GeekTech: Keep Your OS Springtime Fresh
There is nothing finer than a high-powered PC running a newly installed operating system. Like the air after a thunderstorm, things just feel cleaner, fresher, and better.
If only I could get that feeling to last more than a few days.
The problem is, as somebody who is obsessed with tinkering with PC hardware and software, there's pretty much no way for me to keep my OS from getting mucked up in relatively short order. I simply install (and uninstall) too many programs and hardware extras on a weekly basis. Before long my once-fresh system starts to show signs of having too many leftover drivers, stray Windows Registry entries, and useless program files.
Sure, I've tried all those so-called system utilities--the ones that offer to clean up your temp files, defrag your hard drive, and sort out your Registry. But that always feels like a cop-out, like just washing the windows on a car that's leaking a quart of oil a day.
For years I've dealt with my fresh-OS obsession by systematically wiping my hard drive and reinstalling the operating system and all my necessary apps every few months. (I told you I was a freak.) However, there are all kinds of problems associated with this process, from losing all my favorite settings to misplacing the occasional important document to needing to find enough hours to reinstall all my important stuff and Microsoft OS updates. Worse yet, a spousal decree prevents me from counting this as a chore on my household cleaning list.
With another OS purge pending, I talked to PC World's resident hard drive and backup guru Rex Farrance, who pointed me toward Drive Image 7 from PowerQuest (which Symantec recently purchased). He explained that the $70 program would let me create an exact image of a freshly minted hard drive that I could compress and store. From this image I could later restore a flagging system to its previous glory.
Kids, I can't believe I waited so long to do this.
Back Up and Reformat
So here's how you go about keeping your OS in a perpetual state of springtime.
First, back up any and all data you want to keep. I prefer to use a second internal hard drive, but use what you have--an optical drive, a Zip drive, a tape drive, a stack of 744 old AOL installation floppies--whatever it takes. Then double-check that you have indeed saved all your precious data, including all those legally ripped MP3s, those penance-laden letters to the Recording Industry Association of America, and your Apple ITunes ID and password. Then make a note to yourself in which you promise not to write me if you later discover that you neglected to make a copy of this year's not-yet-filed tax forms.
Once everything near and dear to your heart is safe, grab your OS installation disc. (I use Windows XP; and if you're spending this much effort on a clean operating system, you probably should, too.) Boot your system from the disc, and reformat your hard drive. If you're using a single drive, then I'd suggest divvying it up into three partitions: One for your OS and apps, one for your data, and one for your compressed drive image.
Devote the amount of space to each partition that you see fit; just be sure to leave room for that big fat Windows OS (save at least 10GB for XP) and any current or future apps you'll be running. Also remember that while your drive image will be compressed, it'll still require a bit of room: During my tests using the regular compression setting I squished a 10GB partition with 3GB of data down to about 1GB.
Install and Update
Once you've completed your OS installation--and activation, if necessary--be sure to install all the Microsoft updates. I burned a copy of Service Pack 1 when Microsoft rolled it out, and I'll do the same when SP2 arrives. But, as we all know, there have been another thousand or so updates since SP1. Get as many as you can now, or you'll be downloading them over and over down the road.
Next come your apps. Install all your important ones, including your word processor; personal information manager; antivirus program, with the latest definitions; and your Matrix screen saver. As you install the programs, make a note of where they like to store their data files. This is particularly important with office apps and e-mail clients. Some apps like to place data in with the program files; in those cases, change the defaults (if you can) so that documents will end up in your newly created data partition. Be sure to keep track of the programs that won't let you make this change.
Once you've reinstalled all your must-have apps and data, and completed all your customization tweaks--but before you rush off to download the latest rev of Elf Bowling--it's time to create that backup image. Like Farrance, most PC World editors and contributors tend to favor Drive Image 7. (Note: Drive Image 7 works with Windows XP and 2000 only, but the box includes Drive Image 2002 for other versions of Windows.) However, there are other options, including Symantec's own Norton Ghost and Acronis' True Image 7.
I'm not here to do a review of Drive Image 7, but I can tell you that it's almost brain-dead simple. You basically point the software at the partition with your OS and apps, tell it where to save the image, and let it rip. I used a second internal hard drive, but you can save the image pretty much anywhere, including network drives or removable media like DVD-R.
Once you've created the image, I recommend you do yourself a favor and try a system restore right then and there. This will require a reboot, but I figure it's better to know right away if it didn't stick.
Once you've confirmed your image is sound, you're back to business as usual. You'll want to use common sense, but for the most part you should be able to download whatever you want. Go ahead, try that obscure shareware. You're secure in the knowledge that when it's time to wipe the slate clean, you won't be starting over from scratch.