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Create a what, now?
All modern computer systems have a hard disk or some other kind of disk for mass storage.  This disk, usually named the “C:” drive, has all of a user's documents, contacts, favorites, photos, music, and applications.  It also has Windows itself with all its settings and updates.  Those are a lot of eggs in one little basket, and the trouble is, hard drives don't last forever-- they fail sometimes, in which condition the computer is useless.  Further, there are viruses around now that can also render the computer unusable.  In both cases, the user can erase his hard drive and start over from scratch by reinstalling a fresh copy of Windows and all his applications, and then copy all his documents and things back onto the drive from some backup he's made, if he has one.  This can take many hours depending on how much stuff one has.  We are advised to periodically backup our documents and other personal effects onto removable storage.  It's really as easy as dragging your account folder into the window of an external (USB) hard drive, though that kind of backup doesn't include Windows or any applications.

Starting with Windows Vista, Microsoft lets users make an image-- a perfect copy of the part of the C: drive that is currently in use, and save it on a set of CDs or DVDs, or even the aforementioned external hard drive.  This image can then be easily copied back onto the C: drive in less than an hour.  It's not a bad idea to get 50 or 100 blank DVDs and create a system image every few months, like after a big update or after your periodic maintenance (cleanup) procedure when the computer is running just the way you like it.  That way, if disaster strikes, you'll have less updating and so forth to do to get the computer back and ready again.

The create and restore processes in Windows Vista (Business, Enterprise or Ultimate versions only)
If you have Windows Vista Business, Enterprise or Ultimate, follow this procedure to create an image of your system:

1. Get everything you need before you start: a bunch of blank CDs or DVDs, and a marker pen to label each disc.
2. CLICK Start, then CLICK Control Panel.
3. Under System and Maintenance, CLICK 'Back up your computer.'
4. In the next window, CLICK 'Back up computer,' (NOT 'Back up files!!')
5. CLICK 'On one or more DVDs,' and then CLICK [Next].
6. The Confirm your backup settings window tells you how many discs you'll need.  How many that will be depends on which type of discs you're using.  Double-layer DVDs have twice as much space (about 8 GB) as single-layer ones (about 4 GB per disc.)  CLICK 'Start backup' and Windows takes over from there.  You'll be prompted each time you have to put in a new disc.  Don't forget to label each one.

Restoring from the image set in Windows Vista Business, Enterprise or Ultimate versions is not difficult, but keep in mind that this process will erase your hard drive including all your stuff, so don't even think about it unless the computer is currently useless.  You need to get to the Windows Recovery Environment, which is either located on your Windows Vista DVD, or else on a separate, smaller partition on your hard drive.  It's prudent to check to see if your hard drive has the recovery partition before you proceed.  To check for and use this partition, repeatedly tap the F8 key as you start up the computer.  Instead of a normal startup, you'll get to the Windows Startup Menu, and in this menu, if the recovery partition is available, you'll see an option to choose the Windows Recovery Environment.  SELECT it, and the Install Windows window appears.  If you can indeed select it, skip the next paragraph.

If your Windows Startup Menu lacks a Windows Recovery Environment choice, you'll need to get to it via your Windows Vista DVD.  Insert your Windows Vista DVD and start the computer.  Eventually you'll see a black screen that suggests you “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD...”  PRESS ANY KEY and the Install Windows window appears.

At the Install Windows window, enter your language and other preferences, and/or just CLICK [Next].  At the next window, you'll see a big [Install now] button in the middle (but DON'T click it), and some smaller options towards the bottom.  CLICK instead the “Repair your computer” option.  The next window, called System Recovery Options, will show a list of one or more copies of Vista (probably only one)... CLICK [Next] here.

The next window is the System Recovery Options window.  When you see this window, insert Disc 1 of the image set you created in the procedure above, and click “Windows Complete PC Restore.”  At the Windows Complete PC Restore window, CLICK the check box for “Format and repartition disks,” and then CLICK the [Finish] button.  Confirm that you want to erase all existing data and restore the backup, and then CLICK the [OK] button, and the backup will finally begin.  When the backup completes, you will see a window that tells you this, and that lets you reboot.  When the system restarts, you will be using the data and configuration from the backup you just restored.

The processes in Windows 7
Creating a system image in Windows 7 is much easier and every version of Windows 7 lets you do it.  Proceed as follows to create your system image:

1. Get everything you need before you start: a bunch of blank DVDs, and a marker pen to label each disc.
2. CLICK [Start], then CLICK [Control Panel].
3. Under System and Security, CLICK 'Back up your computer.'
4. In the panel at the left, CLICK 'Create a system image.'
5. In the Where do you want to save the backup? window, you'll see Windows looking for backup devices (like on an external hard drive, in case you wanted to use one,) and then when it doesn't find any, it self-selects 'On one or more DVDs.'  When this search is over, CLICK [Next].
6. In the Confirm your backup settings window, you'll get an idea of how many DVDs you'll need, again, depending on the type of DVD blanks you bought.  CLICK [Start backup].
7. The backup begins.  You'll be prompted each time you have to put in a new disc.  Don't forget to label each one.
8. After Windows finishes making the backup, it lets you make a system repair disc.  Since this is essential to the Restore process, do it.  Now you only need ONE system repair disc per computer, so for later system image sets that you create, you can skip this step.

Restore your system from the image you made with the following steps:

1. Insert the system repair disc from step 8 above, and shut it down.
2. Restart the computer using the computer's power button.
3. If so prompted, press any key to start from the system repair disc.  If your computer is not configured to start from a DVD, you might need to change its BIOS settings.  See the link below for more information on BIOS.
4. Choose your language settings if so prompted, and then CLICK [Next].
5. CLICK the option to recover from your system image, and then CLICK [Next].  You'll be prompted to insert the LAST disc of the image set because that's where the program has recorded the information it needs to start the restore process.

For Windows 8 and Windows XP users
A curious situation in Windows 8 makes it unadvisable to try this method of backing up the system and then restoring from an image set.  When Windows 8 first appeared in the fall of 2012, it included a program to create a system image.  It's called “Windows 7 File Recovery,” of all things!  Further, there are reports that it frequently produces errors and doesn't work reliably enough to trust.  In the new version of 8, called Windows 8.1, this function has been deleted entirely and users are encouraged to use an included program called File History.  File History saves copies of your documents as you develop them, and it lets you roll them back to previous versions in case you don't like them in their present state.  However, it does nothing in terms of backing up Windows itself with all its settings and updates.

PC Magazine reviews and recommends some programs for Windows 8 and Windows XP users to create and use system images.  The cheapest is called Rebit 5, and it costs about $35.
July 4, 2013

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