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7/30/2008
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Rebooting Windows: How To Recover From Vista Crashes

We've pulled together a passel of little-known software backup and repair techniques so you won't have to reinstall Vista from scratch, if it gets trashed or hits a fatal startup error.

Vista also is more resistant to damage to key files. Indeed, my original plan was to retrace Langa's XP path for my Vista article and induce a crash by damaging the crucial "hal.dll" file. Thanks to Vista's improved protections, even though I had admin privileges, I couldn't touch it. (On the other hand, my hal.dll test exposed the achingly slow way search runs in Vista. I found the hal.dll file manually by going to directly C:/Windows/System32, while search was still lumbering along.)

Mostly, the crap-outs you'll face with Vista will involve apps quitting or strange lock ups from which the system seemingly recovers. (I say "seemingly," because in such cases, you're often not really sure whether all your data remains intact.)

Vista's repair options range from simple ones like System Restore to the little-known Bootrec command.

Vista's repair options range from simple ones like System Restore to the little-known Bootrec command.

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Subjectively speaking, in stressful situations, Vista's personality becomes that of a cranky software slowpoke. It'll post "Not Responding" messages in the top bar of just-launched applications. Just as frequently, those alerts will disappear as the app catches up to the OS. (Or is it vice versa?)

Still, there are scenarios under which Vista will break. In what could be a canonical example of Murphy's Law, while Vista will survive numerous, complex software gyrations, one of the simplest command sequences you can think of will take it down completely. Hold down the Windows key and the letter "E" for 20 seconds or so. After opening up Windows Explorer windows ad infinitum, your system will stop responding.

All in all, the realization that, while Vista is unlikely to break, it can break, should make the prudent PC user amenable to the full backup strategy we're going to discuss in the next section.

Backups Unleashed: Complete PC

Amid Vista's hierarchy of tools, one of the least known but most important is Complete PC Backup and Restore. The tool doesn't simply copy all your files -- executables, docs, dlls, and what-not. A backup like that would require you to reinstall and reconfigure everything. Aside from the time and trouble, full reinstalls never return you to the state you were in before your computer universe came crashing down. (For one, all your app option setting return to "default.")

Rather, Complete PC saves a bit-for-bit copy of your hard drive, called an "image." As Windows Help explains it:

A Windows Complete PC Backup image contains copies of your programs, system settings, and files. It is a complete system backup that you can use to restore the contents of your computer if your hard disk or entire computer ever stops working. When you restore your computer from a Windows Complete PC Backup image, it is a complete restoration. You can't choose individual items to restore, and all of your current programs, system settings, and files are replaced.

TIP:
Save the Vista installation disk which came with your PC. You'll need it during the boot-repair process.


Interestingly, "image" as used in the context of Complete PC is a slight misnomer. While the tool saves a copy of your hard drive, it doesn't save it as an ISO image file. Rather, Vista stores the state of the C drive in a collection of VHD files. VHD, which stands for Virtual Hard Drive, is a Microsoft-specified format ideal for restoring a drive's original image. (Furthermore, the rudimentary CD-ROM burning software included with the OS doesn't do ISO images. For that, you need a third-party package such as Nero.)

There's one big stumbling block with Complete PC: It isn't included with Vista Home Basic, or Home Premium. (That's one reason I recommend you get Vista Ultimate. Here's Microsoft's overview of the different Vista editions.)

A second rub is that, even within Ultimate, the tool is less accessible than one might expect. I found it to be pretty much hidden. While Vista Help lists Windows Complete PC Restore under its "System Recovery Options," the description tells the user: "For more information, search Help and Support for 'complete PC restore.' "

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