Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Computers with pre-installed operating systems often include a recovery disk. Unfortunately, you might find out too late that's not what you need.
My hard drive crashed and I tried to use my recovery disk to recover my system. It didn't work. Why not?
I've heard you say that a recovery disk isn't enough, that I need an "installation" disk. Why, and what's the difference?
My recovery disk worked just great to restore my system, I don't see what you're going on about?
Those are actually a synthesis of comments and questions I see fairly often.
A recovery disk or CD is most definitely not the same as an installation disk, and the difference becomes quickly apparent when it comes time to recover from certain types of failures.
Note the phrase "certain types" of failures. For some failures a recovery disk is just peachy, yet for others with only a recovery disk you might be in deep trouble.
And of course, it also depends on the exact recovery disk as well. Naturally, this couldn't be simple.
First, the simple part.
A recovery disk contains the tools and additional information that can be used to "recover" your system using information stored on your hard drive. That "information" could be the I386 folder, it could be a hidden recovery partition, or it could be something else entirely. The key is that the recovery disk uses a bunch of information on your hard drive.
An installation disk contains the software to be installed. A Windows installation disk contains a copy of Windows which is copied from the disk and installed on your computer's hard drive. There's no need for additional tools or information to already exist on the hard drive.
Hopefully, you can already see the problem.
A recovery disk is a fine approach if, for example, you mistakenly delete Windows, or somehow corrupt the system. The recovery disk might be used to reinstall and/or repair the system from the various places that it might have information stored on the hard drive. A common scenario is that it could fire up a complete re-install of Windows using a copy of Windows squirreled away on a hidden partition on the drive.
Here's the problem: what if your hard drive dies - completely?
That means that the recovery partition, or for that matter anything on your hard drive that your recovery disk might rely on, is gone. The recovery disk cannot recover, because the information or other support files it needs are no longer around.
That's when the only solution is an installation disk, or image backups.
With an installation disk you can reinstall your operating system from scratch on to an empty replacement hard drive. You'll then likely need installation disks or copies of downloads for your applications as well, again so as to be able to reinstall them from scratch.
The other option is an image type of backup which is a backup of everything on your hard drive. If taken before the drive fails you can then use it to restore your system as of the time that image was taken onto a replacement drive.
Naturally, there are a few problems.
Many manufacturers don't include installation CDs, only recovery. Unless you have another (legal) source for installation media, insist on installation from your computer vendor. Yes, it might be an extra cost, but it's very much worth every penny should you face the disaster scenario above.
All restore disks aren't created equal. There's actually no standard for what a restore disk should contain. A restore disk from one vendor may work a certain way, while that from another may do something entirely different. The assumptions of what is or should be on the hard drive for the restoration to actually succeed will vary quite a bit.
Backups are the ultimate safety net, yet too many people don't do them. It's something I harp on all the time. As I outlined above, a good image backup taken with the appropriate tools would actually render the whole issue moot.
So, knowing all this, what's the bottom line?
Insist on installation media from your computer vendor
Save all installation media (and product keys) for your operating system and applications in a safe place
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