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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:
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.
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