Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

If you've received a new machine without installation media, and you can't get installation media, an immediate full backup can be an alternative.

I took your advice and purchased an external hard drive and Acronis backup software. Now, as a novice, I bought my desktop with Windows XP Media Edition pre-installed (no CD's). Since I am now backing up my whole Hard disk, am I safe if something bad happens with the operating system? (Referring to a recent question on missing or corrupt windows file.)

First, let me say "good for you" for having a backup solution, regardless of what solution you chose. That already puts you ahead of the game compared to most other computer users.

A full initial backup is an excellent safety net and can cover for not having installation CDs in many cases. However, from the way I worded that you can probably guess that there may be issues, but the good news is that they're rare.

Let's review the best way to use a full backup in a case like this.

To refresh your memory, a full backup of a computer makes a copy of every file on your hard disk. And I do mean every file. It backs up Windows, all your programs, all your data ... everything.

To use a full backup as a pseudo replacement for your installation CDs, the moment you get your brand new machine you install your backup software and you make a full backup right then, before you've done anything else. This gives you a "snapshot" of your machine on the day it was brand new.

If you find yourself needing to "reformat and reinstall", without having the installation media, you could instead restore this particular backup image with similar effect.

Let's touch on a couple of issues to make sure your initial backup is complete:

"having an initial full backup of your machine can compensate for not having installation CDs in many, many cases."
  • The full backup should happen as soon as possible after having received the new machine. As I said before, this creates a snapshot of the machine as clean as possible, before anything but Windows and the backup software was installed. Before even connecting to the network, if at all possible.

  • It needs to be a full or "image" backup. This is critical. Regardless of what backup program you use, the backup needs to be such that it can be restored back to "bare metal" - your machine with an empty hard disk.

  • Since the restoration will have to happen to "bare metal", make sure that your backup program provides a boot disk or other bootable solution. With an empty hard disk you'll have no operating system to boot into - the backup's restoration program will have to provide that. Quite often this means that as part of taking that first backup you should also take that opportunity to burn a restore or rescue disk provided by the backup program.

  • It needs to be of all partitions that came with the machine. This is easily overlooked. Many machines now place recovery information on a second partition - sometimes a second drive, "D:", or sometimes hidden. Most backup programs will backup a drive, and you'll need to specify which drives; be sure to specify or backup all partitions.

Now you'll note that I indicated you should take this first backup prior to even connecting to the network. Some will argue that you should first connect up and take all the Windows Updates and patches that you can, as you'll then have a more up to date image should you ever need it.

I say do both if you can, but do what I suggest if you can only do one.

The problem is simple: you've connected to the network for that update. In the worst possible scenario that could expose you to malware. If you get infected, and then take a full backup, the backup itself will be infected. The whole point of this exercise is to cover for not having installation CDs, which themselves have not had Windows Update run on them, and come virus free. Focus on that first.

Taking and saving additional backup snapshots later - like after Windows Update has been run, or after you've installed all your major applications - also makes sense if you have the space to keep the backup images. But if you have only enough space for one, make it the first one.

And as an aside, if you're reading this hours, days or months after having set up your machine so that initial pristine state of your machine is long gone, that's ok, but take a backup snapshot as soon as you can. Having a known good full backup to revert to, even if it's of a well used machine, can still go a long way towards acting as a safety net if something goes wrong later. That's the whole point of backing up, after all.

The biggest limitation with this approach is simply that restoring a backup isn't the same as running Windows Setup. That means that if the hardware on your machine has changed significantly since you took that backup, you may have troubles when you restore it. How much trouble and what kind of trouble will depend entirely on your specific machine, what changes were made, and whether or not the manufacturer included all the appropriate drivers and other software somewhere on that initial image.

But having an initial full backup of your machine can compensate for not having installation CDs in many, many cases. If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend that you take a full backup as soon as possible.

Article C3521 - October 4, 2008 « »

Share this article with your friends:

Share this article on Facebook Tweet this article Email a link to this article
Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

October 6, 2008 1:15 PM

That said, however, is making such a backup basically the same as the recovery disks that most pre-built computers come with?

Not at all. A backup is a copy of the data on your hard disk. Recovery disks have tools that attempt to fix or restore the operating system, often assuming a copy of recover information has been stored somewhere on the hard disk. (Hence if the hard disk is toast, the recovery disks can do little.)
- Leo

Ton Witteman
October 7, 2008 10:36 AM

How about getting away from Microsoft altogether and start using the great, free Open Source programs?
I am running Ubunto on my laptop, use with its excellent programs and have Firefox 3 as a browser and Thunderbird for e-mail. And all for FREE with excellent update support. Think about it when Microsoft knocks on your door for a $ 100+(or more) for its next OS!

Dennis Webber
October 7, 2008 2:08 PM

Although Leo addressed one method of data backup, most of us have computers well modified and can't go back to a pristine state.
However, there is another option, not requiring a backup immediately after you get a computer; one that allows the image backup to take place at any time. One that can be used to boot the system even if you current hard drive fails completely.

What I use is a product called BounceBack. It images your entire hard disk (all partitions) and then maintains the backup continuously and automatically.
In the event of a complete hard drive failure, the backup hard drive can be remounted as Drive C and you can pick up exactly where you were when the original disk failed. Plus you have a current copy of all files should a virus wipe out the Hard drive. Or, you can simply boot from the backup drive (in my case it's drive J).
It's an all-in-one solution to disk failure.
In the case of not having installation disks, having a complete, current image that the computer can boot from is a much better solution than going through a complete reload of the origional operating system and programs and all the custopm settings.
In my specific case, I use a 2nd hard drive located in the optional drive bay of my laptop, but the drive could just as easily be located on the USB bus.
Here is the URL of the products:

October 8, 2008 2:52 AM

I recently found Macrium Reflect. This runs free of charge for a reasonable evaluation period. After that, the full registration is about $55.00 Australian. This gives you the option of backing up specific files, or creating a ghost image of an entire partion. Used in conjunction with Microsoft's own back up tool, this makes an effective recovery startegy. It's saved me once already after I deleted some critical client files.

November 9, 2008 6:07 AM

Ok. I can backup everything in my computer, but what if mi whole hard disk crashes and I can not buy one equal to it?
I have to use this backup to restore on the new hard disk, and this hard disk has more size than the first one.
Can tools deal with this? I mean, can I use tools to restore a partition on a bigger one or I have to restore the partition as is and create a new one to fit the whole disk?

Many tools can indeed deal with this. For those that cannot, your backup is still critical, as it has your data that can be accessed after you set up a new system.
- Leo

George Siter
September 22, 2009 11:04 PM

My son gave me his laptop (HP). When trying to "bot up" it comes to the end of the line and says, "No Operating System Present". I tried several times to boot up with Ubuntu but there is no recognition of the DVD drive as if it weren't even there. I tried to change the boot preference and that didn't work either. He has no disks since a friend originally gave him the laptop. I have tried everything I know. Please help.

Comments on this entry are closed.

If you have a question, start by using the search box up at the top of the page - there's a very good chance that your question has already been answered on Ask Leo!.

If you don't find your answer, head out to to ask your question.