Reinstalling Windows 8 without losing files and programs

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.

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