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Reinstalling Windows 8 without losing files and programs

Software & AppsGuides
by Tim Verry, 19 Sep 2012Guides
Reinstalling Windows 8 without losing files and programs

With Windows 8, Microsoft has taken the need for improved backup and restore functionality to heart. A new utility aptly named “Refresh” is included with the upcoming operating system that is set to make those annual Aliens-style “nuke it from orbit” re-installations of Windows and applications as easy as possible.

Out of the box, Refresh will allow you to easily reset the operating system to its original state without deleting your Metro applications, personal files, user accounts, or the settings configured during initial setup. Also saved are network connections, BitLocker (and BitLocker To Go) encryption settings, and drive letter assignments.

On the other hand, desktop applications will be removed, and firewall settings, file type associations, and display settings will be reset to defaults. According to Microsoft’s Building Windows 8 blog, the refresh function does not keep the above mentioned data by default because it is the software most likely to cause performance or stability issues.

At a basic level, Refresh is a differential image backup that keeps track of the data added to a base Windows installation. When run, the tool acts as an overhauled System Restore by re-installing Windows and then restoring the backed up data automatically to bring your PC back to its “default” state.

How to save your desktop apps with Recimg

Refresh can be further tweaked with a command line tool called Recimg. Using this utility, it is possible to create your own baseline image that Refresh will use to restore your computer.

This would allow you to install Windows, run through the initial setup, create user accounts, install all of your favourite applications (both desktop and Modern/Metro), and configure/personalise the OS. Once you have your computer set up the way you like it, you can create a custom image that will preserve this state should you need to restore the PC. This functionality has been possible with third party tools for some time, but it is now built into Windows – and is much faster than doing a restoration of a full disk image using Acronis (or the like).

The downside is that you need a Windows install in place before you can restore your image, so it becomes less handy if your hard drive dies and you need to restore to a new drive. You would need to install windows and then allow Refresh to re-install Windows plus your saved changes. Because of this, the Refresh image should not replace your normal backup strategy.

Despite the limitations of the differential backup – including incompatibilities with some desktop apps (an issue Microsoft is working on addressing) – using Windows 8’s Refresh will have you up and running again in less than half an hour. Furthermore, while it does involve using the command line to set it up, it only takes a few simple mouse clicks around the GUI to actually perform a restore, making it a definite boon for family tech support.

Creating your custom baseline image

After installing your favourite applications and getting the operating system set up the way you like it, you need to create a new image that will become the new baseline for Windows 8’s Refresh tool. Unfortunately, there is no GUI method to do this out of the box (there are third party Metro apps that can do it, however). Open a new Administrator command prompt by searching for “cmd” on the Start screen, right click the command prompt icon, and choose “Run as administrator.”

Now you will need to run a simple command to create the new image. Type the following command:

recimg /createimage E:\BACKUPS\

And then hit the Enter key.

The location “E:\BACKUPS\” in the above example command can be replaced with any directory of your choice. You can choose a directory on any connected drive and the Recimg utility will create the folder(s) for you as needed.

After hitting Enter, the Recimg utility will write a new image file, and then register the new file with the Refresh program so that it will use the custom image rather than the Microsoft-provided default when run. Depending on the amount of data the tool will need to write for the differential backup, it could take a while to complete. Once finished, Recimg will display an operation successful message. As of the RTM release of Windows 8 (see our in-depth look at RTM here), the tool states the following when an image is successfully created: “Recovery image creation and registration completed successfully.”

If you browse to the directory you used in the above command, you will find a new file named “CustomRefresh.wim.” The exact size will vary, but you can expect it to be at least several gigabytes in size. While Windows’ built-in zip/archive manager cannot open the “.wim” image file, 7-zip is able to open the archive (it cannot add items to it, however). Currently, the image file contains the following folders and files:

  • Documents and Settings
  • MSOCache
  • Program Files
  • Program Files (x86)
  • ProgramData
  • Users
  • Windows
  • bootmgr (file)
  • BootNXT (file)
  • hiberfil.sys
  • InstallRPLog.txt
  • pagefile.sys
  • swapfile.sys

The inclusion of hiberfil, pagefile, and swapfile “.sys” files is curious, however it is otherwise a straightforward backup.

That is all there is to the recovery-image creation process. It may be a good idea to include that CustomRefresh.wim file in your overall backup strategy. Should the original file be lost or damaged, you can place the backup in the same location and have it work. To verify, you can open a new command prompt window with administrative privileges and use "recimg /showcurrent" to display the currently configured image directory. To change this, you can use "recimg /setcurrent E:\BACKUP\" to register the new location of the CustomRefresh.wim file.

The restoration process is done using the new Refresh tool located in the “PC Settings” Metro application, or the Windows 8 recovery environment (if the PC is unable to boot into Windows properly). Either way, it is a straightforward process that can be completed without the use of the command line.

Refresh recovery

Now that you have a custom baseline to work from, you can use it for routine maintenance or to recover from a malware infection to get the computer back to a clean and speedy state. If Windows won’t boot, you will need to employ the recovery environment (Windows RE) and choose Refresh from the Advanced Options menu. (Tip: You can manually get to the WinRE startup options by using Shift+Left Click (tap) on the shutdown icon. Otherwise, it should automatically boot to WinRE if Windows’ normal startup fails).

Barring such extreme circumstances, you will be able to initiate the refresh process from within Windows 8 (in the PC Settings app). To do this, open the Charms menu by moving your mouse cursor to the upper right hand corner of the screen – or swipe in from the right if you have a touchscreen. Move your mouse over the Settings icon (which resembles a white gear), and click to bring up the Settings menu in the sidebar.

Now navigate to the lower right hand corner of the screen and click on the “Change PC settings” link.

This will bring up the Metro UI version of Control Panel called PC Settings. On the left side of the screen is a list of text links. Click on “General.” Now, on the right side of the screen, scroll downwards until you see the “Refresh your PC without affecting your files” header text. Directly beneath that text is a box with text that reads “Get started.” Click on that to start the Refresh tool.

The Refresh PC wizard will now open. While it notes that applications you installed from websites or discs (otherwise known as traditional desktop apps) will be removed, you can safely ignore that point if you’ve used Recimg – barring any incompatibilities, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

To begin, click on the “Next” button in the overlaid dialog. It will then find the image it needs and give you one last chance to back out of the process. Clicking Refresh will start the restore process.

After a few minutes, your computer will restart. During boot, the blue Windows logo will appear above a progress indicator that shows the percentage completion for the restore process.

This will take an additional few minutes. Once finished, you’ll be shown the initial setup tutorial animation, but you won’t have to go through the user account creation or other setup processes. Instead, you’ll be taken to the Start screen.

At this point, you should have a clean system with your customised settings and all of your favourite Metro (Modern UI) and desktop apps.

Refresh is speedy, but not yet perfected

Unfortunately, the process is not fool proof. Any applications that Windows wasn’t able to restore will be listed in a new file on your desktop called “Removed Apps.html.” When I performed a refresh with a custom image, Google Chrome, Dropbox, and (curiously enough) Microsoft SkyDrive all got left behind – and required a re-install.

Furthermore, if your desktop applications do not store user settings and other data in the folders that the Recimg utility pulls data from (to create the differential image), you will have to reconfigure them. In my case, I lost saved login credentials (and saved games) from Project CARS and Minecraft.

Also, Outlook 2013 (and the rest of the Office 2013 Customer Preview suite) was reset, and I lost emails (I did have backups, at least) and account data which needed to be reconfigured. Utorrent was also reset to default settings. Finally, similar to the case of installing Windows 8 over a previous version of Windows, files that are not carried over to the new (rolled back) state are placed in a “Windows.old” folder. This folder can be safely deleted, though it would be a good idea to check for personal files that might not be backed up elsewhere.

Microsoft has acknowledged that there is room for improvement with the Refresh tool, and it’s considering adding locations to pull data from (to improve compatibility) based on user feedback. My testing was done on the RTM build of the operating system, which means the issues I ran into will only be fixed via a Windows Update patch.

Despite still being in development, Refresh is proving to be a useful tool that is simple to use and provides quick system rollbacks without impacting personal files. There is still some work to be done to improve desktop app support, but when used with a custom image, Windows 8′s Refresh tool fills an interesting middle-ground of an overall backup strategy between traditional file backups and full-disk imaging using third party tools.

Want to tinker more with Windows 8? Then check out our guides to customising the operating system, and dealing with the new Start screen if you find it a bind.

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