Thank $DEITY For Disk Imaging Software

I often get called on to deal with family computer and/or data related mishaps. Disk imaging software has saved the day on several occasions recently.

The event that prompted this post actually happened a few weeks ago. Daughter #2 brought her 12 month old Acer laptop to me, complaining of random BSOD crashes. I took a quick look at it and noticed lots of suspicious symptoms straight away, for example the Windows security centre service was disabled and refused to restart, the AV system tray icon was not showing and the AV software itself wouldn’t start up. A boot into safe mode and a scan with Malware Bytes soon confirmed that the machine had been hosed by one of the many fake AntiVirus malware strains. The malware itself was able to be removed, but it had done extensive damage to the registry and the only option to ensure a full repair seemed to be a full re-install of Windows 7.

Just going off on an apparent tangent for a moment, manufacturers rarely provide physical media with a new computer. Instead, some kind of backup software is pre-installed which allows a set of physical media to be created by the end user. Whilst this seems like a good idea at first glance, my experience has been that it invariably fails utterly. The story almost always goes like this:

Amidst the excitement of getting a new laptop out of its box and having a shiny new toy to play with, the message that appears on screen requesting the creation of recovery media gets dismissed with a click on the ‘Not Now’ button.

The same prompt pops up again a bit later, by which time the owner is busy setting up their e-mail account, getting on to Facebook and posting ‘I haz new laptop’ status updates – the prompt once again gets dismissed.

Whilst this is going on, the operating system will have been silently downloading and installing updates in the background. Some of these will require a reboot, which irritates the owner because it interrupts the process of playing with the new toy.

At reboot time, the prompt for creation of recovery media appears again, only this time the owner notices that there is also a little tick box which says ‘Never remind me again’…

12 months down the line, the laptop has been used, abused and generally thrashed to within an inch of its life and suddenly starts playing up in some manner, or it gets hit with a virus. This is where I end up being asked to look at it. If it turns out that a new hard drive is required, or maybe (and more commonly, especially with a virus infestation) just a re-install of Windows to put everything back to a known clean state, the first thing I ask for is the recovery media. Inevitably the response to this is “The what?”. I patiently explain about recovery media and how they would have been prompted to create same when they first got the laptop. “Oh, yeah, I just ignored that. Was it important, then?” – at which point I’m in <herewegoagain> mode.

So, broken laptop, users data may or may not be intact, OS is definitely screwed, no data backup available. What to do? The last 3 times I’ve been in this situation, I’ve used a product called Macrium Reflect to get what I could off the broken machine prior to repair/rebuild. Together with an adapter cable to allow PATA/SATA drives to be hooked up to a USB port, recovering the data becomes a fairly straightforward, if sometimes time-consuming, exercise:

  • Extract the hard drive from the broken machine, connect it to my computer and image it using Macrium Reflect
  • Put the drive back in its host machine, launch the manufacturers factory recovery process and put the machine back to its default ‘out of the box’ state
  • Remove the vendors assorted items of bloatware, re-install any required applications software and allow Windows to apply all outstanding updates
  • Extract the hard drive from the now working machine, connect it to my computer and restore the users data (documents, pictures, videos, etc) from the disk image taken earlier
  • Put the drive back into the host machine

With the machine now in a known good state, including all user data, it is possible at this point to create a second disk image using Macrium. This can be kept on offline storage (for example, an external hard drive) until such time as the machine breaks again or gets hit with another virus. Next time round, the recovery process is much simpler, needing only a restore of the second disk image to get everything back to normal in a single operation. Even better, Macrium can be installed on the machine you just repaired and configured to take a regular backup. Provided you’re careful with storage requirements, the end user is then keeping a copy of their own data in readiness for the next disaster that strikes them.

Macrium is free for personal use and registration for the full version is GBP £47.95 for a single machine licence, rising to GBP £95.90 for a ‘household’ licence which covers up to 4 machines. The licenced version adds incremental backup features, encryption of backed up data and integration with the Windows boot menu to allow easy recovery. I’ll make the usual disclaimer that I have no connection with Macrium Software other than as an very satisfied user of their products.