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restoring hard drive

Manufacturer's Recovery and Restore Systems.

Most pre-configured store bought PCs will already be dual or even triple-boot and so installing another operating system may not be as simple as we may have thought.
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On-board recovery systems as well as backup and data partitions and even a lightweight quick-booting operating system can all have their own separate partitions on a hard drive. This can mean that creating space to install another operating system may be difficult or just not possible. In some cases even minor tampering with the existing partition layout can have an impact on the current boot options, which may leave a machine unable to start the main operating system and also perhaps the factory recovery process.

Determine what you have.
When PC manufacturers configure and partition their machines and install Windows and add their recovery system it is usually with little thought or regard to anyone who might come after them with a view to installing a second operating system. Some factory setups can turn out so convoluted that they will all but exclude any possibility of making even the simplest of changes. It must be our mantra therefore that before we attempt any tinkering with a pre-configured machine we should study what we have, so that we can determine what we can and cannot do.

Reconfiguring any pre-existing system is almost invariably going to be problematic and time consuming and so it may in the long term be easier and quicker to simply start afresh with a cleaned or replaced hard drive. Before messing with any existing drive that contains something you'd rather not lose you must have full backups of data and operating system and possess the ability to restore them. If you are not so prepared then you are being foolhardy.

If you are capable of backing-up and restoring your operating system then you are already more than half way towards being able to begin with a clean drive, because it does not take much more to be able to transfer an operating system to another hard drive or to a partition of your choice on a newly cleaned and repartitioned drive.

Quick-Booting Operating Systems
Some machines may come with a second quick-booting operating system to provide speedier access to such things as media playback or basic email and web access. These may have their own partition on the hard drive, but in recent years most of the top brand manufacturers are now placing them on a flash memory chip on the motherboard. This makes then immune to hard drive changes or failures and for security reasons they are usually locked out from being able to access or even see the main drive.
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Too Easily Broken.
You should never rely on a computer's on-board recovery system to get you out of trouble because even small modifications to some machines can render the recovery system either unable to start, or cause it to stall when it does not see the exact hard drive configuration it was expecting. The only way to reasonably expect a recovery system to still work on a machine that has been altered is if that recovery system can be run entirely from removable media such as CD/DVD or USB/SD flash device. When run in this manner however there is a possibility that it will be programmed to do a complete factory reset, which will not only delete all personal data but also any new partitions or operating systems that may have been added.

Take a Chance, or Take Control.
If after hard drive changes a machine's on-board recovery system still works then it may indeed replace only the Windows install while leaving any new partitions and their contents in place. It is even possible that it could work with no complaint on a resized or a moved Windows partition, but you would have to carry out extensive tests of your own particular system to confirm this before ever trusting it would only do exactly what you wanted. There is such huge variation in recovery systems across different PC makes and models that nobody could ever hope to provide a single reliable guide. The time required to learn an on-board recovery system and understand the probable outcome of its automatic restore process, would be far better spent in mastering a fully controllable third-party cloning or imaging solution that can be used on any PC.

Boot Managers and Boot Records.
There are a couple of different startup methods that an onboard recovery system might use. A common one during the XP era was a custom MBR (Master Boot Record) which after the press of a specific key during early bootup would divert the normal boot process and instead of loading the operating system would target and start the recovery software. Any change to a custom MBR made by installing a different bootmanager or by an install or re-install of Windows or Linux, would render the recovery system unavailable by normal means.

With the introduction of Vista the custom MBR was discouraged in favor of using Windows own new style bootmanager to start recovery. As before the press of a key during early bootup would halt the normal boot sequence and most likely bring up a boot-menu where the manufacturer's recovery could be selected. Any changes to the bootmanager or to the exact partition placement that the new Windows bootmanager requires to operate correctly has the potential to not only prevent access to Windows but also the recovery system. A true double whammy.

There was a certain amount of cross-over of these recovery startup methods after Vista was released. Some manufacturers were slow to adopt the new way and continued on for a time with a custom MBR. Others embraced the new way from the beginning and when Vista became unpopular and they returned to supplying XP on their machines they retained the new Vista bootmanager in a kind of hybrid XP-Vista boot method. So if you have a pre-installed XP or Vista machine from around 2007-2008 then you could have either of these recovery startup methods.

Making Space.
make space graphicIf you are intent on making changes to an existing system and have disaster recovery plans formulated and tested, then you can look at making some space for a new partition. This may be easy or next to impossible to do depending on a machine's current partition arrangement. A degree of knowledge will be required on the subject of hard drive partitions and of the limits and conventions of the partitioning style that the drive is configured with. There is little point in making space for a new partition if the limits of the system won't allow another partition. info iconA Beginners Introduction to Partitions.

There are of course a myriad of other factors to be considered before attempting to make alterations to a pre-configured or store-bought machine and we strongly suggest that you have a look at our Various Variables list and indeed give consideration to all of the advice and warnings we detail on that page. There is also now a new partitioning style being used on most Windows-8 supplied machines that has different limits and conventions to the long standing MBR partitioning style. The GUID Partition Table (GPT) has new rules and limits and so the factory recovery systems and partition layouts on these latest machines may vary greatly from what you see on this page. If we have convinced you to exercise some caution then you may want to begin by trying out some of the other ways to multiboot that do not require making fundamental changes to hard drives or partitions. info iconSafe Ways to Get Started With Multibooting


The classic BIOS firmware and MBR partition table are about to be replaced with the new Unified Extendable Firmware Interface (UEFI) and the GUID Partition Table (GPT). After Oct 2012 many new machines supplied with Windows-8 will be using UEFI and have their hard drive configured in the new GPT style. All of our examples shown below and indeed most of the material currently on this site is for MBR partitioned drives on BIOS based machines. If you are unsure what you have then you should do some more reading before doing anything else.
info iconMBR or GPT   -  info iconUEFI or BIOS
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Example Partition Layouts.
Shown below are just a few examples of typical partition layouts that can be found on factory configured hard drives. Some can be easily altered, but others should not be tackled without a good knowledge of partitions and boot files and an understanding of how the boot sequence has been configured for a particular machine. We hope in time to be able to bring you more information on specific makes and models of PCs, but for now you will probably have to do your own research into what you have. If you are not familiar with some of the terms and concepts used below they please explore some of the Recommended Reading links at the foot of this page.

We hope the following examples will demonstrate that no quick-guide can possibly cover all the angles and that you really should follow our safe working suggestions. In each of these examples the main image shows a hard drive seen from the Windows-7 Disk Management utility. Note that this Microsoft utility does not correctly read non-standard Windows partitions and reports them as having no data on them. The thumbnails will show you the same drive as viewed from third-party partitioning tools. (Hover over the thumbnails to replace the main image. In most browsers clicking the thumbnail will freeze replacement image. Click off images to remove).


A:  Two Primary and One Logical Partition.
In this first example the Windows partition is the system and boot and active partition, which means it is not dependent on any boot files on another partition and is booted directly from the boot code in the master boot record (MBR) of the hard drive. The recovery system is invoked by pressing a specific key during very early bootup, (or primed from inside Windows before a reboot), which tells the MBR bootcode to target the first partition and so start the recovery system instead of the main OS. To understand the new job it has to do the MBR will be slightly customized from the stock Microsoft MBR. The back-up image of the OS will be on the recovery partition along with the recovery software. If the system is capable of creating a user-made up to date image of Windows it may be stored on the data partition or on removable media. Custom MBRs started to decline after the launch of Windows Vista but some may remain.

fig: 1disk management

Gparted thumbnailGparted
Pwizard thumbnailPwizard
Pmanager thumbnailPmanager

Resizing the C: or E: partition to make space for another OS would be perfectly possible here, however any new install of a Windows operating system will replace the MBR with a stock Microsoft version, so you would loose access to the recovery system unless you knew how to restore the custom MBR, or you were using a third-party bootmanager that was capable of starting the recovery process as well as the operating systems. Resizing the Windows partition may cause the recovery system to fail to function correctly, or it may still work and restore not only Windows but the partition to its original size. A resized E: partition and a new partition and operating system may survive a run of the recovery system, but the bootmanager, whether third-party or Windows own, will require repairing or reinstalling.


B:  Four Primary Partitions.
Here again the Windows partition is the system, boot and active partition and will be started directly by the MBR. The recovery system this time has 2 partitions, a small utility or diagnostic partition and the main recovery partition. The whole thing may operate in exactly the same way as our previous example except that it will be the software on the utility partition that will be started when the recovery process is invoked. It will then use the software and backups contained on the recovery partition, or a user-made backup on the last partition. On some systems with this configuration the use of a custom MBR may have been dropped in favor of using the Windows built-in bootmanager to start the recovery program. You would access the bootmanager options by a specified key or the Windows F8 bootmenu during early Windows boot-up, or from Windows software before a reboot.

fig: 2disk management

All 4 possible primary partitions already exist on this drive so you would need to change one to an extended partition, inside of which a large number of logical partitions can be created. Once a suitable logical exists and if there is no custom MBR then an install of a later version of Windows from the one that is already present may auto configure dual-boot for you and still retain a working recovery system, using it however would restore the original configuration of the Windows bootmanager, so removing added boot options. If there is no custom MBR then a third party bootmanager or even an install of Linux and GRUB to the MBR may still not break the recovery system, which could still be started by way of the Windows F8 bootmenu. Using recovery however may replace the MBR with a Windows stock version.


C:  Three Primary and One Logical Partition.
Here the Windows partition is not the one labeled as active or system which means the boot files of Windows are actually on the second partition. The MBR starts the Windows bootmanager that is on the 2nd partition which then starts the Windows OS on the third. The recovery system is a slightly modified version of Windows own recovery environment (WinRE) which will be started by the Windows bootmanager, invoked from a specified key or the Windows F8 bootmenu, or scheduled from Windows before a reboot. The last partition on this drive is indeed a logical one but it is being wrongly reported as a primary by the Windows Disk Management tool. This 4th partition holds a lightweight quick-booting operating system that allows viewing and playback of media files without having to wait for Windows to load. This is started by pressing a dedicated button somewhere on the computer and it may rely on a custom MBR on the hard drive to directly start the software on the 4th partition, or it may do it through the Windows bootmanager.

fig: 3disk management

The only way here to create another partition and perhaps retain everything would be to resize the Windows partition down and then expand the extended partition into the released space. You could then make one or more logicals for operating systems or data. If there was a custom MBR involved then the Media partition would probably have to be moved to the start of the new extended partition and so remain the 4th partition on the hard drive. Any install of Windows would of course over-write the custom MBR so you would need to be able to restore it. If the Media partition is being booted through the Windows7 or Vista bootmanager then the exact starting sector of the partition could not be moved without also updating the boot configuration data (BCD) that the bootmanager uses.

This type of setup is a minefield and you should do extensive research on your particular make and model of PC to see if other people have written up their experiences. On some Dell systems the media partition was a super hidden and all but invisible 4th or even 5th partition, which made any attempts at partition changes risky to say the least.
blue info iconSee Dan Goodell’s excellent work on the Dell MediaDirect partition and recovery systems.
blue info iconhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dell_MediaDirect


D:  Two Primary Partitions.
The system and active partition here is the recovery partition, which holds the main Windows boot files as well as the recovery software and the back-up Windows image. This is becoming a common configuration on many Windows machines as the custom MBR was dropped in favor of integrating the manufacturer's recovery system into Window's own backup and recovery solution. A stock Windows MBR starts the Windows bootmanager on the recovery partition which then starts the Windows install. The recover system is Microsoft's own WinRE and in most cases it can be invoked by either the F8 Windows bootmenu or scheduled from within Windows before a reboot. Once WinRE is loaded there may be options for both the manufacturers and Windows recovery tools. There are only two partitions in this example but there could just as easily be an extra data or backup partition, where an up to date user-made Windows image could be stored.

fig: 4disk management

Relatively easy here to resize the Windows partition and create another primary and/or an extended for one or more logical partitions. As long as the MBR is indeed a stock Microsoft one then installing another Windows OS of the same or later vintage to the one already present will auto configure dualboot while retaining a functioning recovery system, although using it will likely remove your boot option for the new OS. Installing an earlier Windows version will not configure dualboot but will leave you with just the new OS, so you will need to know how to manually reconfigure the Windows bootmanager to get that dualboot. A Linux install that is allowed to put GRUB in the MBR may correctly auto configure dualboot while retaining a functioning recovery system, but using recovery may replace the Windows MBR and so make Linux unbootable until you reinstalled Grub, which is a task often beyond many Windows users.



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