“Ghost” Windows XP for free

Update: I wrote this article in 2005, but it’s still receiving lots of traffic. Please see the last page for the user comments, which include lots of useful information. Also, please see my complementary article on “ghosting” Windows for Free with Open-Source Tools.

Update 2: I recently wrote an updated version of this article, featuring Macrium Reflect in place of DriveImage XML.

Update 3: Here’s another updated version of this article, this time featuring Paragon Drive Backup Express.

12.21.05

If you have ever had the pleasure of re-installing Windows XP from scratch, you know what a hassle it can be. The idea of endless tweaks, patches, driver hunts, reboots, and scouring the web for software does not exactly fill me with glee. Did I mention the reboots? For me, the worst part is the sinking realization that when I finish the endless tweaks and software installs, I may end up doing the entire process over again from scratch six-to-eight months down the road. Why? Masochism may be one answer, but a more probable answer is an unexpected bout of spyware, a rogue virus, or a bloated registry that is causing the system to behave erratically.

Surely there must be an easier way to create that “freshly installed” feeling. Of course, you could run out and purchase Symantec Ghost(tm) or some other commercial application that will allow you to create an image of an installation and then restore from it later, but isn’t there a way to achieve the same results without spending any money? Mac OS X has Disk Utility, which can create compressed disk images of drives or partitions from which you can later restore by booting off the install CD/DVD. Linux has several free utilities such as Partimage and Mondo Rescue or even the venerable “dd” command. Windows XP doesn’t have anything like this built-in.

Yes, some OEMs provide “restore CDs” that erase all data and restore the operating system to its “factory-fresh” state. While that’s nice, what if you don’t like the way “they” set up your system? What if you want to create an image of your operating system the way YOU like it?

Enter DriveImage XML. As written on their site, DriveImage XML is an “easy to use and reliable program for imaging and backing up partitions and logical drives.” Aside from the bizarre image on their site of a man jumping into a pool with the caption, “You saved my life today…”, I’ve found it to be a solid program. Of course, I had to test everything before I could write about it, so in the interest of science I methodically backed up my files, re-installed Windows, tweaked, and then got to know DriveImage XML. This process worked for me. However, you must USE THIS GUIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK. I cannot be held responsible for any harm done.

That said, the basic system specs that I used are as follows:

Processor: P4 2.66 GHz
RAM: 2GB PC2700
Hard Disks: 120GB WD “Special Edition” IDE; 300GB Maxtor S-ATA
Optical Drives: NEC CD-RW and NEC DVD-RW

Requirements:
To successfully image and restore your system using this method, you will need the following:

  • A Windows XP Home or Professional install disc. According to their site, DriveImage XML will only run on XP. If a daring Windows 2000 holdout wants to try this, let me know what happens.
  • A CD or DVD burner. This is required to create the “Live CD” environment. A CD burner is good. A DVD burner is better. Two optical drives are ideal, but not required.
  • While not absolutely required, a spare partition or spare hard drive will make things more convenient.

Note: If you do not have a second optical drive, you must have either a spare internal partition or hard disk. An external hard disk works as well. The point is that you need a place to store the image outside the system drive for restoration purposes. I suppose that it is entirely possible to build a “live DVD” that also contains the restoration image provided that you have enough space on your DVD, but I did not explore this option.

Ready to get started? Go to the next page.