Back up your PC for disaster recovery
As you may or may not know, Windows XP and Vista feature a utility called System Restore. This tool can restore basic Windows system function in the case of trouble, but it generally cannot fix bootup issues and won't restore anything but Windows files and the Windows registry. It won't save your games, pictures or documents. For that, you can use the included MS Backup utility in Accessories, but you *must* set it up.
Windows Vista Business, Ultimate and Enterprise also sport a new feature called "Complete PC Backup".
What this does is to copy all drive/partition data almost down to the hard drive's bare metal to a single compressed file - like a Zip file. This file includes all boot information and blocks, fragmentation status and basically everything that's there. This file must be placed on another drive/partition or it will be lost in a disaster and of no use.. A smart user will use a separate drive like USB, Firewire or eSATA to store this image. DVDs and CDs are just too small to be of real use here. You need many gigabytes of space. The compression used by these programs reduces the data by about 40%, but you should know that XP alone without added programs will use 5GB of your hard drive - exceeding the capacity of all but double density DVDs and Blue-ray/HD DVD.
So, you need to either partition your drive in two or get a >250GB drive realistically. I'm done with recommending partitioning because:
1. It ain't easy.
2. It won't save your bootie if the hard drive goes dead.
Now, what if you don't have Windows Vista Ultimate? Well, you can use various free and paid-for programs to do the same thing as Complete PC Backup and more. These programs are also great for restoring when an annoying bug crops up. If you don't like the way the PC is working, restore in 30 minutes. Got a virus or spyware? Ditto.
Paragon is offering a FREE backup program now called Drive Backup Express.
Drive Image XML
This is a beauty. It works in Windows and can be scheduled to back up in the background. It's primary limitation is that there is no option for creating a bootable CD. You must use BartPE or UBCD for Windows to create an emergency CD, but that's not so easy either because they require the user to find and install the Drive Image plugin. Still, it's free and that makes it worth learning to use it.
Drive Image XML does not see hidden factory "restore" partitions. These are hidden hard drive sections that contain a factory image of your PC's original condition - made by programs like the ones here in this article. If you have one before the C drive, don't use this. Move on to paid versions.
Again, it's free, but it cannot image in Windows so you must reboot the PC and operate in a DOS-like environment. This is for nerds only.
Acronis True Image
This is a favorite. It's the most flexible and easy to use of all imaging programs. It backs up entire drives or just the Windows System State (like System Restore). It can back up specific files or exclude the files of choice (like those huge downloaded video files you don't plan on keeping anyway). It can create a hidden partition (like the big companies use) and allow you to just press F11 while starting the PC and restore without any bootable CD, DVD or floppy. This feature is fantastic, but again, it won't save you is the hard drive dies. True Image allows you to create a bootable CD/DVD for disaster recovery. You can even create an ISO (compressed file) of this Linux-based CD for easy transportation so that you can burn a True Image CD anywhere and at any time. They thought of everything!
One caveat - True Image is notorious for creating corrupted backups. Backup verification is therefore *mandatory*.
A bit more nerdy than True Image, but just as powerful. A little resource-hungry (will slow down your PC a bit). It costs $20 more than True Image Home. You just don't get as much for your money. It does, however, come bundled with Norton Systemworks Premium. That would make it a bargain. I would suspect that future Systemworks bundles will include Norton Save and Restore instead.
Norton Save and Restore
De-nerdified Ghost. 95% as good as True Image, Very easy to use. It cannot create boot CDs, so copy the original CD as a backup - immediately.
Paragon Drive Backup
Every bit as good as True Image. Can create a hidden partition. Good price too. Highly Recommended.
Here's some more dope on the hidden partition thing. It's a great feature for single-drive systems like laptops, but the user should move to a separate drive ASAP anyway. The hidden partition *can* be created on the separate drive and password protected to keep prying mice out of it, so it's still of use. You should use this feature, but always on a separate drive when possible. It can also be used on the primary drive in case you simply can't afford another drive, but (I can't stress this enough), you need to put a second drive at the top of your shopping list.
Terabyte Drive Image
Cheaper by at least $10, but nowhere near as flexible as the top dogs. Forget it.
There you have it. If you are the owner of Vista Ultimate, all you need is a spare drive. If not, True Image and Drive Backup are the way to go judging by the feature-to-price ratio. Ghost is pricey, but works. Save and Restore is perfectly adequate and easy to use. If you have skilz, get Drive Image XML for free.
No matter which technique you use, it's a good idea to verify all backup images before moving on. It takes time, but it's important. A corrupted backup is no backup at all.
Always create your bootable CD/Media as soon as you install these programs. In the case of Drive Image XML, create a BartPE or UBCD with the appropriate plugin and also Swiss Knife. Read about that in the tutorial links on the Drive Image XML page.
No more stalling. No more excuses. Be prepared for the worst - because I can guarantee that the worst will happen. Don't kid yourself and say "I can't afford it". You can't afford not to.