Do I Really Need a System Image Backup?

Category: Backup

I recently did some Spring house cleaning on my computer the other day, furiously sweeping away the detritus of years of web browsing, software downloads, photo editing, grocery shopping lists, and other geekly pursuits. My hard drive was clean, shiny, and well organized. And then I asked myself 'How can I keep it this way?' Read on for the answer to that question, as well as some tips on scrubbing and optimizing your own hard drive...

Clean, Organize and Preserve Your Perfect Hard Drive

The first step in my spring cleaning was to run a deep scan for malware, using both Avast and MalwareBytes Anti-Malware. Fortunately, both of those scans came up clean. Why a "deep scan," you may ask? That's because the default behavior of computer security tools is to examine only the most common malware hiding places. If you're not in the habit of periodic deep scans, see my related article [HOWTO] Run a Deep Scan for Malware.

Next, I optimized my system with help from Advanced System Care Ultimate 11, a trusted name that’s getting more ludicrous with each “new, improved” generation. (If you prefer understated numbers, this is version 11.0.1) CCleaner and Privazer are also good options for this optimizing task. You can find links to those and other related tools in Seven Free PC Maintenance Tools.

I then poked around for unwanted and duplicate files, and got rid of those. I even deleted windows.old, the file folder that contained my old Windows 7 installation. There’s no going back for me now; it’s Windows 10 or Linux, and I’m not ready to go full Linux. By the way: do not try to delete windows.old with the standard “delete” button, you will find an endless supply of “you do not have permission to delete” blockades in your path. Here is the proper way to erase the windows.old folder:

System Image Backup

Type “disk cleanup” in Windows’ search box and open that app. Select your Windows 10 drive to clean up and click OK. In the lower-left corner of the screen, click the “clean up system files” button. The refreshed list of files that can be deleted will then include old Windows installation files. You’ll find they can amount to 6 or 8 GB of wasted space, so check the box next to such things and let Cleanup get rid of them.

After all that, I organized all my data files in neat, clearly labeled folder trees. Finally, my PC’s hard drive was a model of tidiness and efficiency! Everything ran faster; not just a little faster but “holy cow, what have I been missing!” faster. And then I had a sad thought.

“Sigh. If only it would stay this way,” I mused, remembering my high school chemistry lesson on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a nutshell, it states that chaos will inevitably creep in with every passing second. All systems tend to go from order to disorder. In the world of your computer, this happens as a result of web browsing, installing, using and removing software, and keeping your operating system current with updates. There are ill-behaved apps that make changes to the registry and leave unneeded files laying around. Malware is constantly looking for new attack vectors. Power glitches may cause unexpected shutdowns that damage open files. Hardware failures (sometimes subtle) are not uncommon. One very smart friend of mine who designs electronic equipment tells me that even cosmic rays can twiddle the bits in your files, causing data corruption.

A Forehead Smack

Backups Ebook Are you prepared for a total loss of your hard drive due to a virus, hardware failure or some other disaster? Are you confused by the terminology related to backups? I encourage you to read my ebook Everything You Need to Know About BACKUPS, where you'll learn about backup strategies and how to protect the data in your computer, tablet, smartphone and online accounts.

All of that is what keeps computer software developers in business. But still, if only I could always have this perfect hard drive... Then it hit me… “Hey, wait a minute, I CAN keep my hard drive perfect forever!” I suddenly realized in one of those forehead-smacking “Eureka!” moments that consisted of two words: SYSTEM IMAGE!

A system image file is a type of backup, and can be thought of like a ZIP file, which is a single file that contains the contents of multiple files. A system image file is also like a bucket of sand. Copies of EVERY file on your hard drive, including hidden system files you never see, are simply poured bit by bit into the system image file. You cannot (easily) retrieve a specific file from a system image file. But you can have an exact duplicate of your perfectly organized and optimized hard drive, forever, and you can restore your hard drive to exactly that perfect state at any time.

Of course, a system image file does not contain any new files added to your hard drive after the system image was created, nor does it reflect any future modifications to the data it contains.

A system image file is a much better place from which to start re-installing Windows than your older Windows installation disc or even the latest version of Windows 10 installed by the Microsoft Media Creation Tool. That’s because your system image file is more current than the one on the Windows installation disc, and more customized for you than the one created by the Media Creation Tool.

A huge plus is that your system image file includes all of your application software and personal data! When a system image file is restored to your hard drive, everything will be there and work just as it did before whatever calamity forced you to restore from a system image file.

Ready to Make a System Image?

I hope you are now eager, or at least willing, to create a system image file. Here is what we are going to do:

Find a place to put our system image file. As a temporary test case, you can store the system image file on the same hard drive as the source drive, but if that drive fails then your system image goes away along with the source. A second internal hard drive, or an external hard drive is the best option, but a USB flash drive of sufficient capacity will also do. I do not recommend a series of DVD discs; you’ll be stuck at the keyboard, swapping and labeling and trying to keep discs in order for an hour or more. The other options let you go watch a ball game while the system image file is created in one unattended operation.

Find and launch the “system image creation” app. For some reason, Microsoft hides it; typing “system image” in Windows’ search box will not produce the app you need. So open Control Panel; in the top-left corner, in the “System and Security” section, you will see “Backup and Restore (Windows 7).” Click on that link and then on “Create a system image” on the next page. (Yes, the Windows 10 system image app is the same one used since the feature was introduced in Windows 7.) If you're still using Windows 7, you'll find the “Create a system image” link by clicking "Back up your computer" on the Control Panel screen.

Follow the app’s prompts to start the creation of a system image file. Mine ended up being about 60 GB and the whole process took a bit over an hour. Your time will depend on how much data you have, the speed of your source and target drives and the connection between them, and whether you try to get work done while the system image file is being created (not recommended).

Let me pause here for a moment and mention that you can also create a system image file using third-party backup utilities. I use Macrium Reflect, but there are other tools for this task, including EaseUS Todo Backup Free and AOMEI Backupper.

When the system image has been created, the app will ask if you want to create a restore disk; the correct answer is “Yes!” Without a restore disk you cannot restore the system image file to your hard drive. So make one.

The restore disk is bootable, which is handy if your primary boot disk has blown up. It’s also necessary because a system image cannot be copied to a hard drive that is in use by an operating system or other software. If your primary boot drive cannot boot, then your system’s BIOS will check other drives to see if it can boot from one of them. If your primary boot drive is fine and you’re just testing system image backup/restore, you need to make sure the BIOS checks the drive that will hold your restore disk before your primary boot drive; otherwise, Windows will boot instead of the utility on the restore disk. Consult your PC’s user manual for “setting boot order” of drives in your PC.

Restoring your perfect hard drive from its system image copy takes just as long as creating the copy did. When the process is all over, you will feel a certain virtuous satisfaction that comes with a Spring cleaning job well done. You will also have a “better than new” system, lively and fun to work on. I recommend making a fresh system image file once a month, so if you need to restore from it there won’t be too many missing changes to worry about. If you're adding, updating and deleting files frequently, consider a weekly image backup.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Do I Really Need a System Image Backup?"

(See all 26 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

I have been doing this for several years now. I usually make a new system image when Windows comes out with major update. Besides checking for malware etc, I also do a defrag and try to remove as many duplicates files as possible.

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

I made two hidden drives on one of my hard drives. One has a drive image of my original installation (after also installing my software and doing some customization). The other contains a periodic system image such as what you describe. It is known clean and ready to use. I also use Macrium Reflect, and it backs up daily to another drive (not hidden). It deletes the old backups to make room for the new ones. This gives me the ability to go back as far as I like up to about 2 months. I do not keep my data files on the C drive. The system images are not cluttered with personal files. Those are backed up separately. I also have the backups and system images on external hard drives. Once you get used to doing things like this, it is no burden.

Posted by:

Herb Klug
16 Apr 2018

Bob - You frequently encourage your readers to Backup! Backup! Backup! because eventually a hard drive will fail. Perhaps you could address any complexities associated with replacing a traditional spinning disk hard drive with a newer solid state drive. Is it just as simple of making an image of the HDD with Macrium Reflect, and then installing that image on a SSD? That would be too easy....

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Hi Bob

Yes, you're right as usual, I must make regular copies of my system files or clone the boot disc. My excuse is I also have a laptop, which I can use with my backup data drive. Now if there were a quick and easy way to clone the desktop to the laptop, I could be up running after a system failure within minutes...

Freefilesynch is great for incremental copies of all data and personal files - very quick - to an external drive.

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Is a system image backup the same as cloning the hard drive?

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Good article, Bob! I just had a HD die and I needed to install an Operating System on my brand new HD. So I used my OEM Windows 7 Pro disk that came with my PC, to get things started.

With my brand new HD, the installation went quite well. I had already made up 2 ISO Windows 10 Pro 64 Bit disc and used that to install Windows 10 Pro. I am so glad that I learned how to do that and made 2 copies, just in case. I had gotten Windows 10 Pro as a FREE upgrade and didn't want to have to purchase a brand new one. All I can say, it worked and my PC is recognized by Microsoft.

When, it became apparent that I did need to get a new HD, I upped the storage capacity, from 1TB to 2TB. I tend to purchase lots of Casual Games and today's games are much larger than they were back in 1996. I wanted enough room so that I don't get bogged down. Plus, the price was good only $59 for a WD 2TB internal HD. Yes, it is a 5400 rpm and I think, that is one reason why my last one, latest for 10 years. It was a 5400 rpm and the platters spin slower.

I don't have a USB Flash Drive and never have. I don't know why, just that I have never felt that I needed one. I also, remember your article about how many of the USB Flash Drives have "bad stuff" on them, already and to beware. What a crying shame too.

USB Flash Drives can really save someone's computer and are a wonderful invention. It's a real shame that someone has found a way to take a good thing and put bad stuff on it. Oh, I know that is life, but why must some people try to ruin everything, for everyone else???

I do have an WD External HD 3TB. I am having problems with it. I am still checking things out, to see what the issue is. I know that my PC recognizes the unit, but my light is not on right now. I also, may have a "dead" USB port. This is an older PC and a refurbished one at that. I may need a new external HD. This one is a Seagate and I haven't always had the best of luck with Seagates. Please, that is just my personal experience. I know that Seagate is a good brand, I just happen to prefer Western Digital.

I have never been afraid to purchase refurbished PCs or computer components or discontinued products. It has saved me plenty of money. Plus, they work just as well as brand new, most times. There are a few things that I will not buy refurbished, Hard Drives being one of them. Heavens, I purchased a $30 Brother All-in-One printer that was refurbished and that puppy worked for over 5 years! I think, it would still be working, if my grandson hadn't replaced an ink cartridge before it was empty. A lot of people don't read what you are suppose to do, when purchasing a new printer, especially those that have individual ink cartridges. Each printer and printer company is different, just like each PC or Laptop has different aspects, from company to company.

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Correction: I have a Seagate 3 TB External Hard Drive, right now. This crazy brain of mine. LOL

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

RichF: An image is one huge file. Mine is 65Gb, whereas a clone is a file by file exact copy of the drive. Many debate over which is best.

Biggest single issue with both methods of backups is the unknown: do they work?

Every once in a while [yearly?] one should boot to the backup and see if it actually works. I've known users who proudly backup for years but have never tested it to see if it truly functions.

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Bob--I too use malbyteware (premium edition) and I also use Advanced System Care 11, but the former program continually declares Advanced System Care (and its sub-programs) as PUPs (potentially unwanted programs. I've re-installed ASC 11 a couple of times, and it has still flagged the program as unwanted. Is this a true security threat?

Posted by:

John Silberman
16 Apr 2018

As earlier mentioned, Clonzilla is an excellent tool for backup & cloning. I plan to use Clonzilla when ReDo (support ended a couple of years ago) no longer works for me. What is nice about these is they don't care much what OS they are backing up

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Bob, you are my guru! Quick question. I have a clickfree image backup of my old windows XP laptop's 150 GB hard drive. I have a new windows 10 laptop with a 2 TB hard drive. Can I partition the new laptop's drive and load my old image backup; so I can boot the old or new? If so, can you tell me how to accomplish this? As always, THX.

Posted by:

16 Apr 2018

Joe, you can go into malwarebyte > Settings > Exclusions and white list [or exclude] your other program so it's ignored during a scan.

Posted by:

Craig D
16 Apr 2018

Hi Bob, I have been a subscriber to your fantastic newsletter for many years know and accordingly implemented many of your suggestions & software apps, one in particular being Macrium Reflect. This amazing piece of software recently saved my bacon when I experienced a catastrophic computer crash when the 1709 Windows 10 update failed and I lost my login profile, rendering my pc useless. I rebuilt the machine using a Macrium image I saved three months ago. It came back perfectly, only missing emails that came in since the backup. Thanks again for your multiple words of wisdom!

Posted by:

Art F
16 Apr 2018

A question I've posed a couple of times before, but have never received an answer to, is this:

If I make regular system image backups, do I need to create a system restore disk EACH TIME? Or is a system restore disk a generic thing that needs to be created only once for Windows 10 because it is compatible with all Win10 system image backups?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Art, you only need to make one system restore disk for a given version of WIndows.

Posted by:

Robert A.
16 Apr 2018

For years I had a free copy of Malwarebytes on my computer, that did what it was supposed to do, and offered occasional updates. Now the free version is only a 14 day trial version, at which time the user sees pop-up nag notices. I guess I'll have to look elsewhere.

Posted by:

17 Apr 2018

I do a back-up every week to an external hard drive. It has a file on it called "Windows Image Backup." It gets updated regularly along with my files using Windows Backup? It's a big file, I think. Is that a system image?

Posted by:

Terry Hollett
17 Apr 2018

I make images at least once a month using both Macrium Reflect (free version) and Windows 7 built in backup utility.

Posted by:

19 Apr 2018

Thanks for all your great tips Bob.

In answer to Art F about Macrium Reflect system restore disks, I believe they are generic. I created one on my Win 10 machine and was able to boot my Win 8 machine from it although I didn't do a restore but I think it would work.

Posted by:

04 May 2018

Changing to SSD is even easier; I have done it a few times.
Go to, buy the SSD and they give you the software to transfer entire system.
You can make an Image but is not necessary.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2018

Tried Macrium Reflect 7 and got "read failed-13, Permission denied-32". i tried AOMEI BACKUPPER and IT WORKED. Very easy to use and FREE.

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