Back up first.
And by that, I mean take a complete system image backup of your entire computer before you begin the update process.
I’ll explain what that is, and how it protects you from disaster.
System image backup
A system image is, as its name implies, an image of your system.
What that means is that the image contains a copy of everything on your system, including the current operating system, your installed applications, your settings and customizations, and all of your data.
The key word is here “everything”.
This is important, because by making a copy of everything, there’s no guesswork involved on what, exactly, needs to be backed up. You’ll have captured absolutely everything you could possibly need.
Why make an image backup?
Let’s say the upgrade turns out to be incompatible with your system; it’s not going to work for some reason.
Perhaps the upgrade turns out to be incompatible with you. You just don’t like it!
Let’s say that there’s just something wrong, be it personal preference or fundamental system flaw, that makes you regret ever trying to apply the upgrade.
Your image backup is your “undo”. If you have a system image backup, you can simply restore it to your system and the upgrade will be “undone”. Everything will be as it was before the upgrade.
Making a system image backup
The process is relatively simple:
- Run your backup software
- Tell it to create a system image backup
- Tell it where to place the system image backup
- Turn it loose.
Conceptually, it really is that simple. The devil – and the differences, of course – is in the details.
System image backup software
If you’re running Windows 7, 8, or 8.1, you can use the built-in backup program to create a system image if you like. While I’m not a huge fan of the backup software included with these versions of Windows, they do meet the “bare minimum” required, and can do a fine job of at least creating a backup image. You’ll find the options to make a full system image in Control Panel. In Windows 8.1, it’s buried within the File History settings; in Windows 7, go directly to “Backup and Restore”.
My preference, however, is that you run something else entirely, especially if you’re running a version of Windows prior to Windows 7.
Reflect is the backup software I recommend. I’ve also written a how-to book about using it: Saved! Backing Up with Macrium Reflect, now in its second edition.
If you’re not going to spring for the paid version, that’s fine – the free version is perfect for taking complete system image backups, and it’s what I honestly recommend you use before upgrading Windows.
When, how, and where to make a system image backup
When: create your system image backup immediately prior to upgrading the operating system.
How: use backup imaging software like Macrium Reflect Free to create the image. I recently did a short video showing how. This article walks through the process using the previous version of Reflect (very similar), and the process is also covered in detail in my book.
Where: I strongly recommend creating the image backup on an external hard disk, and then saving that image for some time – at least until you’re relatively confident that the new operating system version works and is to your liking.
Using your backup image
The most common question I get after having made a backup image is “what do I do if I need to use it?”
The process varies depending on the backup software you’re using, but it typically boils down to this2:
- You may need to create “rescue media” – a bootable CD or USB thumbdrive – for the backup software you’re using. You can typically do this on another machine, if you like. If you’re using Windows own backup software, the original installation media is often already set up for this, or you can create a recovery disk.
- You boot your computer from this rescue media.
- You attach the external drive containing the backup image to your computer, if you haven’t already.
- You use the backup software from the rescue media to restore the backup image to your computer. This erases everything on the computer, and replaces it with what was on the machine at the time that the backup image was taken, including the previous version of the operating system.
99% of the time you’ll never need to do this.
But that 1% is why I so fervently recommend creating the backup image to begin with – simply so you’ll be able to do this should you need to.
None of this should be news
If you’re already doing what I really recommend – backing up regularly and automatically – not only should none of this be news, none of this should even be necessary.
You’re already backing up.
You’re already creating image backups.
Should you need to revert after an OS upgrade – or after anything, for that matter – you can do so. Everything you need is already in place.
I staunchly recommend backing up, not just for major operating system upgrades, but because it’s the right thing to do consistently. You’re much more likely to run into a problem from a hardware failure or malware infection than you are from an operating system upgrade.
Regular backups protect you from it all.