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

You should always get installation media with a new machine. Period. If you can't, or it's too late, we'll look at one partial alternative.

You've always said a person should try to get a full install disk when purchasing a computer. Any suggestions on how to convince a manufacturer you want more than a recovery disk? Reason I ask is I'll probably be getting a new computer some time next year after Windows 7 has been out for a while. I contacted Dell, HP, Acer, Gateway and Toshiba customer support. They all say the same thing: no full install disks are available for consumers... even for an additional price. That means I'll have to spend another $200 - $400 to buy a full install disk (if rumors about Windows 7 prices are correct.)

First, I've never had a problem getting installation CDs with my Dell computers at the time of purchase. It's an option I have to specify, and it adds maybe $20 to the final price, but it is so worth it.

If you're asking after the purchase - say a year later you realize that you didn't get any - then perhaps I'm not surprised they might be reluctant to just hand out another copy, even for a fee. I'd guess that the manufacturers need to protect themselves from people trying to get copies they aren't really entitled to.

There really is no true alternative to having installation media, but I'll throw out one idea to help mitigate the problem in case you find yourself in this situation.

People often wonder why I'm so passionate about this issue. Windows is on your machine, after all, and you probably received a "recovery disk", so why isn't that enough?

The problem is that recovery discs typically don't include Windows. What they will often do is reinstall Windows from a "spare copy" that's been placed on your hard drive - either in the I386 folder, or in a separate recovery partition.

"The problem is that recovery discs typically don't include Windows."

That's just peachy ... when it works.

The scenario that should scare you deeply is total hard drive failure - which happens more often than you might think. When it happens everything on your hard drive is gone. Poof. Everything. Including those "spare" copies of Windows.

Your "recovery disk" no longer has anything to recover from or to.

In other words: you're screwed.

The only way to be prepared for this eventuality is to make sure you have copies of everything so that you can reinstall everything to a completely empty replacement hard drive.

And that means having a Windows installation (not recovery) disc. (It actually also means having installation disks or saved downloads for all the software on your machine, not only Windows. Windows, though, is typically the most important since once installed you may be able to download updates to much of the software you're used to having.)

So order one with your new machine and if the manufacturer won't provide it ... seriously consider purchasing your new machine elsewhere. There's simply no excuse for not making it available at the time of a new machine purchase.

So, what if it's too late, or you just must have a particular machine for which the installation media is not provided?

Once that new machine arrives, as soon as is practically possible, take a full, image backup.

Once you realize you're in this situation with an older machine, as soon as is practically possible, take a full, image backup.

I regularly recommend Macrium Reflect for this purpose - in fact I use it myself. But there are many alternatives out there as well. You're looking for two things:

  • A backup program that will backup absolutely everything on your machine: your data of course, but all programs, Windows the registry, even temporary files and the recycle bin - absolutely everything. We often refer to this as an "image" of the drive, since it includes a copy of every file.

  • The ability to restore your backup image to an empty, unbootable hard drive. This is often referred to as a "bare metal" restore, as prior to the restore there's no data in the machine, it's just "bare metal". This typically means that the backup program will provide, or allow you to create, a boot disc that you can use specifically for this purpose.

By taking a backup image or snapshot of the machine as soon as you can, you are preserving the state that the machine is in. No matter what happens in the future, be it hardware or software failure, you can always wipe your machine and revert to the exact state it was in at the time you took this full backup.

Now, in fact, you should be doing this already on a regular basis as part of a backup program to protect you from data loss in event of any number of different types of failures. You should be taking periodic image snapshots of your entire drive, and taking incremental backups of your more rapidly changing files as well. By doing so, you'll always have a relatively recent full-image to restore to should the worst happen.

However, even if you disregard my backup advice, make sure to take and save that first image. Always. It's your ultimate safety net.

In fact, it may be your only safety net; if you don't have original installation media, it's the only way you're going to get Windows and most of your other preinstalled software back in case of a disaster.

Article C3748 - May 31, 2009 « »

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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?

May 31, 2009 11:07 PM

You can download cracked windows iso and make a CD. Because you have your license key on your computer case, just type it after instaliation. Siple and i think its leagal because you have a license. Just be shure to get same version of windows as your license is.

Just J
June 1, 2009 12:41 AM

Hi Leo

In the event of a complete hard drive failure & having to rely on your 'Full disk image backup', just how do you go about restoring that image back onto your new drive?

Does that 'Imaged CD' boot just like a normal install disk, except that all programs, files, utilities etc are already there once the 'install' is complete?

I understand the creation of the 'image backup', but not quite what you do with it in the event of a failure, or needing to rely on it in any way.

Is it just a case of pop the cd in the drive & boot from it, or am I missing a vital part?

It depends on the backup software you used to create the image backup. No, the image itself cannot be booted. The backup software will typically have provision for you to create a boot CD - which you should do before you need it. Once you run that boot CD it will have software on it that will allow you to restore the image to your hard drive. Again, you'll need to check the instructions for the software you're using to create the image in the first place.
- Leo
JOhn Ohannessian
June 1, 2009 7:50 AM

I am a professional PC consultant, and I buy many desktops and laptops for my clients exclusively from Dell for over 13 years. To be fair to Dell, every PC that I have purchased from them throughout the years have always come with the full Windows installation CD/DVD and separate CDs for all the drivers and software that was installed on that particular PC. I have bought many models from Dell lately, and there is no additional charge for these CDs or DVDs. You don't even have to request them, Dell ships them with every PC. The Windows CD/DVD is a full installation version and not a recovery CD/DVD. I like that. Other manufacturers may be cheap and do not supply these very important medias, but Dell definitely does supply them free without the customer asking for it. That is why I buy from them exclusively.

June 2, 2009 8:46 AM

There is actually a method of creating an XP disc from the i386. Perfectly legal, don't need to risk cracked ISO's. But Vista owners are stuffed, as I'm pretty sure it doesn't have one.

June 2, 2009 8:50 AM

At this moment both Samsung (who make excellent pcs) and Fujitsu Siemens are both shipping pcs with full installation disks.

I am an IT Manager and i will only purchase pcs that contain install cds as a matter of principle.

Jay Dishong
June 2, 2009 9:03 AM

One concern I had with the reader's question is that even if he does successfully create an image of his current system, he appears to want to transfer this to a new PC in the near future. This could be disastrous to the new PC as it would likely wipe out any drivers or other special utilities, apps, etc., that came with the new PC.

Absolutely, there are definitely limitations with this approach. It serves as a good backup strategy, but fails in many cases for migration.
- Leo

June 2, 2009 9:07 AM

One of the things to remember about making full image copies, if you use full disk encryption (getting more and more popular on laptops), the current generation of image making software doesn't work (at least all the ones I've tried failed).

I wouldn't have thought of that, but on reflection it's good to know. It's a good idea to test backup strategies before you need them to make sure they work.
- Leo

June 2, 2009 9:16 AM

The regular supply of installation disks may be routine in the US but it is certainly not the case in the UK. I have had new computers from Dell, Gateway and HP and have never received a full installation disk. The only time I received one was when I had a custom PC made up for myself from a specialist company and specified in the requirements.

June 2, 2009 9:21 AM

The 5 Windows Versions
*** only the Retail Full Version allows you to move Windows from one PC to another !!

Full - also called Retail Full version - most expensive, can be transferred to another machine, so long as it is uninstalled from the old machine. If you lie and do not uninstall it - then the old machine will run, but will act as any other machine running a pirated version (i.e. it will not validate with WGA and will only be allowed to receive critical updates). CAN MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE (just make sure you uninstall then reinstall, and re-activate. You may need to call Microsoft for re-activation)!!

Upgrade - also called Retail Upgrade version - much less than Full - and usually just a tad more than OEM unbranded. The setup.exe will not run from DOS, but all you have to do is boot from the CD, start installing, and when XP says that it doesn't detect an operating system and to please insert an OS disk, put in your Win98 disk. CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

OEM Branded - comes installed with a new PC (branded OEM). Functionally identical to unbranded OEM. Can only be installed on ONE MACHINE. After that, even if you have a fire or a complete system failure and need to get a new machine . . . you will have to but a new copy of Windows XP. OEM = One Machine. CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

OEM UnBranded - bought separately (not with a PC). Functionally identical to branded OEM. Can only be installed on ONE MACHINE. After that, even if you have a fire or a complete system failure and need to get a new machine . . . you will have to but a new copy of Windows XP. OEM = OnE Machine CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

Recovery CD - comes with new PC, and contains an "image" of the hard drive, including Windows XP and all the software drivers and utilities that come with the PC. Very restrictive because you need to wipe out the entire drive, then the image is refreshed. Cannot be used when the system asks you to "insert the Windows XP CD". Cannot be used to refresh certain XP files that are missing or corrupted, unless you blow everything away and start over. A terrible idea and a terrible way to go !!! CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

June 2, 2009 10:46 AM

If I want to reformat my hard drive to clean it up, what happens when I reinstall a full image backup? Won't the machine immediately slow down and be all full of rot again? What is the advantage to reformatting if I'm just reinstalling the same files?

Restoring from an image will restore to the condition of the machine at the time the image was taken. If that was a time where things were messed up, that's what you'll get. That's why I advise taking the image as early as possible so you'll always have a clean system to revert back to should you need it.
- Leo

Lita Letourneau
June 2, 2009 10:59 AM

Just purchased 2 Toshibas this disk whatsoever! Both had Vista Home Basic...nuked one & purchased Builder's XP & Installed...other has Vista w/only a set of self-burned Recovery disks (even though Toshiba Support said they would SEND the disks)...just another reason why Linux is a REAL alternative to Windows...we have dual boot systems & will eventually migrate to Linux only. Forcing consumers to purchase "2" Windows (via the system w/recovery only & going to local Fry's to purchase a "real" install disk) licenses per system is poor customer support! Linux is now very close to being a real alternative for home users.

June 2, 2009 12:06 PM

Just3, If you get an imaging program, make sure you buy the "boxed" version. That will include the CD you need to get the recovery started. The same is the case if you buy a Maxtor One Touch disk, which I find is the cheapest way to get an imaging program (Maxtor manager that comes with the disk).
I have summarized the options in this thread which you might find useful:

June 2, 2009 1:16 PM

I live in Brazil, and here individuals (and small businesses as well) almost never buy branded desktop PCs such as Dell, HP, etc. The only exceptions are laptops (then you have no choice), and corporations, which need consistent builds and reliable mass support. But the average Brazilian Joe or Jane never buys a Dell - even though both Dell and HP have large assembly plants in Brazil.

Instead, people resort to a friend or relative in the know, or to a thriving industry of small garage firms and professionals who will assemble a PC for them from scratch, using spare parts that you are able to choose, or that they may suggest to you.

This happens for several reasons, but particularly for two. The first is that Brazil is a developing or "emerging" country, so the average income is much less and people have to be much more cost-conscious. Add to that the extremely high tax levy on electronics and manufactured goods in general here. And it happens that a custom-made PC often costs less than half what a branded one would. If it has any problem, the same professionals and small companies offer easy, cheap, and more often than not reliable support - without leaving you hanging for hours on the line with the maddening custom support of a large company.

Second, people like freedom of choice. People try to get informed beforehand and like to match *that* motherboard with *that* video card and *that* brand of memory chips. Try doing that with a Dell... (I think now it should be obvious why Macintoshes are extremely rare in Brazil and most people here never even heard of their existence.) I assembled my own PC myself, which components I chose and bought myself, only with the help of a skilled friend for the sensitive step of mounting the processor, too delicate for my clumsy elephant paws...

And I'm aware that even in the U.S., there are many people who choose that approach (especially gamers) and many specialized firms that can do the same service, very affordably. Of course, with such a solution, you must provide your own copy of Windows, probably a retail one, although some OEM integrators may offer one along with your PC. But the savings may well be worth the extra expense.

Please think about it...

Carl R. Goodwin
June 2, 2009 6:19 PM

Any computer that I have EVER purchased has either come with a set of discs, or given me the opportunity to create my own.

Dennis Jackson
June 3, 2009 10:02 AM

Most major computer manufacturers do not include recovery media but do include both a recovery partition and the capability for the user/owner to create a single set of recovery media, tailored to the type of R/W drive included in the purchased computer (even laptops). This capability is usually "announced" in the owners manual (might be electronic on the hard disk) and/or during initial setup, which takes place when the power is applied for the first time. New owners should ALWAYS make these recovery disks as soon as possible! It's the option of last resort in the case of a complete hard disk failure, and will only restore the computer to its initial (out-of-the-box) state, but at least its at least an option! I have NOT seen a PC or laptop from a major manufacturer NOT provide this service (sorry for the double negative!) In other words, the expense and effort associated with producing the recovery disks that you used to receive from major manufacturers has been transferred to the consumer, most of whom do not notice this feature when setting up their PC for the first time or fail to use it (I support PC's for a living and cannot recall even 1 customer that had self-generated recovery disks when they needed them...)

For a "better" backup strategy/solution than just relying on vendor-provided or customer generated initial recovery disks, consider using a combination of an imaging program that also allows you to create an emergency boot CD so that you can boot up a "bare metal" machine sufficiently to restore the image, PLUS the use of a general data backup program (backs up designated files and folders) to do regular data backups, PLUS (if you are using an email client like Outlook, Outlook Express or Windows Mail), a client email backup program.

Imaging is "expensive" in terms of the time needed to create and verify the image, and the size of each image created. Imaging a hard drive only really needs to be done when the configuration of the installed OS and/or applications changes significantly (e.g. installing an OS service pack, or installing or deinstalling a major application).

Data is more transient (changeable) on the other hand, so data backups (important files and folders - you DO keep your application data organized, don't you?) need to be done on a REGULAR (and ideally, "no user intervention required") basis, preferably at a time when computer usage is minimal.

Good imaging and data backup programs can both be had for free, so there's no real reason for users not to have them in place except ignorance of their existence or lack of effort (the latter usually be chief cause of having to pay the big bucks to someone like me when their computer fails!).

For imaging, I recommend a look at the free version of Macrium Reflect. It's freeware, does a commendable job of creating disk images, restoring them, and creating an emergency boot disk (using their supplied Linux-based client or the necessary plug-in for creating a BartPE emergency boot disk). Ensure that you verify an image(a function available through the imaging software) after creating it - your image is only as good as your ability to use it when the time comes! Ditto for the emergency boot disk - to test, you don't have to actually restore an image, but you should be able to boot successfully from the emergency restore disk and be able to see (and access) your saved backup image.

For data backups, I recommend looking at the Comodo Free Backup software - it permits creating scripted, scheduled (unattended) backup jobs in a point-and click manner and will back any type of files or folders on a computer - either full backups, or incremental. You can even set the program to do real-time backups of critical files as changes occur (this takes a lot more overhead to do that, however).

As a final note, since the files structures of client email programs are so byzantine, you might miss backing up an important file or folder if you use a general data backup program (like Comodo Free Backup) and an email client like Outlook, Outlook Experss or Windows Mail. To ensure all of the email components are backed up properly, I recommend using an email client backup program. There are free email backup programs (e.g. OEBackup for Outlook Express in XP, and KLS Mail Backup for Windows Mail in Vista) that do a credible job of backing up all of the client email components (mail, folders, settings, address books and the like) to a designated backup folder.

The three parts of the strategy are complimentary - using them allows one to recover from almost any situation with a LOT less effort than using vendor-provided or user-generated recovery disks. This doesn't completely solve all recovery problems (e.g. being able to use the Recovery Console to try and REPAIR a damaged configuration), but it does provide the average user with a lot better toolset to RECOVER from a failed component or loss of important data.

December 15, 2009 6:25 PM

Most newer computers and some not so new, especially laptops and netbooks no longer ship with CD's they do however ship with hidden directories that will restore the machine to factory defaults based on certain key presses at boot up...consult your manual or manufacturer's website.

Unfortunately when your hard drive dies those hidden directories are no longer accessible, and you then have nothing. You need installation media.

Thomas Read
April 21, 2012 11:15 AM

I have a comment and a query. First, the recovery partition on a netbook, which has no DVD burner, is almost useless - how many people have an external DVD burner that they can use to make recovery/installation disks? Second, concerning these disc imaging programs, my understanding is that they can only restore the image back to the original hardrive, but what happens if that original HD is no longer functional and you need to restore the image to a new HD? Aren't you out of luck in this case or am I wrong here?

Mark J
April 21, 2012 11:37 AM

In the case that you can't afford to get an external optical drive, it is possible to create a bootable usb flash drive with the recovery program.
When you say it can only be restored to the same hard drive, it would be more accurate to say to the same hardware configuration. A new hard drive would be in the same configuration.
In the case of a system restore, putting a new hard drive in the computer, the system should normally restore and work perfectly well on the new drive.

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