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Refresh Adventures Show It's NOT the "Same as Backup"

As I’ve observed many times in this blog over the years, I’m a hopeless tinkerer. This even applies to my production system when the whim strikes and time permits. My current production machine features the following collection of components (among others): an Asus P8X68-V Pro Gen3 motherboard, an i7-2600K CPU, 32 GB RAM, and a pair of OCZ Vertex SSDs (an older 128 GB Vertex 3 and a newer 256 GB Vertex 4 that serves as the boot/system drive). I hope I can be forgiven for wanting to add the Intel Rapid Start Technology to this machine. But because it was installed with the SATA drives set up as AHCI not RAID, I decided to try a post-install conversion technique I read about online to switch from the former to the latter (the technique required a reboot, a switch to RAID in the BIOS, and a safe boot to give Windows the chance to load new drivers). Long story short: it didn’t work and I found myself compelled to repair my now unbootable machine.

Don’t be inclined to think of a system refresh as the same as an image restore of the system drive: there are some key differences.

Before starting down this road to potential perdition, I made two “backups” of the system disk: one using SlimImage Utilities’ RecImgManager, the other using the “System Image Backup” facility now present in Windows 8.1 as an add-on feature in the File History widget in Control Panel. Just for grins, I started my recovery efforts with the Refresh option for which RecImgManager had created my most recent refresh image, to see how it would all pan out.

It’s interesting that RecImgManager describes the operation of capturing a refresh image as an explicit “Backup” operation, when in fact that’s not exactly how it works. To be fair, it’s close, but it’s also no cigar, either. Here’s what I found that was different after refreshing the image I captured just before beginning my “convert-to-RAID” manueuvers:

1. The restore operation informed me that I would need to reinstall Kindle reader, OneDrive, and WinDirStat once the restore was complete. This proved only partially correct, as both OneDrive and WinDirStat were present and working when the refresh image came up on the PC. Kindle was indeed missing.
2. I had to reload the printer driver for my Samsung ML-2850 laser printer into the refreshed image.
3. When I ran Outlook again for the first time after the refresh took over, I had to reconfigure the whole darn thing (account set-up, archive handling, e-mail download behavior, switch to my preferred archive PST file, and so forth) all over again.
4. Browser plug-ins for Chrome, IE, and so forth had to be re-examined and enabled/disabled as per prior selections.
5. When I ran 8GadgetPack for the first time, it had to be set up once again, as if for the first time.

It’s possible that I might have encountered a few more things had I stayed with the refresh image longer than the two hours I decided to devote to that experiment. After that, I booted up using my Windows 8.1 Install UFD, elected the “Repair” option, and overwrote the refreshed image with my preserved system image captured earlier that morning. What I got back then was exactly what I wanted — namely, my current runtime environment set up, configuring, and working just the way it was when I captured that system image, and requiring absolutely no fiddling about whatsoever to match prior system behavior, configuration, and so forth.

It all goes to show that a system image backup and restore represents the ability to return to the status quo that prevailed at the time of the image capture, and that a system refresh comes close to doing the same, but isn’t quite exactly identical to the system image restore operation. In some cases, especially where Windows flakiness is involved and replacement of system/boot drive files outside the scope of “OS components” is undesirable or unacceptable, a refresh clearly makes more sense than restoring an earlier system image. But it’s not accurate to think of image restore and refresh as equivalent or identical. They are not, and savvy admins and power users would do well to recognize this and take it into account when formulating Windows recovery strategies and processes. The important distinction is that where Refresh does preserve files and some settings outside the scope of OS components, some additional work will be required to get refreshed system exactly back to where it was at the time the custom windows image (.WIM file) for the underlying Windows installation was captured.

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