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Windows 7 tips and tweaks

Rescue a dead PC with a system image

Suppose you turn on your computer tomorrow and instead of starting normally and loading Windows, it just sits there and doesn't do anything. What if it tries to start up, but fails with an error message on the screen? Would you know what to do? Would this scenario be a disaster or just a minor irritation?

For many people this would indeed be a disaster and losing all the files on a computer's hard disk drive is a frightening thought. All those photos, videos, music and documents - gone! You can turn a disaster like this into a minor irritation if you have a backup of the contents of the hard disk drive. You do have a backup don't you?

Sadly, a lot of people don't have a backup or they have an incomplete backup that cannot be used to rescue the system. Unfortunately, they don't realise this until it is too late. While your computer is working fine, you should back it up and store a copy of everything you need to restore it to full health. A good way to back up is to buy a cheap external USB disk drive. Small portable ones that need no power supply have a small capacity and are expensive, so choose a desktop USB drive with its own power supply to get more space for your money.

There are two types of backup and the simplest is a file backup. With a USB disk you can simply drag your Documents, Music, Videos, Pictures and other folders to it. You might even use backup software to copy the files for you. The problem with this type of backup is that it requires a working computer to restore them. If Windows won't boot up, your files may well be safe and sound on the backup disk, but this doesn't help you to fix the PC. How are you going to repair it?

The solution is to back up the whole system - your files, Windows, hidden files and settings, everything. This type of backup can be used to repair a non-functioning PC. You can copy the backup back to the computer and everything is put back exactly the way it was when the backup was made. The PC should start normally after restoring the backup. Windows 7 comes with all the tools you need to create whole system backups and to restore them.

Create a system image
Click Start, Control Panel and change to Small Icons view so you can see all the items. Click Backup and Restore and in the panel on the left is a link called Create a system image. Click it.

Windows 7 Backup and Restore

The PC is scanned and Windows attempts to automatically detect the backup devices that are available and automatically select the best one. This usually works fine and you should find that a USB disk drive is selected as the backup device, but there is also an option to back up onto DVDs if you don't have an extra disk drive. Working with a stack of DVD-Rs is a pain and is best avoided though. It is just too slow and error-prone. A USB disk drive is much faster and more reliable.

Windows 7 Backup and Restore

Click Next and you will see a list of partitions. SYSTEM RESERVED in the screen shot is a hidden partition that is used by Windows 7 and it is automatically ticked. Acer (C:) (System) is where Windows 7 is installed (your C: drive may be named differently) and this is automatically selected for backup. This PC also has an extra partition that is used as general purpose storage. It's not essential to Windows, so it is not automatically ticked. It can be manually ticked to include it in the backup. If you have extra partitions like this, it's up to you whether you want to back them up or not.

Windows 7 Backup and Restore

Click Next and you'll see confirmation of the options you have selected. Clicking Next starts the backup. (This PC dual boots and it has Linux on it. Notice that the Linux partitions are not displayed and are not backed up. Windows Backup and Restore only copies Windows disks and partitions.)

Restore a system image
OK, you have made your backup, how do you actually use it if your computer fails to start? Switch on the computer and after a second or two, but before Windows starts to load, press the F8 key a couple of times. If you time it just right, the Advanced Boot Options menu is displayed on the screen. Use the up and down cursor keys to highlight Repair Your Computer and press Enter to select it.

Windows looks like it is loading, but it is just the recovery program. After a few seconds you will be prompted to select a keyboard input method. Choose the one you use from the drop-down list - just pick your country. You are then prompted to log on as a local user. Select your username from the drop-down list and then type in your password. After a bit more loading and waiting, you'll see the System Recovery Options dialog. This lists all the repair tools you need to fix Windows.

Repair Windows

Click System Image Recovery and the recovery tool will try to find the location of the backup automatically. Don't panic if it can't find it, choose Select a system image, and you can insert the DVD if you backed up to DVDs or select the backup from another location.

Windows 7 Backup and Restore

Once you have selected the backup to restore, the rest is plain sailing. The recovery tool will copy everything back to the PC's hard disk drive. When it has finished, the computer should start up normally.

Create a recovery disc
The recovery tool is on the hard disk drive. It doesn't need Windows to be functioning in order to work, but it does require the disk drive to at least be partially working. It's got to work just enough to get the recovery tool started. What if the disk drive is totally dead and you can't get the recovery tool to start?

You should create a system repair disc. This is a boot CD/DVD that can be used to start the computer and access the recovery tool. Go to the Control Panel and run Backup and Restore again. Click Create a system repair disc in the panel on the left (see the first screen shot above). Insert a blank CD/DVD and create the disc.

Windows 7 Backup and Restore

Switch on the computer with this CD/DVD in the drive and you can access the recovery tool as described above.


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