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A guide to restoring your PC using Windows 7

Continuing our series of articles in which we’re looking at tips for Windows 7 – after all, it’s still the most popular desktop OS by far – today we’re going to look at how to restore your computer under Windows 7.

Okay, so you've undoubtedly heard this a million times (probably some 900,000 of which came from us): You must back up your data! And that's advice you should absolutely follow. But simple backups aren't always enough for a Windows 7 system. You might be hit with a catastrophic virus attack, accidentally delete a critical system file, or mess with the wrong hard drive partition and find that your PC will no longer boot. At that point, no number of external hard drives loaded with copies of your photo and MP3 collections will get you up and running again.

That's why, in addition to backing up individual files and folders of particular value, you should also stock your arsenal with more powerful system recovery weapons.

You can buy software that will take care of this for you – Acronis True Image, for example – but Windows 7 has some built-in utilities that will provide an additional layer of security and not cost you one penny more. You'll need a bit of time, some free drive space (or blank DVDs), but the peace of mind you get in return will be well worth that investment.

How to find Windows 7's Repair and Restore tools

1. Click on the Start button on your taskbar, over at the far left end if the taskbar is in its default location at the bottom of your display.

2. Click on Control Panel (on the right-hand panel, as you can see in the image above).

3. Under the "System and Security" heading in the Control Panel window, click "Back up your computer." Note: If you haven't set up Windows 7 to back up your data yet, this is a good place to do that, too!

4. In the upper-right corner of the "Back up or restore your files" window, you'll see two options: "Create a system image" and "Create a system repair disc." Click on the one that corresponds to the action you want to perform; keep reading for additional details about what they do and how to use them.

How to create a System Image

By far the easiest way to maintain your system in exactly the state you use it every day is to create a system image. This is exactly what it sounds like: A snapshot of your computer at a specific point in time, well beyond the system and program settings regularly archived with System Restore. Having at least one on hand ensures that you'll always be able to return your computer to exactly the way it was when you made the image. The downside is that system images can be big, and they can be slow to create and restore. But if your PC melts down, you'll be glad you made the space – and the time – to protect yourself this fully.

1. Click "Create a system image" in the "Back up or restore your files" window.

2. In the "Create a system image" window that appears, you'll be presented with three options for storing the image. Click the radio button next to the one you want, then click the Next button.

On a hard disk. If you have one or more extra hard drives hooked up to your system, this is the way to go. Find the drive on which you want to store the image in the drop-down box (you can't save to a drive you're also backing up). Click the Next button; if you have more than one hard drive, you'll be asked to specify which ones you want to back up. Click Next again, and you'll be asked to confirm that you want to begin the backup. Click the "Start backup" button and it will start right away.

On one or more DVDs. If you don't have a spare hard drive, optical discs are probably the better way to go. Just make sure you have a blank disc (or maybe a spindle of them) at hand first. Because the backup could potentially be large, Windows gives you the opportunity to choose which drives you want to include. Click the checkboxes next to all the drives you want to preserve (the system drives may already be selected and greyed out), then click the Next button; check your settings, and then click the "Start backup" button to begin.

On a network location. Obviously, this only works if you're on a network, but it's potentially more convenient than using either a local hard drive or (especially) a pile of DVDs. Once you've clicked the Next button, the "Select a network location" window will pop up. Type in the path of the remote system and location to save the file to, if you know it, or click on the "Browse..." button to navigate to it if you don't. You'll also need fill in the Username and Password fields so your computer can access the other system across the network. Once you've done that, click the OK button, then verify that your settings are correct and then click the "Start backup" button.

3. You'll receive a notification once the image has been created. If you want to verify that everything worked as it was supposed to, navigate to the hard drive or network location you specified and look for the "WindowsImageBackup" folder – it's all in there. Be sure not to delete this folder, otherwise you won't be able to restore your image later. If you backed up your system to DVDs, the stack of discs in front of you should be sufficient evidence of success.

4. After the image has been created, a window will appear asking if you want to create a system repair disk. (For more information about what this is and why you may want one, see the next section). If you do, click the Yes button (then check out the "How to create a System Repair disc" section of this article); if you don't, click No and you're done.

Restoring a System Image from within Windows

If the worst happens and you actually need to use the System Image you created, it's easy to do if you can get into the OS – just follow the instructions below. If you can't boot into Windows, you can restore an image by using a repair disc; skip to "How to create a System Repair disc" if you need to make one, or "Using the System Repair disc" for more information about what to do once it's burned.

1. From the "Back up or restore your files" window, click "Recover system settings or your computer."

2. From the "Restore this computer to an earlier point in time" window, click "Advanced recovery methods."

3. Select the first option: "Use a system image you created earlier to recover your computer."

4. You'll be asked if you want to back up your files to an external device such as a hard drive, optical disc, or USB flash drive, and you'll be told that Windows will help you restore those files after you load the system image. Remember, if you don't do this you'll lose any new files created since the last system image, so if they're not backed up elsewhere you may want to consider this as a preliminary step. Click the "Back up now" button to do this, or the Skip button to pass.

5. The next window you see is entitled "Restart your computer and continue the recovery." This says it all: Click the Restart button to reboot your PC and restore it from the image you saved, or click the Cancel button to back out.

How to create a System Repair disc

A system image is a handy thing to have around, but it's sort of a "nuclear option": You can travel backwards in time with it, but that's all. If you want a more elegant solution, fixing your computer's problems yourself is definitely it – and usually the preferable choice if the problem is localised in just the boot area, for example, but most of your other data and programs haven't been affected. For this you'll want to create a System Repair disc. (We're assuming you have a DVD burner installed). Just place it in your drive when you turn on your computer, and you'll have access to a number of repair and recovery tools that might obviate the need for restoring from an image (and possibly losing things you've accumulated since that image was created). This type of system repair won't necessarily solve all your problems, and it may require a bit of know-how to use, but having one around is a smart move.

1. Click "Create a system repair disc" in the "Back up or restore your files" window.

2. The "Create a system repair disc" window will pop up. If you only have one optical drive, it should be preselected in the drop-down; if you have more than one, select which one you want to use.

3. Place a blank DVD in your optical drive.

4. Click the "Create disc" button, and Windows will copy over the appropriate files. Once it's finished, the autorun window will appear, showing you that the disc is named "Repair Disc Windows 7 64-bit" (or "32-bit," if you're using that version of the OS).

5. Label the disc and store it in a safe place.

Using the System Repair disc

Using a System Repair disc you've created couldn't be easier: Just place it in your optical drive and turn on your computer. (You may also need to adjust boot options so your system knows to look for something bootable in the optical drive, but many computers are configured this way out of the box.) The words "Windows is loading files..." will appear, along with a bar that moves slowly across the screen; expect this to take a couple of minutes.

Once that bar has finished its journey, a window entitled "System Recovery Options" will appear. It contains two options: "Select a language" (which will be greyed out if you only have one language pack installed) and "Select a keyboard input method," which will likely already be at your default setting (in our case "UK"). Make changes if necessary, then click the "Next" button.

Now you'll need to choose from two different system recovery methods.

1. The first is "Use recovery tools that can help fix problems starting Windows. Select an operating system to repair." Below this is a list with all the disks Windows can detect; chances are yours will be here. If it's not, click the "Load Drivers" button so you can feed Windows the files needed to recognise your hard drive. Click on the drive you want to repair, then click "Next."

This will display a list of five recovery tools you can use to help get your system into a bootable state again. Choose "Startup Repair" to have Windows search for and try to fix any problems that may exist with the necessary files in your boot sequence. "System Restore" will let you restore system settings and programs that been previously saved using Windows' System Restore function. If you followed our instructions in "How to create a System Image," choose "System Image Recovery" to restore a full system image you created. "Windows Memory Diagnostic" may be useful for determining whether the problem you're experiencing is as a result of a problem with your computer's memory. Finally, "Command Prompt" will give you access to a limited version of a command line operating system (much like the old MS-DOS!) that will let you perform a number of actions related to diagnostics, troubleshooting, and recovery. (Bear in mind that this last choice requires an in-depth knowledge of the command line interface, and probably won’t be useful for novice computer users, or those with limited experience using non-graphical operating systems.)

2. "Restore your computer using a system image that you created earlier" is the second option. If you followed our instructions in "How to create a System Image," you'll have a folder containing this; after you click "Next" Windows will let you choose to restore from the most recent system image, or some other image you specify. Click "Next" to begin the restoration process.