Langa Letter: Laptop Setup Secrets

You can gain space, security, and performance with these time-tested tricks for setting up a portable PC, <B>Fred Langa</B> says.

Fred Langa, Contributor

May 18, 2005

8 Min Read

The Groundwork
Both ways start the same: Answer the question, "How will I get Windows (or the operating system of my choice) back on the laptop, if I remove the OEM recovery partitions?"

Some systems ship with a Recovery CD, but this is usually the same as what's on a Recovery Partition: It's not a true setup CD, but rather will revert your system to the as-shipped factory configuration. It may even rebuild the hidden Recovery Partitions themselves, so this kind of Recovery CD is essentially useless for trying to get a lean, clean operating system installation. For that, you need an actual operating system setup CD.

A few vendors include a for-real operating system setup CD with each PC. Others will send you one if you specifically call and ask for it. And others, such as Dell, include a one-time-use utility that lets you build a true, custom Windows XP setup CD that's specific to the laptop system it's made on, with all necessary drivers already preinstalled. The Dell utility even preserves the original OEM product activation, making it very simple to use in setting up a system afresh. (Kudos to Dell for this!)

Still other setups have most, if not all, the setup files in a \CABS folder on the system.

In any case, figure out what you'll use to install or reinstall the operating system on the laptop. For me, it turned out to be simple: My new laptop was a Dell, so I ran the one-time utility, which created a custom setup CD for me. Simple!

Once you have a way to reinstall the operating system, back everything up, including the contents of any hidden partitions. For that, you may need special software. For example, you may need to boot to DOS (from a floppy or a CD if you're using a non-DOS-based version of Windows, such as XP), and then use a DOS-based tool like BootIT to get at the "hidden" stuff. I especially like BootIT because it's an inexpensive, portable tool that can handle almost all partitioning and disk-imaging tasks by itself. It's a little geeky to use, and so isn't well suited for novice users, but in terms of bang for the bucks, I think it's the best partitioner/imager going.

There are other options and tools, too. For example, see this Google search. You'll also find some additional backup ideas and approaches detailed in "Miss Your Setup CDs?" at my Web site.

No matter what tool you use, the idea is to create a perfect backup copy of the entire factory setup, including hidden partitions, but on a medium other than the laptop's hard drive. This way, you'll be able to get at or restore any special factory settings of software if you need to; and can even roll the system back to as-delivered conditions, should you need to send the unit in for servicing or exchange. But you won't have to carry around all that software on a daily basis.

The Universal Method
If your system has no CD or DVD burner, then your best option may be to use a partitioning tool to create a new, temporary partition from some of the free space on your hard drive. If space isn't tight (and it probably won't be on a new system), make the temporary partition roughly equal to the amount of space that's in use in your main, C: drive. In other words, if your new laptop has a 40-Gbyte C: drive with 10 Gbytes actually in use, you'd want the new, temporary partition to be at least 10 Gbytes. You can tell how much space is in use from inside Windows: Right-click on the drive or partition in question, and select properties. Windows will show you both the total space available and the space actually in use by files.

If space is tight, it'd be wise to use an imaging or backup tool that offers good data compression. BootIT, for example, affords compression levels of around 50% or so. If you use such a tool, then as a rule of thumb you can reduce the size of the temporary partition to about 60% of the amount of in-use data you'll be backing up. So, if your new laptop has a 40-Gbyte C: drive with 10 Gbytes actually in use, you'd create a new, empty partition sized at 60% of the in-use space, or 6 Gbytes. This is ample space for a 10-Gbyte image compressed to 50-something percent of its original size.

Once the backup image is made and stored on the new temporary partition, boot back into Windows. (It may tell you it's "discovered new hardware," but don't be alarmed: That's just how it interprets the appearance of the new, temporary partition.) Use any normal Windows tool to store the newly created image file in some off-disk medium. For example, you can move the file via network to a server; or to a PC with a CD or DVD burner, tape drive, or some other storage medium; or via USB to an external drive; etc. Once each backup/image file is safely stored someplace other than on the laptop's hard drive, you can delete the local, laptop copy of the image, and repeat the backup/imaging process for any and all other partitions on your laptop system.

Once all the laptop's partitions, including any originally "hidden" factory partitions, have been backed up and placed in safe storage, you then can reclaim the formerly wasted space. But first, let's look at what you can do if your laptop has a CD- or DVD-burner.

If Your Laptop Has A Burner
If your laptop has a CD- or DVD-burner, the process can be simpler: Use a good backup/imaging tool to preserve all the laptop's partitions to CD or DVD in one step. A tool like BootIT can do this with no additional software needed, and also still achieve about a 50% data-compression level in the stored file. Thus, if your new laptop has a 40-Gbyte C: drive with 10 Gbytes actually in use, BootIT (or a similar tool) could burn that partition's image on two blank DVDs, or about 14 blank CDs. Repeat the process for any other partitions on your laptop system.

Recovering The Formerly Wasted Space
When you have a complete backup of the factory setup, you then can reclaim space.

If you want to preserve your existing setup as much as possible, or are loathe to try a full reinstall from scratch, you can try simply re-sizing the existing partitions using a partition-management tool (yes, BootIT does this, too). For example, you may be able to delete the OEM recovery partitions, and simply expand the main C: partition to include the newly freed space. If your system was set up with a more or less standard boot process, this simple resizing may be all you have to do to gain almost immediate access to the full capacity of your hard drive.

But as we mentioned before, this simple approach may not work. Some vendors use nonstandard boot processes, and a simple resizing may fail because parts of the OEM boot process may look for data in the now-removed recovery partitions. In this case, you may need to install a third-party boot manager, or edit the boot records to make things work.

Simply resizing the original OEM-setup also does nothing to give you the leanest, cleanest possible setup; instead, it preserves all the extra baggage the vendor installed at the factory. That's rarely an ideal situation.

Personally, I prefer a clean start using a normal Windows Setup CD, preferably from the vendor: I wipe out everything on the entire disk -- including hidden partitions -- with a full disk re-partition using FDISK or a tool like BootIT; or with a low-level (factory-type) hardware reformat of the drive. Note that a standard, DOS, or Windows software "Format" command will not affect hidden partitions -- it will only work on "visible" partitions.

After the drive is totally empty of all previous partitions, formatting, and data, you can start over by repartitioning, reformatting, and then installing or reinstalling Windows or the operating system of your choice, giving you a fresh, clean setup containing only the software you want, and only in the way that you want it; and with the full, rated capacity of your hard drive available to you.

To me, that's the way it should be!

What are your laptop setup secrets? What tools, techniques, or tricks have you developed to get the absolute most from your portable PCs? Join in the discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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