with a machine that’s stuck in a boot loop:
  • “My daughter has a Lenovo PC that’s been great for three years. Suddenly, when she boots, she gets the message:

    PXE-E61, media test failed, check cable and PXE MOF, exiting PXE Rom.

    “I suggested going into BIOS or boot setup, but she can’t access anything. It just stays in a PXE loop. She doesn’t live here, so it’s long-distance help. There’s about a two-week period left in the extended warranty, but that won’t help if it’s not a hardware problem. Any suggestions would be appreciated.”
The Preboot Execution Environment (abbreviated PXE to avoid an unfortunate acronym) allows the system to boot from a network when it can’t find a bootable hard drive, CD/DVD, USB device, or floppy. If your daughter’s machine can’t boot from any of those types of devices, the problem probably isn’t trivial and sure doesn’t sound like it’s software-related.

I’m all for do-it-yourself repairs, but with a PC in the hands of an unskilled user and only two weeks left on the warranty, there’s no time to waste. I suggest your daughter invoke the warranty coverage and let Lenovo sort it out.

Why can’t I erase files on my USB drive?

Timm Smith can’t clean off his external hard drive:
  • “I can’t seem to delete files from my USB hard drive. I’m using Vista Home Premium and a WD 500GB Elements [external] HDD for backups. I can’t find a Delete command, and if I drag a file to the Recycle Bin, it won’t go there. Can you help?”
Sounds like a problem with permissions or file attributes. Many external drives come preformatted, and devices intended to store backups are designed to make files difficult to delete for safety reasons. Some backup drives even have a physical “read only” switch. Finally, files copied from CDs or DVDs may retain a read-only software attribute.

But if there’s no physical hardware switch preventing file deletion and you’re using an administrator account, you can reset the permissions to give yourself full access. Microsoft Knowledge Base article 326549 provides step-by-step instructions for all current versions of Windows. A few clicks, and I bet you’ll have full delete access again!

Fred Langa is editor-at-large of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.