Drive imaging tools enable you to back up your entire Windows installation
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he next time you're forced to reinstall Windows - either from a recovery partition or installation disc - what would you give for a disc or partition that enabled you to reinstall Windows, all of your current hardware and updates, plus your favourite programs and settings without having to spend hours setting everything up?
This is where a drive image tool such as Macrium Reflect Free or Paragon Drive Backup rides to the rescue. Recovery discs as provided by your manufacturer are created in the same way as a drive image: the computer is set up and prepared, and then an image taken. What the imaging tool does is hand you control of that image, enabling you to create your own customised Windows installation, giving you a head start every time you come to reinstall.
A drive image works by taking an exact byte-for-byte replica of a hard drive or drive partition - a snapshot of that drive at that particular point in time if you will. Restoring that snapshot will completely overwrite what is currently stored on the drive, so like a destructive recovery disc, you need to take precautions before you use it.
If your data is stored on the same partition as your Windows installation, you'll need to make sure it's backed up separately immediately prior to using your drive image - see the "Back up your files and settings" section for details. Now of course might be the perfect time to consider separating your Windows installation and program files from your data and certain settings - this involves using another hard drive or partition, and you can find out more about partitioning by clicking here.
Back up with Macrium Reflect Free
Our current recommended free drive-imaging tool is Macrium Reflect Free: it supports a wide array of back-up media (including CD and DVD), and comes with a rescue disc creation tool and the ability to browse your image for individual files to restore as if it were a hard drive. We've not covered it in depth here because we've devoted an entire tutorial to it - click here to follow that tutorial.
In the example below we're using Paragon Drive Backup 8.5, which has featured on a number of recent magazine cover discs. Paragon now produces a free tool called Paragon Drive Backup Express, which works in a similar way, albeit without any of the advanced tools, and you can get that from here.
During installation you'll be prompted for a serial number, click the Registration button and follow the instructions to obtain your free key (again, check your junk mail folder if you don't receive the registration email promptly). Install any drivers if prompted, then restart to complete the installation. Now follow the step-by-step guide below to take a drive image.
Take a complete drive image
1. BACK UP ENTIRE DISK
Launch Paragon and choose "Back up hard disks or selected partitions". Click Next. To back up an entire disk, tick Basic Hard Disk 0 (or the number of the disk if you have multiple disks). Click Next.
2. BACK UP SYSTEM PARTITION
If you only wish to back up your Windows partition on a multi-partitioned drive, tick both First Hard Disk Track to back up the Master Boot Record (MBR), plus your drive letter before clicking Next to continue.
3. SELECT BACK-UP DRIVE
The best option is to back up to an external hard drive or networked drive - if you opt to back up to CD/DVD you'll need a lot of discs, and you won't be able to back up the MBR. Click Next.
4. LET BACKUP COMMENCE
Leave Backup Now selected and click Next. Review your settings and click Next followed by Finish. To perform the backup, click the Apply button and then leave Paragon to its work, which will take time.
Test and restore
Once done, test your archive to make sure it works by selecting Wizards > Check Archive Validity. When it comes to reinstalling Windows using your customised drive image, we'd recommend booting from your rescue disc (see the quick tip box). Once done, a graphical interface will appear - select Wizard > Simple Restore Wizard and follow the prompts to restore your partition or drive from your backup.
CREATE A RESCUE DISC
The first thing you should do after installing Paragon is create a rescue disc (select Tools > Recovery Media Builder) - this can restore your PC even if you can't boot into Windows.