Free disk-imaging utility avoids Windows reinstalls

It's faster to restore a known-good disc image of your PC than to reinstall Windows, so plan ahead by using a free disk-backup utility.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
2 min read

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.

Macrium Reflect Backup Save Options
Macrium Reflect prompts you to create a disc backup after it installs. Paramount Software

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.

Backing up a 66GB drive partition to four DVDs took Macrium Reflect less than 45 minutes. Paramount Software

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.