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How do I back up my installed software?


How can I backup software. I always download free licence software from web.
I installed the software then I backup it using program selection. I notice
that when I restore the software they ask me to register the software. During
Installation I register the software by activating it in the internet, but
during restore it ask me again. How can I avoid reregistering the software?

I’m not exactly certain what you mean by backing up using “program
selection”, so I’ll cover the more general case of backing up your installed

There are several ways to backup the software that you purchase or download
for your machine. The problem is that most people seem to neglect what is
perhaps the most important backup of all.


At Least Do This

If you do nothing else, you must do this:

  • Save the media: CDs, DVDs or other installation media for any physical product that your receive.

  • Save the product keys: by this I mean the activation or product keys that are printed on the box or otherwise included with physical product.

  • Save the download: immediately after downloading a product, and ideally before you even install it, save that downloaded file somewhere.

  • Save the emailed activation codes: for software that requires online registration and activation save the activation keys, codes or registration information that’s provided.

By “save” I mean back up, copy to a safe location, burn to CD or DVD … whatever works for you such that next month, next year or even several years from now you can retrieve that information should you need to reinstall and re-activate that application.

And yes, you need both: the original download or installation media and the accompanying activation key if the software requires one. Without the first you’ll not be able to reinstall the application, and without the second you won’t be able to activate it again.

Why all this effort? Simple: one of the most basic “recover from anything” problem solving techniques is: reformat and reinstall everything. In fact, it may often be the only solution if, for example, your hard drive fails. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the applications to reinstall, you’ll have lost them. If you don’t have the activation keys to get them working again you might as well have lost them.

The other common scenario for wanting both the media and the installation keys is simply deciding to move the application to another machine. Once again this requires a reinstall and reactivation.

What About Traditional Backups?

If you’re performing what I’ll call “traditional” backups – periodic system, image or other backups then you may have an additional layer of protection. I say “may” because not all backup configurations actually backup installed applications; if your backup is simply of your data files then it’s very unlikely that your system and installed applications are being backed up. On the other hand, if you’re doing an image backup of your entire system then all of your installed software almost certainly is being backed up.

If your image backup is taken after you’ve installed and activated your software, then restoring that backup to the same machine should simply work – there should not be a need to reactivate the software again. Of course if the image backup was taken before the software was activated, then that’s the state you’d be restoring to: not yet activated.

Things get interesting if you restore your backup to a different machine. For example, if you restore it to an additional drive on a running system – say the D: drive – this does not automatically “install” the applications on that system. While the files that were installed on your original hard drive are there, the additional information that is installed to the system registry and elsewhere is not present in a way that the running system will recognize it. In short: you can’t move installed applications from machine to machine this way. You need to reinstall from your original media or downloads, and reactivate.

If you’ve backed up your system drive, and you now restore that to the system drive of another machine (and that machine is sufficiently similar to the original to keep Windows happy), then things get a little iffy. In general, I would expect installed applications to simply resume working without requiring activation.

But here’s the catch: there’s no standard on what “activation” really means, or when it’s triggered. That’s all up to each application. It’s unclear what changes to a system might cause a particular application to want you to activate it again. It’s possible that some applications might take note of differences between the old and new system and decided that enough had changed that activation should be required again.

While that’s certainly somewhat of an inconvenience, it’s not actually something I’d worry about too much. Though it is another clear reason for making sure that you’ve saved your product keys in a safe place in case you need them for situations such as this.

Do this

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15 comments on “How do I back up my installed software?”

  1. Hi Leo,
    That was not the answer I was looking for…

    I have read about programs that will allow a “backup” (iso image perhaps) and then restore to another machine so one does NOT have to reinstall???
    How does that work and what are some suggestions for programs please…

  2. Sherwood– Leo already answered this question above. There is no way to “back up” an installed program and have it work on a different machine. This is a deliberate part of the installation process, to prevent piracy! The software typically takes a sort of “fingerprint” of the computer it’s installing to, and when it boots from then on out, it looks for that info, to ensure that it’s still on the same machine.

    As Leo said, the solution is to save the installation media (or a copy of the executable if you downloaded it) plus whatever key or activation code the vendor requires. If you need to load it on another computer (and the EULA allows this) then you run the executable/installation disk, and enter they key or code when prompted.

    A disk image backup (which might use the ISO format, or might not) will allow you to re-load a copy of whatever was on the disk at the time you made the backup, without re-doing the installation process (including entering the key). That would work if, say, you got a virus or spyware that corrupted your hard drive… you’re on the same hardware, with the same software, and it’ll work just the same as it did when you made the backup. It WON’T work if you’re re-installing because a power surge fried your motherboard and you bought a replacement computer.

    FWIW, I have a 3-ring binder with CD sleeves for each of my computers. In it, I have the installation (NOT “recovery”) DVDs for all the software, with the keys/codes written on paper printouts. I also have a DVD copy of the first full backup I did after activating everything and setting up my preferences, and a DVD copy of the current quarter’s full backup– my daily backups go onto a removable hard drive. But whatever way you do it, a little organized work up front can really save your butt, let me tell you!

  3. Excellent points made on backing up data. I would say at the very least users should backup their pictures. My old companies fee for data recovery starts at $300 and goes up to around $600 bucks. It’s so worth investing in a data backup solution.

    As far as backing up software goes I personally have a image backup program. It takes a complete backup of my computer every week ( Incremental after the first backup )so I do not have to worry about re-installing software on the same computer. If it every went down. As a home based business I also backup that image online as well using an online data backup service. This protect me against theft, fire, water and the like.

    If I were to purchase a new computer I could use a program like PCMover to transfer over my software programs to the new computer. However if my old computer was not working because of a hardware failure I would be unable to go that route.

    Love reading Leo’s responses. I have to break down and buy his answers book. It would be great reading! I’m just waiting for a coupon or discount Cough, Cough ;)

    Newsletter subscribers get 20% off anything. Cough. Smile

  4. When a program is activated it writes some entries in the registry and in some of its own configuration files. To keep the activation going all you have to do is to copy the config files and the registry entries and use them to activate offline at the next reinstall. The trick is in finding these entries.

    Might be true for some applications but definitely not for all. Many are also encrypted in such a way that they only apply to the machine that they’re activated on.


  5. One thing I have found useful is uploading the keys and even some of the install programs to my Google Docs account. There are other similar free and low priced sites available as well and that way you have your keys and even the backups themselves where you can find them.

  6. I place a copy of whatever “Install” EXE a program uses, plus a copy of whatever text or datafile contains the license or activation code(s), right into the same subfolder that contains that program’s main “*.EXE” file, and mark those files as “read-only”.

    This way, if I should ever need to re-install the program, I can copy the relevant files to my DeskTop and do the re-install from there, right over the original — or, if need be, I can uninstall, erase the files in the subfolder, and then do a “fresh” install (moving the install & activation files from my DeskTop back into the proper subfolder afterwards, of course).

    This has become standard practice for me. There have been times, in the past, when I’ve neglected to do this, and have come to regret it; so I do try never to omit it when installing something!

    It works for me, and it has saved my bacon on quite a few occasions! Hope this helps!      :)

  7. I have an image backup of my whole hard disk. I thought I was covered this way.
    Then my motherboard failed and I had a new one installed. My technician told me that because of the change in the motherboard my image backup was of no use. Is that true or is there a way to make this backup work? I have one drive for the software and another for the documents etc.

    You typically won’t be able to just reinstall the image – too much of your previously installed system is specific to your old motherboard. However that image backup is still extremely valuable, as it has backups of all your data and everything else you might care about.


  8. One thing that is relevant: a considerable number of software developers allow software to be installed on either only 1 single machine, or 2 (desktop and laptop). That allows for 2 activations… and if a hdd crashes, or the hardware changes, the activation server may decide the activation signature is different and an illegal copy may have been installed and deactivate the software! Even a hdd reformat has done this! And it is rather inconvenient, especially with developers and/or companies that are less than reasonable… I think what this reader was asking is, how can one backup an installation so one can avoid this hassle… and I don’t think there is a way — that is, any legal way — because the only solution would be to circumvent/avoid the connection with the activation server, check the signature, etc., and to avid that, the software must be cracked or hacked… The irritating thing is that the hackers and crackers never have these problems (they never spend a dime, use only pirated stuff, etc.) Only the good guy/gall that rightfully owns the software has to deal with this hassle! And I speak from experience… I do not use pirated software, but once and a while, get a program asking to activate again and again and again… and in more than one occasion, have bumped into rather unreasonable support who insists I am trying to activate the software beyond my allowed number of times… and have dumped programs and companies because of this… But mostly, I must say, I have been lucky and positive experiences weigh more than negative. Would I like to find a solution for this? YOU BET!…

  9. I guess you need to backup your registry before installing. You can use Handy Backup for it. Also you can use something like registry monitor (RegMon). Check what exactly installation changes and try to change those branches of registry manually. Also you need to backup your “Application Data” and, of course, inatallation directory.

  10. The only way to backup live running software is to use a portable application such as those available at

    This type of Windows app stores everything it needs in a single folder. Copy the folder and you have an app backup.

    Registry? We don’t need no you-know-what registry. :-)

    I use the portable version of Firefox and can move it from computer to computer and the “move” includes saved bookmarks, extensions, UI customizations, saved passwords and everything that makes it *my* copy of Firefox.

    Normal Windows applications that get “installed” can not be backed up. Maybe given another 20 years Microsoft will get to it, if the company is around that long.

  11. @Pedro van Marissing: Your image backup may or may not be usable with a new motherboard. This is one feature that separates high end image backup software from more simplistic products. You didn’t say which image backup program you are using. Check with the vendor.

  12. i bought a dell with media center 2005 on it. i do graphics and there were alot of things i didn’t like about the OS. so i re-installed XP pro the last time i had it reformatted. i am now trying to reformat myself. i went in and tried updating my drivers and got everything tweeked. its not rebooting properly and when it restarts, i’m getting an auto adjust in progress error. plus alot of my things aren’t working properly-i even wasn’t able to able to pull up a web page-when my voip and email was working! i have done several system restores, but it is time to have a clean wipe! my question is when i install XP pro, should i re-install my moniter cd before or after that? and i have 2 other cd’s that have OS drivers on it. when do i install those, after XP pro?

  13. I have a 1TB in my desktop. 180G contains W7. the balance contains Fedora 13 with over 700G empty. Before loading Fedora Acronis cloned to a USB 1TB drive in about 1/2 hour. But with Fedora loaded seemed that it was going to take days. Foolishly bought Farstone for over $40 whenin fact Farstone took 18 hours to clone (successfully) Moral of the story is not to buy the huge HDs if you intend to clone backups.

  14. I didn’t see the answer I wanted either. Here is a sceanario —

    I have the install disk and the keys.

    There were updates which were downloaded from the website.

    The vendor no longer supports the software, nor the updates. Nor is there a place where I can get the updates.

    I back the software up even if it is to the same machine.

    How do I backup the software as it is now?

    • That’s a tough one. Certainly an image backup will include everything as it is now, and can be restored to the same machine (or, in some cases, to a new machine). But it contains EVERYTHING – OS, applications, and updates.

      Honestly, I’d start looking for alternatives to the software.


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