How to create a System Image backup (and why you should)

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You know I’m always talking about having an automated, consistent backup process in place.  This is partly because I have people bring me computers just about every week with a crashed drive, and they’re in a panic because they need the files and folders that are on that drive.  But it’s also from first-hand experience – just a few weeks ago my OWN primary computer had a complete hard drive crash with no recoverable data.  Of course I lost nothing because of my automated backup process.

System Image backup


That automated online backup process (which I can set up for you remotely in about 10 minutes) saves your individual files and folders – stuff like documents, pictures, emails, music, etc.  It does not back up programs, just data.  This type of backup is very important to have in place, for when your computer’s hard drive crashes.

But there’s another kind of backup, called a SystemImage, that I highly recommend you implement.  This one is done manually to an external drive, and it serves a different purpose.  The purpose of this backup is to get you back up and running with all your files and all your programs as quickly as possible.

Let’s consider the scenario of what happens when your hard drive crashes.  Nothing to worry about really, if you have your file-by-file automated backup.

You swap out the crashed drive for a new one.  At that point all you have is a blank hard drive.  So you first need to install Windows.  Then you need to download and install all the Windows Updates (this can take hours just by itself).  Then you have to install your antivirus program and ALL the other software you use, such as Chrome or Firefox, Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, iTunes, your printer software, and whatever else you use.  Then you have to configure all of them to work they way they used to work before the crash.  THEN you have to copy all of your documents, pictures, music and everything else back from your backup to your new hard drive.

It’s a process.  You didn’t lose any of your important files, but you will lose some time because it can take a while to get everything back in place.

How do you avoid spending all that time to get back up and running?  By having a recent System Image backup as well.

The System Image is an “all-inclusive” backup.  It takes all of the files on your hard drive – your Windows installation, your documents, your pictures, your music, your screensaver, your programs, EVERYTHING – and wraps it up all together into one folder, then that backup is put on your external drive.

So let’s say you create a new System Image on Saturday, and your hard drive crashes the next day.  All you have to do is swap out your dead drive with a new one, and then tell your computer to restore that System Image you created on Saturday.  Within a very short period of time (usually less than a couple of hours), EVERYTHING is back on your computer the way it was before the crash – all of your programs, all of your files, they’re all just like they were before.  And you can go on using your computer just like nothing happened.

That’s a huge difference!  Instead of losing a day (or more) trying to get everything back on and set up like you had it, you start the system image restoration process and go have lunch with a friend, and when you come back it’s all done.

That might bring up a question in your mind:
If this backup does all that, why not just use the system image as my ONLY backup?

The system image is the ideal one to have if the whole hard drive crashes and you have to replace it with a new, blank drive.  But what if you accidentally delete a picture, and you really need it back.  And you can’t find it anywhere, even in the Recycle Bin.  Do you really want to spend 2 hours wiping out your whole hard drive and restoring it just to replace one file?  That wouldn’t make sense and it’s not very efficient at all.  For a single file, you can just go to your online backup account and download that file again – all done in a few minutes.  So you need BOTH types of backup.

Here’s how you do a System Image backup:

1. First, you have to get to the right screen.  In Windows 7, click the Start button and type two words:  back up  You’ll see the menu item “Back up your computer” at the top of the Start menu – click on it.  In Windows 8, go to the App screen and just type the word “recovery” then click on “Windows 7 File Recovery”.  In Windows 8.1, search on “File history” and click on “File History”.

2. When you follow the steps listed above, you’ll be shown a new window.  Somewhere in that window is a link for creating a System Image.  Click on that link.

3. A new window opens, and it asks you where you want to save the System Image backup.  You should have your external drive connected at this time, and select it from the drop-down menu under “On a hard disk”:

system image

4. When you click Next, it will now ask you which drives to back up.  Usually it’s safe to just stick with the ones it has already pre-checked, but you want to make sure you are at least backing up your primary hard drive:

system image

5. Almost there – now it will tell you what the total size of the backup will be.  It will also tell you that your previous System Image backup will be overwritten by this new one (which is what you want).  So all you have to do is click the “Start backup” button.

system image


Now your work is done.  You just have to wait for the System Image backup to complete.  There will be a progress bar, so you’ll be able to see it happening little by little.  If you don’t have a lot of data on your drive, it might not take very long – maybe less than an hour.  Mine usually take 2-3 hours so I just let it run overnight.  When it’s finished, it will say “Backup completed successfully”.

Two important notes:

– Don’t use the computer while the System Image backup is being done.

– When it’s done, disconnect the external drive.  Your external drive should only be connected to your computer when you’re doing a manual backup such as this.

– The first time you do a System Image backup, when it’s done it will ask if you want to create a System Repair disc.  Go ahead and do that – it only takes a couple of minutes.  You’ll need a blank CD-R or DVD-R to create that.  Then keep that in a safe place.  You’ll only need that if you need to use your System Image backup to recover from a hard drive crash.  Let’s hope that never happens, but be ready when it does!

If you need help setting this up, get in touch with me.  I do this for my own computer regularly, and I have set it up for lots of my clients.

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Robert W.
July 21st, 2014

Hey Scott, I LOVE the show great work! I was wondering, if I buy a smaller drive than the one I imaged and try to image the smaller drive with the image of the original larger drive will that work? Even though I know the installation of windows (with all the folders) is still smaller than the new drive. Or is the image going to need the fully size of the original drive?

Thanks So Much Again, Robert

Scott Johnson
July 21st, 2014

I generally try to replace the hard drive with the same size drive when I am doing a restore from a system image. It might work with a smaller drive, but I like to maximize the chances for success. Hard drives are cheap now anyway (which is why they crash so often!).

Dick Grondin
July 23rd, 2014

Can the Image Backup be used to load all your info from an old computer to a new one?

Scott Johnson
July 23rd, 2014

Not sure. I don’t think you can do this with the Windows System Image backup. If you could, you could buy one Windows computer and then restore that image to 10 other computers without buying licenses for them. However, I have heard that you can do this with Acronis True Image. You might want to check on that with Acronis.