The Importance of System Recovery

Have you ever considered what you’re actually getting in return when you put down money to buy that brand new computer either at your local electronics shop or at an online retailer? Well, of course you’re going to say the actual computer itself and everything in it including a humongous hard drive you’re never going to fill up, a video card that’s way too powerful for your awesome Word application, a high-end sound card that will only be used with your mediocre 2.1 setup etc, etc. Jokes aside, yes, many of you are smart enough to know what you should be getting when you buy that new computer system. You’ll also be smart enough to realize that the new computer system comes equipped with the latest operating system (hopefully) from Microsoft, which should be Windows 7 at the moment. So what’s the big deal? Well, like with the actual hardware components themselves inside the computer, you’ve actually “purchased” a copy of that operating system. That means it belongs to you (or rather to your computer). Why do you need to know this? Because when the time comes for troubleshooting your computer and you want to restore your system back to default, you’ll want to know what to do.

When all hell breaks loose in your computer’s operating system (malware infection, driver corruption, system unresponsiveness, etc), many users may find themselves in a dire situation. Do I bring my computer in for repairs? Or do I roll up my sleeves and get the job done myself? Many users don’t want to deal with the headache themselves so they let experienced (or not) tech junkies do the work for them. In many cases, they’ll just go ahead and reformat your entire computer to bring it back to a default/clean state and all the while charging you a fortune for that simple service. If you want to give your computer a fresh start while saving some money while you’re at it, then you’ll want to learn about how to how to perform a system recovery.

The Basics

When you purchase a PC or laptop from a brand name manufacturer such as Dell, Sony, Toshiba, HP and Asus, you’re basically purchasing the computer itself along with the rights to use that version of the operating system it came pre-installed with. In today’s case, this will usually be either Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional. So now the question is what happens when you want to totally trash your computer’s current operating system state and start from scratch? Well, there are two simple methods to accomplish this task:

1. Using a system restore disc
Some PC manufacturer’s chose to provide you with a physical CD/DVD restore disc. This disc is usually in a white envelope inside the box of your new computer system the day you bought it home from the stores. Generally, you do not want to lose this disc! If you have lost the recovery disc and don’t have the recovery partition, than you should still be able to order the disc via the support website of your computer’s manufacturer. You’ll be charged but that’s the price you pay for losing the disc in the first place! If you can somehow manage to borrow someone’s recovery disc (more on this later), you should be able to use that as well.

Factory Restore Disc

2. Hidden restore partition
People lose stuff. That much is true. Therefore some PC manufacturer’s prefer to install the recovery data on a hidden partition on your hard drive instead. That way, you wouldn’t have to worry about any physical disc or fear of losing it. Bad news is that if you like to tinker around with your hard drive’s partition using third party utilities, you might one day accidentally erase that recovery partition without even knowing it!

By reinstalling your operating system using these recovery methods, the advantage is that you will never have to worry about any activation issues whatsoever. When you purchase computers from these big PC manufacturer’s, you’re paying for a version of Windows what’s considered to be an OEM (Original Equipments Manufacturer) version. Basically, that license of Windows that is installed on that computer is good for only that computer alone. No exceptions. You cannot trash the computer and expect to be able to “transfer” that license over to another computer. Once you activate a OEM version of Windows (done by the manufacturer’s in our case), that license is tied down to that computer.
What I’ve just gone over is pretty much well-known information and anyone who even considers themselves computer technicians will no doubt know about it as well. Armed with the same knowledge, you’re now probably thinking what comes next.

Preparing for the Restore Process

Before continuing, there are things that you have to be aware of. One thing that you must absolutely remember and I mean absolutely, is that by doing a system recovery reformat, you’re basically erasing your entire hard drive. Yes, that’s right. That means all of your data will be gone as well! Remember, we are reformatting our computer back to factory defaults. When you first turned on your computer the day you purchased it, did you find your music collection on it? How about your Powerpoint presentations for work? Your photo collection? Of course not! That is why one of the main task you must perform before initiating a system recovery is to back up your data! Note I said data, not your applications! For that, you’ll have no choice but to reinstall them after the reformat. If you can boot into Windows itself and log in, than your job is easy. Plug in a external hard drive and load all of your data to it. If you can’t boot into Windows, than try booting into Safe Mode and see if that helps. If not, then you’ll need to go extreme and boot via a Live CD to back up your data. Whatever the case may be, you definitely do not want to skip this step!

Once you have your data backed up, the next thing you’ll want to do is write down or print a list of all the programs you currently have installed. Why? Because you will need to reinstall them after the system recovery procedure is completed. Therefore, it’s very important that you find the install discs for your programs and make sure you have their product key on hand. Some programs might allow you to export their configuration settings to a file so once you have the program reinstalled, you can easily do an import.

Proceeding with the Recovery

Once you have everything backed up nicely and made a list of the programs you need to reinstall, you should now be ready to proceed with the actual system recovery process. A lot of people tend to freak out at this stage of the process but it’s actually really simple in most cases. As long as you can read and follow instructions on the screen, you should be alright. The only thing you have to agree on is that by invoking this system recovery procedure, you agree that all your data will be wiped and your computer will return to the state it was in when you first purchased it. You’ll most likely noticed that when you first powered on your computer, many of them have a lot of trial software or other “crapware” as many would call them, installed on the computer. These unnecessary (usually) programs hog system resources and are just plain irritating. If you took the liberty to uninstall them, performing a system recovery will essentially bring all those crapware back on your system. Remember, your computer will be returned to the state it was in “when it was first purchased”. But don’t worry, there is a really simple solution to this problem that I’ll go over a little later.

Like I’ve said earlier, there are usually two methods to perform the system recovery. Either by using a physical CD/DVD or a hidden recovery partition.

Using recovery CD/DVD – All you need to do is simply pop in the recovery disc, configure your computer to boot from your CD/DVD drive first rather than your hard drive and follow the instructions. That’s all there is to it. The hardest part for many is actually setting their CD/DVD drive to boot first. You usually configure this setting in the BIOS, which can be accessed when you first power on your computer. Modern BIOS’s include a boot menu that you can call upon by pressing a special key right when you power on the computer. This might include the Esc or F12 key. Once the boot menu appears, simply select the CD/DVD Drive option.

Boot Menu

If you have the older type BIOS models, then you’ll need to enter into the BIOS directly and configure the change. Once again, you’ll need to look for the special key to press to enter your BIOS. Usually, this will be the F2 or Del key. The BIOS is a very dangerous place to change settings if you don’t know what you’re doing. This might scare you a bit but if you do not mess around and only configure the setting I’ve specified here, everything should be fine. Your BIOS should look somewhat similar to the picture below. Simply switch over to the Boot tab and configure your CD/DVD Drive option to be the top priority device for the computer to boot from. Once you make this change and *only* this change in the BIOS, you can safely exit out of the BIOS. Make sure you save the changes otherwise you’ll have to reconfigure the setting again.

Boot Order

If everything is done correctly, you should see the CD/DVD drive’s activity light continually flash when you reboot the computer. Why? Because it’s now booting from your reinstallation disc rather than from your usual hard drive. At this point, just follow the on-screen instructions to reinstall your operating system. Don’t worry, the process won’t start automatically. You’ll usually be ask to confirm your decision a couple of times just for safe measure before the process kicks off. It will usually warn you as well that all data will be erased. This is your last chance to go back and recover any more data you may have left behind.

Using recovery partition – Restoring your operating system from the recovery partition is a little trickier. Instead of pressing a special key to enter the BIOS, you’re now looking for the special key to press to start the recovery process in the hidden partition. The specific button to press may or may not be shown on the screen to you. Also, the special button can vary depending on make and model of your computer. For example, for Dell computers, you usually press Ctrl+F11. For Dell computers equipped with Windows Vista, you’ll have to press F8 to get into the advanced menu and pick the right option from there. If you are stuck, you can either Google it or visit the support site for your computer’s manufacturer to get the answer. Once the recovery partition have been summoned, once again, just simply follow the on-screen instructions to reinstall your operating system to factory default.

Once the reinstalltion process completes and your computer restarts, you’ll once again go through the familiar process of creating a user account and password for it. This may or may not happen and depends on how your PC manufacturer configured the computer. It could be that they have already made an account for you with no password on it. Whatever the case may be, you’re now left with a computer that behaves and acts the same way as it did the first day you turned it on!

Additional Notes of Interest

– Performing a system recovery should be considered as your last weapon in your arsenal. One of the best tools you can use to restore your computer is System Restore. Learn how it works and how to use it to your advantage. This is usually one of the first recovery technique to perform when you spot the first signs of computer malfunction. It’s not guaranteed to work 100% of the time but it’s one of your best starting points. Other recovery features in Windows include booting into Safe Mode and Last Known Good Configuration. To protect your computer from malware attacks, three simple things you need is a good antivirus program, a firewall, and install the latest updates from Microsoft.

– No matter what anyone tells you, you do not need to re-purchase another license of Windows for your computer. This is true unless you want to personally upgrade the operating system version, for example going from Windows 7 Home Premium to Windows 7 Ultimate. If your system came shipped with Windows 7 Home Premium from the factory, you are permitted to reinstall that same operating system (provided you use the system recovery discs, the hidden recovery partition, or another custom install method that will use the OEM license key on the sticker) as many times as you wish to on that same computer. This is true provided that you do not install too many additional components onto that computer. For example, changing out your motherboard on that Dell OEM computer may cause Windows to believe that you are trying to install the Windows license on a different computer (which would violate the EULA) and you will then have activation problems.

– Some computers you purchase, believe it or not, do not include either a recovery disc or a recovery partition! However, they do include a backup imaging program so that you can make your own recovery disc. Fail to do so and you’ll be in a world of hurt later on. Fortunately, this isn’t the norm for modern computers so hopefully this is a rare case.

– Starting with Windows 7, Home Premium users are also allowed to perform a complete PC image backup of their computer. This means that even if you have a recovery partition but would still want to have a recovery disc at hand, you can do so with the Windows Backup and Restore utility. If you are sick of having to uninstall the same trialware every time you perform a system reinstallation, then you’ll want to create your own PC backup reinstallation discs. Simply reinstall your system to factory defaults, uninstall unnecessary programs, “do” install programs you will be using, and then finally create the complete PC backup image. Next time you need to wipe your computer clean again, rather than using the original recovery discs or recovery partition that shipped with your computer, you can now use your own reinstallation media. This will help you save a lot of time as you now have a baseline image to work with.

– Please do not get suckered into paying an extra fee for recovery media at the time of your computer purchase. Some stores might try to get you to spend money by helping you to create your own recovery DVD’s. Well guess what? It’s a bunch of crap. You can easily create your own recovery media as long as you have Windows 7 Home Premium or higher. If you have Windows XP or Windows Vista Home Premium, you can still create your own recovery media by using free image backup utilities such as Macrium Reflect.

– I mentioned earlier that you might get away with borrowing a friend’s OEM reinstallation disc if you have lost yours. I say “might” because there is so much confusion surrounding this topic. To get the best results, you’ll want to find a reinstallation disc that matches your computer manufacturer along with the operating system version you have installed. For example, if your computer is from Dell and it came with Windows 7 Home Premium installed, then you’ll need to borrow a OEM reinstallation disc that is also from Dell and that is also meant to be installed with the Windows 7 Home Premium operating system. If you use another version, you’ll have activation issues because your license key (the sticker on the bottom of your laptop or on the back of your desktop) is meant to be only used with that version of Windows. If you try to reinstall your OEM computer with a retail install disc, that will give you activation issues as well without you having to perform some type of hack or by calling Microsoft. To spare yourself all this mess, do yourself a favor and just re-purchase the reinstallation media if you have lost the original. The cost will no doubt be much less than if you would have given your computer for a technician to repair. They’ll most likely do the same factory reformat I’ve explained in this article anyway so you might as well do it yourself and save a lot of money. I’ve actually given a rant on this subject matter so read it here if you’re up for it.

In the End…

You’ve learned of a quick way to easily reset your computer back to factory defaults. Although doing so is a bit drastic and shouldn’t be used unless there is no other option, it’s still nice to know that the procedure to do so is very simple and can be performed by just about anyone who can follow basic instructions! If you bring in your malware infested computer to a repair shop, either a mom-and-pop’s or a big name retailer, chances are they’ll perform the same repair operation and charge you an arm and a leg for it. Why? Because they believe you don’t know any better. You’ve got a clean computer, every nasty bit of malware is removed, your important data have been restored (hopefully) and you’re left with a clean slate to start over. What’s not to like except for the price tag that comes with it?

You can easily perform this same procedure because you are actually entitled to it believe it or not. When you purchased that computer, you’ve actually purchased that license of Windows as well and the nice people who works for these computer manufacturer’s allow you to reset your computer to the way it was when you first turned it on. Why not do it yourself rather than give someone $100+ to perform that “right” for you? As long as you understand the implications of performing the recovery operation and can follow basic instructions, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.

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