Backup your new machines before first use

There's nothing quite like getting a new computer, especially a laptop - the temptation to rip open the packaging, fire it up, and start using your new, much faster machine, can be very appealing. However, before you do this, please take a step back:

At some point in the future, your new machine will need restoring back to its original settings - perhaps it'll slow down after you've installed and removed various software packages, you might need to recover from a damaged Windows installation or perhaps, you'll want to sell your machine in the future. Whatever the reason, having the ability to restore back to the pristine state that you received the machine in, is extremely useful.

Although some computers are shipped with recovery discs or partitions, these don't always restore your computer back to its factory state, and in the case of a recovery partition, what happens if your hard disk fails?

Take pre-emptive action now

Before I start to use a new machine for the first time, I immediately boot it up into a suitable imaging tool, connect an external hard drive, and take a full-disk image of the internal hard disk. Software packages that I've used in the past include:

  • Norton Ghost
  • Acronis True Image
  • Clonezilla (Open Source)

I can't recommend any one of these packages over the other, they all have their strengths and weakness. What I have found, however, is that not all of these will work on all hardware. Some need large amounts of RAM to even boot, whilst others won't recognise certain internal/external drives depending on the controller(s) in use.

Whichever solution you choose, please also check that you can boot into "restore mode", that you can access the external media that contains your backup, and equally as important, check that the software can "see" the internal hard drive whilst in recovery mode. If the particular package you've chosen can't do this, then your backup will be useless, and it'll be time to try a different piece of software.

Beating the Restore Blues

Whilst there's plenty of backup software around with easy-to-use features, it constantly frustrates me that the restore function of some backup packages seems to be their worst part, yet ironically, the most important. I don't need pretty icons and gradient-shaded wizards to hold my hand - what I do need, is something solid and dependable that will work after a failure. I'm aghast at the number of so-called "backup" software packages that can't continue after a simple failure. Problems that I've encountered include:

  • Some packages don't write backup images that they can read back later - they carry merrily on their way during the "backup", only to fail when performing a restore, complaining that something is wrong with the backup image! "Deep" folder structures within a Windows installation can be a cause of this; exceeding 260 characters for the complete path to a folder (the Windows API MAX_PATH constant) can be a source of problems.
  • Many packages can't cope with read/write failures during the restoration process - for example, if you've backed up to a series of DVDs, a single scratch on a disc can cause the entire restore to fail!

That last point is the most frustrating - if developed correctly, the restore operation could just "skip" the damaged part of the media and continue. I know a fair amount about data compression algorithms myself and I appreciate that compression can complicate matters, but there are technical workarounds for these issues. Although you might question the use of a restored backup that is missing a couple of files, I'd rather have an operating system backup that was missing a few Windows wallpaper images rather than having no backup to restore at all. Of course, if a critical system file in the backup image was damaged, then you're probably out of luck, but I'd rather be given the choice to skip the affected file(s), rather than the software simply crashing half-way through the restoration process and refusing to continue any further.

Further Testing

The ultimate test, would be to temporarily install a blank new hard drive into your new computer, and then, attempt to restore your backup to the new drive instead. If the restore failed part-way through, at least your original installation on the original hard drive would be left intact. Sadly, many laptops don't even come with removable hard drives these days, so that might not be an option depending on your particular computer.

Summary

When you get a new computer, before you start using it for the first time:

  • Boot into a bare-metal backup/restore environment (for example Norton Ghost) off an external device such as a CD/DVD or USB memory stick.
  • Immediately perform a full image backup of the internal hard drive (not just files and folders, you want to preserve MBRs, GPTs and boot sectors).
  • Reboot, choose the restore option (don't actually start the restore though!) and confirm that the software can both see your external media, and the internal hard drive.
  • If you have the means, fit a different internal hard drive and try to restore your backup to this instead - not only will this test that your external backup is readable and intact, it'll also confirm that the software doesn't "hiccup" for some technical reason during the restore, or if it does, at least you'll know now rather than later when there's little you can do about it.

Tip #1:
If you've written the backup to a set of DVDs, please remember that consumer CD-R/DVD-R discs that you burn yourself won't last forever (unlike factory-mastered "silver" discs, which are created using different materials). The dye in the discs will degrade and lose your data at some point. Therefore, you'd be wise to at least, use archival-quality backup media, and make two backups if you can. You could always copy your backup by making disc images of the DVDs into .ISO files, ready for storing onto an external hard drive.

 
Tip #2:
If you can't get the bare-metal backup/recovery software to boot on your new machine at all, if the hard drive is removable, you could temporarily remove the hard drive, place it into an external enclosure, and then run the software on a known good machine that is compatible with your backup software.

 

Back to Tips