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.

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.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-12-03:

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.