It has become conventional wisdom in the PC industry that periodically reinstalling Windows can restore an old PC's youthful vigor. Unfortunately, the process has become a challenge—and a real time-sink, to boot. Better to create a disc image of your hard drive when everything's working well and restore that image when things turn sour.
Recently, my nearly new laptop PC froze in the middle of Windows loading. After a forced shutdown, Vista repaired itself and reverted to a saved restore point. Things were back to normal in no time, but the event reminded me that I hadn't yet created a disc image of the hard drive's active partition.
Doing so doesn't cost home users anything other than the price of a few blank DVDs or some other removable medium. Paramount Software's Macrium Reflect disk-imaging software is free for personal use, though businesses, schools, and charities are asked to pay $39.99 for the full version (30-day trial available).
After you install the program, you're prompted to create a backup, including an XML Backup Definition File to facilitate restoring the backup from your desktop. You can also create a rescue CD (or DVD) that uses either Linux or the BartPE boot routines. Linux is the default selection and the one recommended for all but Windows XP and Server 2003 systems.
Backing up 68GB of data on a 222GB hard-drive partition took about 45 minutes and four DVDs. Even if restoring the partition required twice that amount of time, the process is still faster than reinstalling Windows, downloading and installing the gigabytes of Windows updates, reinstalling your applications, and restoring your data files and settings.
Once I had created the Linux boot disc, I was ready for nearly any Windows emergency. Now I have to lug around five DVDs, but that's a small price to pay for the added peace of mind.
Of course, there are times when reinstalling Windows is your only recourse—such as when you have to repair a PC that has no backups. You'll find step-by-step instructions for reinstalling XP and older versions of Windows in Lincoln Spector's "How to Reinstall Windows XP." Microsoft's Windows Help and How-to site describes how to use Vista's Startup Repair feature. A separate article on the site explains your Vista installation and reinstallation options.
If your PC shipped without a Windows installation disc—and chances are increasingly likely it didn't include one—your only option is reinstalling your OS from the recovery partition on the hard drive. The steps vary depending on the PC vendor, so check the company's site for the instructions for your system.
With or without a Windows installation CD, restoring a known-good disk image is faster, simpler, and at least as effective as starting from scratch.