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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: How to back up and restore my PC to the exact same condition it was...

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) August 16, 2007 5:05 PM PDT

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How to back up and restore my PC to the exact same condition it was...

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 8/16/07 5:05 PM

How to back up and restore my PC to the exact same condition it was before


I have read the many articles on backing up your computer, but I have never seen an article that tells me how to do what I would like to do most, and that is to restore my computer to the exact same condition it was in before my hard-drive went belly-up! Well, I should say, to restore it to the state it was in at the last back-up.

I definitely do not want to have to reinstall Windows, download all of the "patches," get all the drivers, etc., etc.. What I really want to do is to keep a back-up of *everything* so I can put *everything* back the way it was. I have tried a "restore" before, but was not successful and had to go through the above tedious procedure.

I will bet you that almost all computer users would like to know how to do this, and the articles I have seen are not too clear on whether you can even do it, and if you cant, why not?

Yours truly,

--Submitted by: Bill L.

Answer voted most helpful by the CNET community

All Roads Lead to Rome...


There are a LOT of options for doing this these days. Some of them are cheaper than others. Some are better than others.

Either way you look at it, to do a true, full backup in this day and age, you'll probably need a hard drive equal in size to the one that's currently in your computer. Forget tapes, floppies, CDs and DVDs. None of them are a.) fast enough nor b.) large enough to capture all but the smallest fraction of most modern hard drives. Not to mention, using any of these methods are just no longer up to the task.

Ergo, your best bet would be another hard drive. Fortunately, hard drives are dirt cheap. So then, the big $64,000 question here is how it needs to be hooked up. That would depend on your current configuration, what kinds of drives you've got and what ports are available on the motherboard. You'll need to purchase and install the drive in the same way the current one happens to be installed.

Once you've got the spare drive installed, boot into Windows and let Windows recognize the new device. Once that's done we can go about making use of the new drive.

Now then.. How to do the backup/restore? There are a few options that are currently available in this arena. These would be:

1.) a RAID array
2.) Partition cloning software
3.) Traditional backup software

Each has it's strength's and weaknesses. Such as: A RAID array keeps a real time copy of your C: drive but it adds extra overhead. On the down side, a RAID array is slow as the controller has to write the data to two destinations and make sure that both copies are in sync.

Partition cloning software such as Norton Ghost or Paragon Hard Drive Manager allow you to make a duplicate of your existing partition but once you've made the copy, changes aren't automatically added. Copied drives can be plugged into the original's place and with minimal fuss, be brought up to full running condition in short order. Just unplug the old dead drive and plug the new one in it's place, boot and you should be good to go.

Traditional backup software - meaning ANYTHING besides the crap that's rolled up into Windows - such as Veritas - have options to back stuff up securely, but you would have to run the restore option to retrieve the data. You can also create the archive with a password to protect the data. Of course, this does you NO good if you forget said password. The downside to this method is you have to schedule the job, preferably at a time when the computer's not busy - like 3:00am. It's quite useless, however, when it's shut off at the appointed time.

Under "ideal" conditions, your backup drive would need to be pulled out of the machine and stored somewhere else. Namely somewhere that if your computer's location was to be hit by fire, an act of god or some other disaster, the backup wouldn't be in the same location and would be safe, ready to be popped into the new computer, with the data intact. But let's be honest... MOST people I know who say they want to do backups are lazy slugs when it comes to implementing this and never do. I had one client who had a tape in his backup drive but he never bothered checking to see if the backups were ever done, nor did he ever swap the tapes out (I made sure to get him hooked up with a full set of 12 tapes just so he could swap it out each day and swap the set out with a couple of spares). So much for trusting IT chores to non-IT people... But I digress.

My two cents worth on this: I prefer the drive partition cloning software. You install the spare drive, clone it and simply unplug it. this means the drive is in place, ready to go with a simple cable swap. With the drive unplugged, you get three benefits.

1.) You don't run the risk of saving files to the backup drive and
2.) With it not connected to anything, it can't be infected or infested with spyware, crapware, malware or what not. Of course, it would be smart to do a full and complete virus and spyware check BEFORE making the backup to insure it's clean.
3.) Since the drive isn't plugged in, it's not running all the time, nor should it be wearing out. It should be as good as new.

Of course, the one big downside to this method - updates aren't included. Nor would any new software or data files. So you would have to repeat the cloning process say - once a month before you've done your Patch Tuesday updates - just in case an update does something nasty to your system.

Now you might be wondering why I didn't suggest using an external drive. The answer would be simple. Yes, it can be done, but there are a number of negatives.

1.) It's SLOW compared to native IDE/ATA 133 or SATA 150 or 300 speeds. Cloning an 80 GB drive using an internal hard drive takes about 30 minutes from start to finish.

2.) If you were to use the drive in the enclosure, you'd have to take it apart and remove it and then install the drive in the main case.

3.) You would have to swap the bad drive out with a new one and then restore it which can be fairly slow.

An option to speed things up...

Removable drive cages. While they're not the most fashionable bits of technology, they DO simplify connecting and disconnecting the backup drive. If you buy a pair, you can put your primary drive in one while you put the backup drive in the other. Should the primary fail, you can simply shut down the computer, pull the bad drive out and insert the backup into the primary's slot and be on your way.

One last thing...

Windows Home Server (when it becomes available in the coming months) will have some VERY powerful real-time backup software built into it. Whenever a file changes, it gets automatically backed up to the server. If you need to restore a file you accidentally deleted it, it's made easy. If you've got multiple PCs, it keeps track of them all using a very cool space saving system where duplicates of a given file are merely backed up once and only once which makes things more compact.

The downside to this - it's not quite available yet. It will be soon. It also requires a home network, and at least one PC. On the bright side - it doesn't require a keyboard, mouse or monitor. It does require some basic home networking - much of which, you may already have. If memory serves me, it also has the capability to boot with a blank hard drive via a CD so you can restore the partition directly from the server.

It's some VERY cool technology that's on the horizon. From what I've read, the software's been released to manufacturing - and HP and a number of other vendors have already announced they will be making WHS boxes they will be selling this Fall.

--Submitted by member Wolfie2k5

If you have any additional advice for Bill, let's hear them! Click on the "Reply" link to post. Please be detailed as possible in your answer. Thanks!

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