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Ghost in the Machine

Ghost in the Machine

January 9th, 2009  · stk

For the second time in five years, my computer bit the dust. This time, however, armed with a "Ghosted" image of my operating system, it was a snap to start over with a clean install of Win XP Home Edition. Learn how Norton Ghost can allow you to laugh at viruses, corrupted system files, driver problems, malware and software conflict. Reimage your system drive in 10 minutes flat.

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A new computer is a bit like the attic in a new home - shiny, clean and empty. You are happy. You begin to fill it with your belongings and life is good.

As time passes, you store more items into your now, not-as-new attic. Finding things becomes more difficult. The attic is filling up and you're running out of storage space. Bugs, water leaks, the kids and other things are randomly damaging some of the items you've stored. Tools and appliances no longer function properly when you pull them from storage and try to use them.

"It worked last time," you think, "What happened?" Frustrated, you throw the item away, go down to the store and buy a newer version, perhaps by a different manufacturer. At least this new one works.

More time goes by. You take a Saturday and instead of having fun playing with your family, or going golfing, you spend the entire day cleaning the attic and organizing it. You throw away some items, reorganize contents of boxes, re-label others and generally shuffle things about. You feel good about it, in the end, and the result is that the attic functions better.

More time trickles by and you now realize that the attic is getting cluttered again. You think, "Didn't I give up a weekend to organize it, not so long ago?" Discouraged, you devote another weekend. Soon, "organizing the attic" becomes a regular, unwanted and unrewarding chore.

"Couldn't I just throw this out?" you ask yourself, looking at some loose parts to the dim light. "Better not, they might be an important part of a favorite game, useful tool or something. I might need it later."

Bugs, dust, mildew and chaos creep into your, now old, attic. You pull out your hair. The attic isn't even much good for storage anymore. It's messy, you can't find stuff and you can barely walk around. Most of what you pull out, no longer functions properly. Aaargh!

You realize you need to start over and you fantasize about a new, clean storage space. "Wouldn't a clean, new attic, filled with things like my (now old, moth-eaten) vinyl record collection, be great? (Since it's your fantasy, the record albums aren't old any more, they're in the same condition they were when you first stored them).

This scenario may be a fantasy for your attic, but it can be reality for your - similarly afflicted - computer.

Unlike your attic, you can start over with your computer's operating system. Just like it was 'brand new'. Remember? Bug-free, clean and functioning? Better still, you can also have spanking new copies of the programs you use, the settings you've tweaked, your bookmarked favorites, special fonts, treasured pictures, important documents and other precious data.

Best of all ... you don't have to spend days laboring to reinstall Windows (and the billion updates that came after). Nor do you have to reinstall every program, re-tweak the settings (if you can even remember where they are), or installing hardware and their pesky drivers. In less than an half an hour, in most cases, you can 'start over' with a 'brand new' computer!

Sound too good to be true? I'm here to say it's possible. All you have to do is purchase and use a disk imaging back-up program by Symantec called "Norton Ghost".

How Norton Ghost Works

 Norton Ghost Re-image Your System Drive

For a program that can save the day, using it is surprisingly easy. Run the "Back Up a Drive" wizard, pick the C: drive, a destination for the disk image and decide if you want to verify the image. That's it. Then fire off the backup that - one day - might be a lifesaver.

The program also has the ability to back-up individual folders and files, including incremental copies, but it's really the disk imaging ability that sets it apart.

Then, when you notice your computer acting funny, suspect you have a virus or (like in my case) have a persistent program failure for which, performing a windows restore doesn't fix, set your C: drive back to an earlier, happier time, using Norton Ghost. The restoration operation is just as easy as the backup job.

Before you restore your drive with Norton Ghost, make sure to save anything from your C: drive you might want (e.g.,"My Documents", "Favorites"). If you don't, they'll be over-written by the restoration job.

Try kicking off the restore operation from within Norton Ghost, running it from the Windows environment. If Norton Ghost can't lock the drive, it will inform you and you'll need to restore from the boot disc, which is included.

Restart your computer and get into the BIOS setup program. Change the boot drive from the HDD to location of your boot disc (typically a CD ROM drive). Exit and let the boot disc fire off. When you see "type any key to enter", you've got approximately 5 seconds to punch a key, which allows Norton Ghost to enter its "recovery mode". Follow the prompts to restore the C: drive from an existing backup job. Restoring a drive is as quick as backing one up - for me, about 7 minutes.

It's light-years faster than re-imaging a computer by reinstalling the operating system, hardware and drivers and programs, one-by-one!


Norton Ghost: A Tool, not a Panacea

Norton Ghost isn't a panacea for computer problems and there are several caveats in using the program.

IMPORTANT: Start with a Clean Slate.

I've had my computer system 5 years and last year, for the first time, I had to perform a complete re-install of Windows XP Home Edition - from scratch. It was painful. I didn't want to start. I hated every step and I ended up doing it a few times because I kept messing things up at various steps along the way. Then came all the updates. Then I fought with hardware drivers. I started over (again). Finally ... after nearly a full week of frustration and pain, I did it! I had a clean, 'bare-bones' computer. It was the perfect time to make my first disk image (backup or, as I call it, "Ghost").

No matter what happened in the future - virus, hardware conflict, corrupt system file or spurious gremlin - I could always return to this "virgin" state.

Next, I layered on some of the software upon which I depend, on a daily basis. I tweaked some settings. Then I made a second Ghost. This was the Ghost from which I started this year, after my computer headed south (again) for the winter.

Beware Viruses, Malware, Spyware & Other Gremlins

Norton Ghost is just a program, not some super-duper, solve-everything fix. If you make an image of your C: drive and it's got a virus on it, you'll be restoring it - along with everything else - when you restore your C: drive. Guaranteed. It'll be like your own nightmarish version of "Groundhog Day".

This is the scariest part of using Norton Ghost. What you restore is only as clean as what you save. (Which is why making a Ghost of a brand new, clean, bare-bones C: drive is such a good idea). Each application you load introduces - potentially - more problems. Each download from the Internet introduces - potentially - viruses, malware and spyware.

Ideally, you'd not want to connect to the Internet and load only some important programs and "work with them" for a time, BEFORE you decided to make a Ghost. "Yep, I've worked with these for a month and they're stable," you'd say, "I'll make a Ghost now."

Unfortunately, this isn't practical. While working with these programs for a month, you'll likely be connected to the Internet. Downloading. Browsing. You might have picked up spyware, malware or something worse. The time to make the Ghost is right after you install the programs onto your clean, bare-bones system. The time you know the Ghost is "good", isn't until later.

This, Grasshopper, is the conundrum of the Ghost. It's a bit of cart before the horse.

Good Planning Helps

I've worked with personal computers since the mid 1980's (yeah, yeah ... dating myself). Somewhere along the way, I realized that it was a good thing to separate my valued data, from the operating system. Since then, I've maintained three drive partitions (or drives). They're sized evenly and called: system, programs and data. When it comes to restoring and backing up the system (C:) drive, I have very little exposure for personal data loss. All I care about is some of what's in my "Documents and Settings" folder (mostly "My Documents" and "Favorites") and some of what's in my Windows "Temp" folder.

This helps keep C: drive backups small (ish) and my data away from folders that are constantly being modified (and hammered on) by the operating system. I'm not too worried about losing the programs drive, as I have CD backups of most everything. Note that I write program settings to my data drive, whenever if I can, because those settings allow me to work faster, aren't defaulted and are important to me.

Each drive has a different backup plan. The system drive is backed up using Norton Ghost. It's done at an early state, when it's clean, and then never again. The programs drive isn't backed up at all. The data drive is backed up on a semi-regular basis, or after I've added a lot of data (e.g., scanned a bunch of photos, ripped a bunch of music, etc.)

Some time ago, I purchased a 250 gigabyte portable hard disk drive. I use it exclusively for backups. It has plenty of room, is fast and convenient.

This is my plan, though to be honest, I'm not very rigorous about backing things up, even though it may sound like it. There's probably other things that I could or should be doing, but I've never lost any data since the mid 80's, even though I've transferred it amongst many computers and suffered more than my share of crashes. Knock on wood, I must be doing something right.

Your plan might be different, but having a plan is a good thing.

Takes Ghosts Often

I don't do this, but theoretically, re-imaging your C: drive on a regular basis, using Norton Ghost, makes sense.

Start with a clean re-image. Add a few applications. Work with them for a while and see if you experience any problems. If not ... good ... you can consider that "Ghost" to be clean.

During the "testing the Ghost" period, keep a list of what other programs and settings you installed and applied since your last Ghost.

After a month or so, re-image from your "now-determined-to-be-good" Ghost and then immediately install those programs, make those settings changes and hardware additions that are on your list. Make a new Ghost. Work with it for a while. Keep a list of new stuff added or changed. Month later, if it's a good "Ghost" - re-image again.

Rinse. Repeat. Rinse.

Soon, your Ghosts will be fully functioning and more importantly - CLEAN - versions of, not just your current, bare-bones operating system, but you're whole application environment.

You're laughing now!

Virus? No problem. 10 minutes later, you've got a clean computer.

Malware ... corrupt files ... unexplained crashes? No problem. 10 minutes and you're humming away like a champ.



For a little bit of money, Norton Ghost can be a real life-saver! It's easy to use.

Norton Ghost is just an application, not a panacea. Have a plan for backing up your most current and important personal data. Beware of introducing viruses, hardware conflicts, corrupt files and bad registry settings.

Start with a Ghost of a clean, bare-bones operating system. Gradually layer on hardware, drivers, applications and settings, making a Ghost and then using it for a while. Keep notes. If the Ghost is good, reapply it and make the changes in the notes since your last Ghost. Make a new Ghost. Soon, you'll have a good, clean Ghost of your entire computer working environment and be laughing at computer problems, viruses, hardware conflicts and other gremlins.

Legal Disclaimer: Information based on personal experience using Norton Ghost version 9. Newer versions may yield different results and smileage may vary. I am not affiliated with Symantec, do not profit by recommending Norton Ghost and do not provide support for Norton Ghost. I am thankful to a certain mate for recommending Norton Ghost last year, while laboring through the formatting my drives and subsequent re-installation of Windows XP Home Edition - from scratch. Do not drive while making Norton Ghost backups. Sleepiness may result during certain Norton Ghost operations. Side effects may include, but not be limited to - anxiety, drowsiness, overwhelming fear, joy and a range of other human emotions. Installing multiple versions of Norton Ghost is NOT better for you than installing just one.

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1.flag Gary Comment
I fully agree, I don't worry about viruses or anything, if the system starts playing up I just throw my image back on and I am up and running again in no time.

I have used Drive Image and Ghost but now use a very similar program called Acronis True Image... only because the others don't work on Vista.

No what you mean about having to load all the programs on one by one, reboot, reboot and reboot every 5 mins. It drives you crazy:(

LOL @ your Legal Disclaimer: you have a way with words Scott, cheered me up at work :p

2.flag stk Comment
Not tried anything other than Ghost, but an image of C:\ (however you get it) is the way to go!

Vista? :o (yuck) :p

3.flag Gary Comment
I take it your not a fan of Vista then, it came pre installed on a laptop we bought. So I slapped it on the Desktop with the CD as well. Would be nice to talk to someone else that liked it, but it would seem that it's not the biggest hit by most people. Probably due to it being so demanding on your system.

Dear Scott,

Watch out! They've hacked your blog and now they're spamming (see the Norton Ghost post.) Do upgrade to the latest B2evolution (2.4.6) as soon as possible.
Do change all passwords as well. Bloody, they're even spamming your comments. This guy Gary is talking Vista and Drive Image and Acronis True Image.

Take care.
5.flag stk Comment
Gary - No, not a fan of the debacle hog "Vista".

Foppe - Hacked? Again?! :p Too bad upgrading a customized 1.x skin is such a ridiculous pain. (I've not had the time to convert all the sidebar customizations. Too busy with RL & actual "blogging".) :(
6.flag Cynthia Comment
Ok, maybe I'm just not getting this "image" thing. But if you bought a 250 gigabyte portable hard disk drive that you use for backups, why do you need the "ghost"? Can't ou use the Portable Hard Drive thingy to start fresh too???
7.flag stk Comment
Cynthia - The portable backup is where I store the "ghost" (and other files/directories that I want to backup). The "ghost" is special, b/c it's a snapshot of my entire "C-drive" ... MBR, Registry, Windows O/S, updates, etc.

Then my "real" c-drive goes belly up or is infected with a virus or the registry is corrupted, I can reformat my C-drive and then copy over the "last-saved" (clean) "ghost" from my portable HDD, effectively "starting over".

Make sense?
8.flag Tango Comment
Do you have any opinion on Macrium Reflect (Free Edition 4.2 build 2082)
9.flag stk Comment
Tango - Thanks for commenting.

I've not tried Macrium Reflect, but the information on the home page suggests that it *should* do what Ghost does (i.e., start a computer with a rescue CD, then restore partitions and/or entire disk images).

The advertised price is $39.99 and the download is a 30-day trial. I don't know if the Cnet version is completely free (it's got a different filename, so I suspect it might be), nor do I know if it has 100% functionality compared to the paid version.

Good luck. If you try it, let us know how it works for you.
10.flag Pia Comment
I didn't start having driver issues (with the video card, and reinstalling the drivers hasn't helped) until after restoring my computer with Ghost. Any free advice?
11.flag stk Comment
Pia - No idea. Trying to help here is a bit like trying to make a geological interpretation driving 60 mph past a road-cut.

If you have an earlier ghost, you might try that to see when/if a problem was introduced?

Good luck!