NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2006
Windows Recovery or Restore Disks: Problems and Alternatives
by Vic Laurie, Princeton PCUG, New Jersey
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Once upon a time you received a copy of a full Windows installation disk when you bought a computer. This allowed you to reinstall individual system files or Windows components if anything went wrong. But no longer. These days the best you can hope for from many vendors is a so-called “recovery” or “restore” disk”. And many major vendors do not even provide that much. Instead they put stuff on a hidden partition on the hard drive. This is all the backup that you get, and if the hard drive crashes, the hidden partition goes too. Then you have no way of reinstalling Windows on a replacement hard drive without getting a disk from the original PC vendor. From what I read on the Web, this last process can take some time and effort, if you succeed at all. If you are out of the warrantee period, you may be completely out of luck.

Some vendors may provide a Windows disk when you buy a PC if they are prodded hard enough. However, there may be some kind of “handling and shipping” fee. Note that, if you do finally get a disk, it will probably be an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version and may lack some features of a full-fledged version. Also OEM versions of Windows are often not eligible for upgrades.

The failure to provide an actual Windows installation disk with new computers is convenient for Microsoft and the computer vendors but can be a real problem for the PC user. There are many problems that can be fixed by copying a single system file or reinstalling small portions of the Windows operating system. Without an installation disk, PC users need to have some other source for these files. If you put a recovery disk into your CD drive, it will want to reformat your hard drive and reinstall an image of your computer that is a replica of the way your system was on the day you bought it. Any changes that you have made will be wiped out. All those programs you installed, all those Microsoft patches, XP SP2, all of it will be gone. The same thing applies when you restore from one of those hidden partitions.

Therefore, an alternative is needed. At the very least, a source of files for adding and removing Windows components and restoring corrupted files should be available. Sometimes the vendor will have put the Windows installation files in the root of your hard drive or in the Windows folder. In Windows XP look for a folder named “I386” (without the quotes). If you do have one of these folders, burn a copy to a CD for backup. This CD will not have all the functions of an installation CD since it will not auto-run nor will it boot. However, reinstallation can be initiated by clicking the file Winnt32.exe (assuming that you can get your system to boot). If you have a FAT32 disk and can use DOS, Winnt.exe is the appropriate file to access from a DOS boot disk.

A problem is that you will have a disk that lacks any of the multitudes of patches and updates that will have come out since you bought your computer. Therefore, you need to "slipstream" with the XP SP2 update. Slipstreaming is a way of merging updates with the original files so that everything is updated. This is not a quick job but it is worth doing. An excellent detailed step-by-step procedure is given at the Elder Geek site. If you can borrow a Windows XP installation disk (almost any version will do) you can extract the image that is needed to make the CD bootable and add that to the disk. Details for using common CD burning software to do all this is given at the reference cited above.

One more problem can be getting the Windows XP product key for your system. It may be pasted or written somewhere in the documentation that came with your computer. Be sure to make a permanent record of it. If you cannot find the product key, there are several free applications that will retrieve it from your system. One is ViewKeyXp and is available here. Another is Keyfinder, which is available here. Also, system information applications like Belarc Adviser can reveal the key.

At the end, you will still have something that provides backup only for the Windows operating system. Since I want to be able to restore everything, including software that I have installed, I prefer to spend a few dollars and use disk imaging software. It makes keeping up-to-date backups on CDs or other external media very easy. Norton Ghost, BootIt Next Generation or Acronis True Image are all reasonable choices.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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