Creating a Baseline Image for Windows Refresh

In the last blog post, I went over two (or one, depending on how you look at it) very cool and new features that Microsoft brings to the table with Windows 8 which allows a user to easily Refresh or Reset their PCs. I wrote that not only will it save users many hours of frustration but that it can also help them save a lot of money as well since many of them will no longer have a valid reason for bringing their PCs to their local computer repair shop due to malware infection. Here in this follow up article of sorts, I will be detailing how you can take the Refresh process one step further. While there’s nothing wrong with performing a normal Refresh to quickly get a new and clean copy of Windows installed while preserving your data, the process will ultimately delete all of your custom installed applications as well (not your Windows Store apps, though). This is not a problem if the only applications you have installed on your Windows 8 machine consists of only Windows Store apps. However, I really doubt that’s going to be the case (unless you are talking about Windows RT devices). Therefore, after every Refresh, you will need to manually reinstall your applications. Well, if you put in some extra work in the beginning as I will show here, you’ll find that performing a Refresh in the future will net you a much better overall experience.

While Microsoft does make it a bit easier on you after the Refresh process has completed by creating a HTML file showing you a list of all the applications that it removed, you still had to manually reinstall them. If you don’t have the program’s installer files on hand, you’ll need to hunt them down again. I’ve always thought that the Refresh process was a good compromise in that users will be able to quickly reinstall the core Windows 8 files while retaining their data versus a flat out Reset (reformat). However, the Refresh feature has one pretty cool trick up its sleeves that many power users will definitely take advantage of and that is the ability to create your own baseline Windows 8 system image to use with the Refresh feature. But don’t worry, you obviously don’t have to be considered a “power user” to be able to use this feature. However, if you find yourself using the Refresh feature more than once and find it frustrating having to reinstall all of your custom applications, then I definitely urge you to read on!

What is a Baseline Image?

Learning to create a baseline image is one of the best things you can do if you always find yourself tinkering around with the computer and afterwards, it’s either loaded with malware/spyware or not working the way you expect the PC to work due to misconfiguration or system errors. Like I mentioned above, many power users already know this and have been doing it for a very long time. A baseline image is basically an image capture of your “ideally configured computer system”. Let’s think for a bit and figure out how this baseline image can help us.

When we purchase a computer from the store, the computer is configured “ideally” according to the computer manufacturer (HP, Dell, Sony, etc). However, your idea of an “ideally” configured computer differs from their idea because you don’t consider all the bloatware that has been installed to be applications that you will ever use and therefore, is not only taking up hard drive space but also computer resources such as CPU and RAM as well. Your ideally configured computer consists of having all the bloatware removed and only having the browser of your choice installed. So you go ahead and do exactly this. However, after a few months, you find yourself having to perform a factory reset due to your computer being heavily infected with malware. Once you do perform the reset, your computer will once again revert back to the default configuration as defined by the computer manufacturer. You will once again have to remove all the bloatware and reinstall all of your applications. Of course, this isn’t a problem if you only have to reinstall one or two applications but think about all the extra time spent on bloatware removal. Additionally, who these days only uses one or two custom applications?!

When we take the time to create a baseline image, the end result is a whole lot different. Consider having just removed the last fragment of the bloatware that came with your new PC. Because you are most likely to use many different types of applications, you go ahead and install them as well. Once configured, you now have what you deem the ideal computer configuration. This ideal computer configuration can be considered your baseline image because every time we reset the computer, we want the PC to look and behave exactly like this once the process has completed. Therefore, we go ahead and create the baseline image. The next time we do need to refresh our PC, we use this baseline image instead of the manufacturer default. The end result is that all the applications that you’ve installed prior to creating the baseline image will be available. All of the bloatware that you uninstalled will remain deleted. Isn’t this a whole lot better? I certainly hope so because the time you will have saved will be tremendous.

Creating Our Baseline Image for Windows Refresh

Creating our baseline image to use every time we initiate a Windows Refresh is actually quite easy. The hard part is configuring your computer to your ideal configuration. The best time to create a baseline image is when you have a new computer. Here are the high level steps of what you should do prior to creating the baseline image:

  1. Uninstall any applications that came pre-installed on your computer that you don’t want
  2. Do install your most used applications
  3. Configure computer settings exactly as you would like it (although a Refresh process may revert them back to defaults afterwards)

Pay particular attention to step number 2. Installing a malware infected application that you think is good will also be included in the baseline image. Once the Refresh process has completed, your system can remain infected! Therefore, you must be careful in choosing what you want to be pre-installed in the baseline image. Another thing to note is that with a baseline image for Windows Refresh, it mainly deals with actual programs and application installations. A Windows Refresh will not delete actual user data and files. Once you have the computer exactly the way you want it to be, it’s time to go ahead with the actual image creation!

Below, you can see that I have a fresh copy of Windows 8 installed. I’ve also gone ahead and installed a couple of my most used applications. Because these applications will be used no matter if I perform a Refresh or Reset, I consider these applications crucial to computer experience. Therefore, they deserve to be in my baseline image!

Default Apps

Once all of my applications are installed and configured to my liking, I now create a folder to hold my baseline image. I simply put this folder in the root of my C:\ drive titled ImageRefresh.

Image Refresh Folder

Now that the folder has been created, we can now proceed to creating our baseline image (for real this time). For this we need to open a command prompt with administrator privileges. In the Start Screen, type CMD. Right-click Command Prompt and choose ‘Run as administrator’.

Command Prompt

Once in the command prompt, to create our baseline image, we just need to invoke the ‘recimg’ utility. We need to specify two things. First, the -CreateImage parameter tells the utility to actually create the image. Finally, we append the directory location of where we want to store the baseline image. Following my example, this is what I would type in:

recimg -CreateImage C:\ImageRefresh

Recimg

Once you hit Enter, the image creation process will fire away! Get some coffee or take a breakfast/lunch/dinner break because this can take a while.

Creation Process

Image Creation B

Image Creation C

Once the process has completed, you’ll see a single .WIM image file in the specified directory. The recimg utility also registered this image for use whenever we initiate a Refresh process, which we will do next.

Image File

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Refresh Process Using Custom Image

To use our custom image, we fortunately do not need to do anything different than doing a normal Refresh. Therefore, once the baseline image has been created, I do not have to worry about anything else. Here, I will initiate a Refresh. To learn how to perform a Refresh, please go over my previous article where I talked about performing both a Refresh and a Reset.

Refresh

After the Refresh has completed, I once again checked the Programs and Features control panel applet to see if all of my previously installed applications are still there. To my surprise, all but one application didn’t make it. If you look at the above picture before I started the Refresh process, you can see that I clearly had Google Chrome installed. After the Refresh, for reasons I don’t know, the application did not make the post-Refresh. I’m not sure if this is a bug or designed by choice.

Reinstalled

It turns out that programs that don’t install themselves into the “Program Files” folder will be ignored by the recimg utility! If you have Google Chrome installed, look inside your Program Files folder and you won’t see an entry for the browser there. Instead, it lives in your AppData folder. Therefore, even though the program registered itself in the Programs and Features applet, it still wasn’t recognized by recimg. I’ve tested this by installing both the Firefox and Opera browsers, which install themselves in Program Files. After the Refresh, both browsers were immediately available and Chrome was missing as usual. Luckily, you can still rely on the Removed Apps HTML file to see which apps have been removed and reinstall them accordingly.

In the End…

You saw how easy it was to create your own baseline image to use with the Refresh feature. By itself, a Refresh can be very handy. But because it erases all of your custom applications, it can be a pain for users to have to resinstall everything once the process completes. By registering your own Windows 8 baseline image complete with all your favorite applications pre-installed, you can be sure that minimal amount of time will be wasted post-Refresh. At the end though, you also saw the slight hiccup I experienced. Nonetheless, you can’t argue that you’ll definitely get a lot more mileage out of the Refresh feature by creating your own Windows 8 baseline image!

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Comments

  1. Finally, I do not have to use any other s/w to have my baseline image. Great Feature.

    • Yups. However, the recimg utility is very basic and really meant to be used with the Windows 8 Refresh feature. I would not use it as a backup method though.

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