Windows is a large and complex operating system. There are many ways things may go wrong. It may be malware, corrupted files, faulty drivers or even hardware failure. For many of us the simplest solution for these problems is to reinstall windows again. While this is an easy option, it’s very time consuming. It’s true that Microsoft has made the process of installing windows much faster since Windows 7 but the whole process takes a lot of time. Installing windows is only a part of it. You have to install all the drivers, updates and your favourite software applications.
There is a method called drive imaging that can save you the trouble of installing Windows again. Drive imaging makes an exact copy of your system partition. Then you can restore your system to the exact state when the image was created. The whole process of restoring takes only a few minutes. While this process may sound complex but with the right application it is very easy and has saved us many hours of installing Windows.
Now let us begin. For drive imaging we will be using Macrium Reflect because of its speed and smaller backup size. It has a great feature called intelligent sector copy which only copies the sectors having data. It also skip hibernate.sys and pagefile.sys which are automatically created by Windows. The result is drastically faster backup and smaller image size. For ease of use and understandability this guide is divided into 5 sections. After this hopefully you have to never reinstall windows again.
1. Preparing the Partitions
This step is optional but recommended. Proper partitioning will help in faster recovery.
- Download and burn Minitools Partition Wizard Bootable CD.
- Boot from the CD.
- Create 2 partitions. One 50GB and another 100GB. To create a partition right click on unallocated space > Create New partition. Give it a meaningful label. Select “Primary” in partition type. Set size to 51200MB (that is 50GB). Create a 2nd partition of size 102400MB (100GB). See the screenshots below for details.
The 50GB partition will be used for Windows installation. It should be a primary partition and first partition on the hard drive. This is the partition we will back up. The 100GB partition is for documents, pictures and other user files. So when we restore the Windows the windows partition the user files will remain unaffected. These are recommended sizes but you are free to choose your own as per requirement.
2. Installing and Configuring Windows
We are using Windows 8.1 32-bit for this guide but it will also work with Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP. The software we are using is compatible with all versions of Windows.
- Install Windows in the 50GB partition we had created. Refer our article for installing Windows 7 or 8 from USB drive.
- Install all the drivers and update windows. Also install your essential applications. Make sure only install essentials to keep the size of the backup small. If you are in a hurry you can install multiple applications at once using ninite.
- Now this is a crucial step. We will move Documents to the 100GB data partition we created earlier. Right click on Documents folder and select Location tab. Give a new location like D:/MyFiles/Documents inside data partition. Click OK and the folder will be moved. Do the same for your Pictures, Videos, Downloads and Desktop.
3. Backing Up the Windows Partition (Drive Imaging)
The above 2 steps were preparatory. This is the step in which we perform actual data backup. For backups we recommend portable hard drive or large enough flash drive. Backing up on the same hard drive on which Windows is installed defeats the purpose of backing.
- Download and install Macrium Reflect free edition.
- Launch Reflect. From Backup menu select Backup Windows. Make sure that only Windows partition is selected. Give the location of your portable hard drive in destination folder. Click Next.
- In the next screen you can change Advance Options. The default option are good enough but you change them as per your requirement. There is one option to increase the compression which results in smaller images but takes more time to backup. There is another option to split the images into smaller files.
- When you are done click Finish.
In our case the backup process was completed in under 10 minutes and the resulting image size was around 3.5GB. This image once created can be used for any number of restores and you have to never reinstall windows again.
4. Creating Rescue Media
- Launch Reflect again. From the Other Tasks menu select Create Rescue Media.
- Select either Linux or Windows PE. Selecting Linux will only give you the ability to restore the partition at exactly same size and position. Selecting Windows PE provides greater functionality and is recommended. You may have have to download additional 350MB Windows PE components depending on how you have installed Macrium Reflect.
- Click Next and in final screen you can directly create a bootable USB. You can also create an ISO.
5. Restoring the Windows Partition
If you have reached so far then well done. This is the only step that needs to be performed every time you restore. The above 4 steps need to be followed only once. Attach portable hare drive containing the backup and rescue media we have created earlier to your computer.
- Boot from the rescue Media.
- Macrium Reflect will launch automatically. Go to the Restore tab.
- Click Browse for an image file and select the image of windows partition (having .mrimg extension).
- Now click Restore image. In the next screen make sure that source and destination are correct.
- Click Next. Here you can set advance options. By default Master Boot Record is also restore. You can disable it if required.
- Finally click Finnish and the restoration process will start.
The restore process took less than 10 minutes. Your system will be restored to the the exact same state it was at the time of creation of the image.
This guide intentionally has large number of steps so that there is no confusion at any step. It is advised that you make sure that your backup device is recognized by rescue media. Otherwise you won’t be able to restore. We use the same process at work to create monthly and weekly backups of our system partitions. So if anything goes wrong we simply restore to the latest backup. It has saved us countless hours of troubleshooting. Hopefully it will also save your time you will never have to re-install Windows again.