All posts by Brian

Ghost Windows for Free with Macrium Reflect (A Visual Guide)

Macrium icon
Macrium icon

A few years ago I wrote an article on Ghosting Windows XP for Free with DriveImage XML. It’s proven to be one of the most popular articles on TipsFor.us. Back in 2007 I also wrote a complementary article on Ghosting Windows for Free using Open-Source Tools. I suppose you could say that finding free ways to “ghost” Windows is an obsession of mine.

One bit of criticism levied at these aforementioned methods is that they both require a fair amount of upfront work. A restoration using DriveImage XML requires the creation of a boot disc such as BartPE. Using open-source tools like ntfsclone requires mucking around with the command line – an intimidating process for a newbie. Yes, I said “mucking.”

Isn’t there an easier way? One that requires far less prep time with an easy learning curve? The answer is a resounding YES!

Enter Macrium Reflect FREE Edition. While the free version is the little brother to the commercial version, it still packs a mighty punch. Feast your eyes on a feature comparison as of 17 October 2008.

Macrium - Feature List

Requirements

To successfully image and restore your system using Macrium Reflect, you will need the following:

  • Windows XP or Vista (32 or 64-bit) – required to install the free version of Macrium Reflect, of course.
  • CD or DVD burner – You need a place to store your backup image. Macrium allows you to burn it directly to CDs or DVDs.
  • Spare Hard Disk or Partition (Optional) – Instead of storing the backup image on optical media, you may choose to simply store it on a spare partition or hard disk.

Before we begin, allow me to remind you to BACK UP YOUR DATA! Working with disk imaging is a volatile process, and you should always have backups of your critical files. Burn everything to CDs or DVDs. Buy a spare hard disk, or maybe take a look at available online storage. Do whatever it takes to keep your data safe.

Ready? Let’s get started!

The Process

Here’s an outline of the entire process:

  1. Install Macrium Reflect FREE Edition
  2. Configure Your System
  3. Create the Disk Image
  4. Verify the Disk Image
  5. Create the Rescue CD
  6. Restore the Disk Image
  7. Final Thoughts

1. Install Macrium Reflect FREE Edition

This is the easiest step. Download and install the executable (Download.com link). The installer will automatically detect whether you are running a 32-bit or a 64-bit operating system. Curiously, the installation process requires Internet access to validate the automatically generated serial number. After the installation is complete, launch Macrium Reflect.

2. Configure Your System

At this point you should configure your operating system to the way you like it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure Windows has the latest security patches and drivers.
  • Scan for viruses and other malware.
  • Run a Defrag.
  • Remove any unnecessary applications.

Ideally, I like to create a couple different disk images. I prefer to have one image of a freshly installed state, and another image that includes all my main applications.

3. Create the Disk Image

Now we’re getting to the fun part. One quick note here: I used VMware for the purpose of convenient screenshots, but the process is no different than if it were a real machine. I also tested the process on a spare computer, and it worked flawlessly for me.

To get started, launch Macrium Reflect, select the disk that you wish to image, and from the Backup menu, choose Create Image.

Macrium - Choose your partition

(Alternative – you could also open My Computer, right-click on the chosen disk, and select Create an Image of this partition…)

Right-click the drive

The Create Backup Wizard will spawn:

Macrium - Create Backup Wizard

At this point you need to choose where you would like to store the disk image. Options include:

  • On a spare partition or hard disk
  • On a network share – Note: make sure your network share is using WORKGROUP as the Workgroup name.
  • On blank CDs or DVDs
Macrium - Choose where to store image

I suggest you also take a look at the Advanced Settings. Here you can choose the amount of compression and also set a maximum file size (for splitting purposes).

Macrium - Advanced Compression

When you are done with the Backup Wizard, take a last glance over your settings….

Macrium - End of Backup Wizard

Enter a name for the backup definition, and away we go!

Macrium - Backup started

It took me only 3 minutes to image my tiny VMware disk, so your mileage will vary. Go make a cup of coffee.

Macrium - Backup finished

Now that your backup is complete, let’s talk about how to restore it. Please continue to the next page.

Suspicious Download? Scan for Viruses Before You Download with Dr.Web

If you ever find yourself downloading potentially harmful files, or if you just want an extra layer of protection against suspicious downloads, you owe it to yourself to check out Link Checker, a FREE browser add-on by Dr.Web.

What is it? Link Checker is a browser extension that allows you to scan files before you download by integrating itself into the right-click menu. Let’s see it in action.

Usage

Here I am about to download the 7-Zip file archiving utility. I’m pretty sure it’s clean, but let’s make sure.

Right-click the file to download
Right-click the file to download

Notice the Scan with Dr.Web option in the right-click contextual menu. When I choose that option, the file in question will be scanned on Dr.Web’s servers with the latest definition files.

And here is the verdict. It’s clean! No surprise.

Dr.Web says - Clean!
Dr.Web says - Clean!

Just for kicks, let’s try it on a known infected file – the EICAR anti-virus test file. No, this isn’t a real virus, but it should show up as one for testing purposes. Here we go.

Dr.Web says - Infected!

Boom! If this were a file I really wanted to download, Dr.Web would give me second thoughts.

While Dr.Web Link Checker is handy, just remember that it’s not a substitute for proper anti-virus software. As an added layer of security, it’s worthwhile.

One quick caveat – Link Checker will only scan files smaller than 12 MB. Anything larger will cause an error.

Firefox

Link Checker for Firefox and Mozilla

Internet Explorer

Link Checker for MS Internet Explorer

Opera

Link Check for Opera (requires manual configuration)

Get Windows Server 2008 for FREE through DreamSpark (Students Only)

Windows Server 2008 Box
Windows Server 2008 Box

Want a free download of Windows Server 2008? It’s yours, if you qualify! Microsoft recently updated their DreamSpark offerings to include Server 2008, among other products. All you have to do is verify that you’re a student, and start downloading.

Download link – https://www.dreamspark.com/default.aspx

What is DreamSpark? Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Microsoft DreamSpark enables students to download Microsoft developer and design tools at no charge.

Now, for the first time, Microsoft is giving its valuable software developer and design tools directly to students worldwide at no charge! This site enables students like you to download professional-level Microsoft developer and design tools to unlock your creative potential and set you on the path to academic and career success, by supporting and advancing your learning and skills through technical design, technology, math, science and engineering activities.

What products are offered? A lot! In addition to Windows Server 2008, you can freely download:

  • Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition (and 2005 Professional)
  • SQL Server 2008 Developer
  • MS Expression Studio 2
  • XNA Game Studio 2.0
  • XNA Creators Club Online (12 months access)
  • IT Academy Student Pass (up to 22 hours of FREE e-learning courses)

You will need:

  • A Windows Live ID
  • Valid Student Status

My university was not on the main list, but they were able to quickly verify me online via JourneyEd. Within minutes, I started downloading Windows Server 2008, which can actually function very well as a desktop or workstation. With a few clicks, you can essentially transform it into Windows Vista, but without most of the bloat. Look for some articles relating to Server 2008 soon.

Best of luck. Despite my affinity for Linux, it’s hard to turn down free, legal software!

UPDATE: Be sure to see my article on how to turn Server 2008 into an excellent workstation OS.

Like Blue? Free Embedded Theme for Windows XP

I previously wrote about the free Zune theme for Windows XP. Today I’d like to bring another free theme to your attention – “Embedded.”

Download link (free): Download now

Installation is a breeze, and does not require any hacking of the uxtheme file (like with most 3rd-party themes). Here’s how it looks:

Full Screen:

With Start Menu:

My Computer:

While I admit that I’m attracted to darker themes, the color blue doesn’t do much for me. Still, it’s a welcome change from the default XP themes, and I appreciate not having to mess with the uxtheme file.

Have fun.

When Chrome Crashes – Aw, Snap! Screenshot

Just thought I’d share this – I had a tab get stuck in Google Chrome recently, and when it crashed, this is the error message it displayed:

Aw, Snap, indeed! Hilarious. It’s reminiscent of the infamous “Sad Mac” face from Old World Macintosh computers.

As well as the dreaded “Sad iPod” face that you hope to never see:

Somehow, this touch of humor makes me care a little less that my browser just crashed and burned! 🙂

Install Windows Defender on XP Without WGA Headaches

Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational uses only. In no way do we condone software piracy. Readers should contact Microsoft if legitimately-licensed OEM software does not properly validate.

In a previous article I mentioned how to bypass WGA while installing Windows Media Player 11 on XP. As I stated before, I detest the abominable filth known as Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), and I refuse to allow it anywhere near my machine.

With that in mind, it’s also possible to install Windows Defender without messing with WGA. Actually, it’s quite simple.

Step 1 – Download

First of all, download the Defender installation file. Of course, you could download it directly from the Microsoft Download Center, but that requires validation, thereby defeating the purpose. Here are direct links:

Defender 32-bit (English)

Defender 64-bit (English)

Step Two – Install

Be careful: the installation file contains another WGA check, so don’t run it yet. Instead, we’re going to install it silently using the (-qr) switch. Take note of where you downloaded the installation file. In my case, it’s on the desktop.

  1. Launch a command prompt by going to Start → Run, and typing cmd at the prompt.
  2. Navigate to the directory that contains the installation file. Since I put my file on the desktop, I only need to type cd Desktop. Press Enter.
  3. Type the name of the installation file, appending -qr to the end. In my case, it looks like: WindowsDefender.msi -qr. See the screenshot below.
  4. Press Enter and allow the installation to complete.

Voila! That’s it. Windows Defender should now be installed and will try to update its definitions and do an initial scan. Let it go.

And now the update and scan are complete!

That was easy, wasn’t it? Honestly, I don’t care much for Defender, but again, this article is for educational purposes only. One nice feature of Defender is that it provides real-time protection against malware. For an alternative program, I suggest Spyware Terminator. If you can live without the real-time protection, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware is another option.

Good luck, and may your life be free from WGA and other malware forever.

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KeePass – Never Remember a Password Again

I have a confession – I can’t remember ANY of my passwords. In fact, I don’t even know my administrator login for this website! Then again, I don’t need to. The KeePass password manager handles all of it for me.

Accounts Galore

Before I begin extolling the virtues of KeePass, allow me to explain why I think a password manager is worthwhile. I can only speak for myself, but I have a ton of account information to remember. Back when the internet was young, I only had a Hotmail account (oh, and maybe a Geocities account, too). That’s it. Time marches on, and now I have login information for multiple e-mail accounts, a plethora of online storage services, several credit cards and bank accounts, and dozens of random internet services, such as eBay and Facebook.

Sure, I could use the same usernames and passwords for every site, but that’s a terrible idea. You’re literally putting all your eggs in one basket, and if your information is compromised, it could spell disaster for you across the Web.

Using different login information for each site is a much smarter idea, though it also means that you have to remember all of it! While I consider myself a competently-intelligent fellow, I welcome the assistance of a password manager in recalling all my various usernames, passwords, and security questions.

KeePass Rules

I started using KeePass about six months ago, and quite frankly, I’ve fallen headfirst in love with it. First of all, KeePass is completely open-source and FREE. It’s easy to use. It’s secure. It’s portable. Best of all, you can use it interchangeably on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Heck, you can even use it on your Blackberry or Windows Mobile device!

Since I started using KeePass, I’ve changed the way I approach account creation. No longer do I have to think of a new username and password (and then figure out a way to remember it!), nor do I feel that little twinge of guilt as I recycle login information for yet another site! I’ve come to appreciate the power, versatility, and convenience KeePass has given me.

Convinced yet? Let’s talk about basic setup and usage.

Setting up KeePass

To begin using KeePass, you first need to create a new database in which to store your entries. From the File menu, choose New…. A window will spawn, prompting you to create a master password.

The master password is the only password you absolutely MUST remember. Without it, you will not be able to access any of your other passwords. It is truly one password to rule them all, and in the database BIND THEM! Create as strong a password as you can remember.

Once your master password is set, let’s add some individual entries. The main interface of KeePass separates passwords Groups on the left and Entries on the right. Here’s what it looks like on my computer:

To add an entry, go the the Edit menu and choose Add Entry (or just press Crtl + Y). A new window will spawn like this one shown here:

Fill in the necessary information, including the password (press Shift + Home to clear the password field), and then press OK when done. Be sure to add a URL if appropriate. Also note the attachment option near the bottom. If a web site has security questions (most banks do this), I often take a quick screenshot of the questions and answers, then attach the picture to the KeePass entry.

Congratulations, you now have a new entry. But what can we DO with it? Now we’re getting to the good part.

Using KeePass

The sheer amount of features that KeePass offers makes it infinitesimally cooler than typing all your passwords into a text document. Let’s try a few:

Right-click on that entry you just created and feast your eyes on the options. With a simple keystroke, you can open the URL that you provided. Don’t feel like typing the password when logging into an online banking session? No problem. With another keystroke, KeePass will temporarily copy your password to the clipboard, allowing you to paste it into the appropriate web site. Worried that someone will come along behind you and try to paste again to discover your password? Have no fear, KeePass securely shreds that information seconds after the first paste. Cool!

Don’t like keystrokes? No problem! KeePass features excellent drag-and-drop support. From the main interface, you can simply click-and-drag the username and password fields to the appropriate place on the website, and KeePass will fill them in appropriately!

Here’s a little flash video that I made to demonstrate the dragging and dropping capabilities:

Screencast – Dragging in KeePass

In that video, you can see me dragging the username and password field to gain access to myBloop. Slick, huh?

The drag-and-drop options (plus the keystroke ability) provide added security against keyloggers. I spent several weeks in Europe this past summer, and I have an inherent distrust of public Internet cafes. Who knows if someone has surreptitiously installed some software to record every keystroke pressed on the keyboard? Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I solved the problem by running KeePass from a USB flash drive at all Internet cafes, leaving no trace behind me.

Another cool feature of KeePass is the password generator. I use it for almost all new accounts, but especially with certain sites that I do not trust very much (such as eBay).

When I say that I don’t know my current passwords, I mean it! Almost all of them are generated. Don’t worry, you can always use the reveal option in KeePass to see the actual password.

Storing the Database

Since the database KeePass uses to store your account information is completely encrypted, you can simply e-mail the file to yourself for safekeeping. I keep the database stored on my personal computer, plus in a couple different places online. Tip: I keep my database in my Dropbox folder, meaning that it automatically syncs between my computers every time I make an update. Read more about Dropbox here and here.

A bomb could fall on my house while I’m away and I would still have all my critical account information!

For added security, you could always stuff the database into a password-encrypted archive (using something like 7-zip or IZArc) before storing it online.

Good luck, and may you soon forget all your passwords!

More information:

KeePass – First Steps

KeePass – Security

KeePass – Downloads

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