What’s Better? Drive Imaging Or OS Reinstall?

Situation: You’re going to upgrade your primary hard drive to something bigger, better and faster – however the primary hard drive is obviously what holds your operating system.

So now you’re faced with a choice.

  1. Reinstall the operating system on the new drive and reinstall all your apps.
  2. Use drive imaging software to copy everything from the old drive to the new one.

Hardware-HardDrive-256x256As most people who use computers know, you can’t just copy/paste an operating system from one drive to another. It would be really cool if you could do that, but at present we can’t and most likely never will be able to.

There and disadvantages to both methods.

OS Reinstall

It’s most likely true that the OS you’ll be reinstalling is Windows XP.

The advantages of this OS reinstall are:

  1. Your system will be super-fast because any “leftovers” from all the software you uninstalled over the years won’t be there. Your system registry will be “clean”.
  2. If there were any viruses, malware or spyware you couldn’t get rid of in your previous installation, that stuff definitely won’t be there on the fresh install.
  3. Device driver “leftovers” from the stuff you used to have (old printers, old digital cameras, etc.) won’t be there.

The disadvantages are:

  1. You have to reinstall all your device drivers for the stuff you have. This could be a long list including everything from video drivers to printer drivers, etc.
  2. You have to reinstall all your apps. This is also a long list and will take time.
  3. Two words: Windows Update.

Things you can do to make an OS reinstall a whole lot easier (and faster):

  • If you have a brand-name PC like Dell, write down the service tag number (physically printed on the box), head to support.dell.com, punch that tag in, download all your drivers and burn them to CD. When you reinstall the OS you’ll have all the necessary system drivers at the ready without the need to connect to the internet (which may not work until you get the drivers installed).
  • For custom-build boxes, download the drivers you need and burn to CD before OS reinstall. For example, if you have an nVidia video card, head over to www.nvidia.com and download the latest driver set installation file.
  • For all the apps that you use that were downloaded, burn all those to CD or DVD.
  • For all the software you have that is on CD/DVD, get all these together and have them ready before you do your OS install.
  • Make sure the software/drivers you need are on CD/DVD and not USB stick. The reason is because your computer on OS reinstall may not have your USB ports working until you install the drivers you need first. Being that your CD/DVD drive is auto-detected by Windows it doesn’t require any external driver installation 99% of the time.

Drive Imaging

In order to push the data on a hard drive that has a complete OS install to a new one to make an exact copy, you need drive imaging software to do it.

My first experience with drive imaging software was with Norton Ghost and it worked well. However some think TrueImage by Acronis is much better. And then there are others who think the free way is the only way to do things. The choice of how you image a drive is up to you.

Here are the advantages to drive imaging:

  1. Everything is copied exactly as it was, exactly as you left it.
  2. No driver reinstalls and no updates necessary.
  3. It’s faster than doing an OS reinstall.

The disadvantages are:

  1. Everything is copied exactly as it was, exactly the way you left it – including all the “leftovers” from the software you uninstalled over the years, registry anomalies.. etc.
  2. There is no speed advantage even if the drive is faster because the OS still has a bunch of crap on it.
  3. You need to copy the image of the drive somewhere – and you simply may not have the space – or the copy may fail.

Things you can do to make drive imaging easier and faster:

  • If there’s anything on your existing installation you can get rid of via Add/Remove that you don’t mind losing, do it.
  • Defrag the drive.
  • Close everything (or as much as you can) before starting the imaging process.

Which one sounds better to you?

Given the choice, which would you pick? OS reinstall or drive image?


  1. For Me Drive imaging is the way to go. I build a lot of my own systems and once I have the system tweaked the way I want it after a fresh rebuild I Image the hard drive. So if it get slugist or slow, I just reimage it and run the latest updates (A lot faster than running all the updates over) and I am go to go.

  2. Garry Bradley says:

    You need to have a recent disk image anyway. Without an image your
    options are limited to OS reinstall. I boot my windows box on Knoppix and use partimage to a external drive. I have used
    puppy for “short on memory situations” using a DD copy.

  3. Sharron Field says:

    Personally I’d use the drive image option – It’s so much quicker:

    Granted it installs all the unwanted crap from the previous disk; but there is software that can clean that out before imaging takes place –

    For instance I use Optimize 2 from PC Pitstop for keeping the registry in order: Those of you who are following the Uniblue thread on PCMech will be familiar with Uniblue Registry Booster; which I’ve also used and recommend. (Personally I prefer the GUI of Optimize 2; otherwise both are equally as effective.)

    There is also a freeware program that deletes duplicate files, as well as one that deletes orphaned .dlls from uninstalled software.

    I have Diskeeper Professional 2008 (Which isn’t freeware.) running in the background constantly: This useful little investment identifies when fragmentation on any internal drive gets to a level that requires attention, and then auto-defrags the drive. This automatically keeps fragmentation down to a minimum level 99% of the time.

    Imaging utilities such as Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image, as mentioned, are top-rated utilities; although, as I have found, imaging can be accomplished using the Windows Automatic System recovery utility included with the operating system. This is installed as standard with XP professional, but you’ll have to install it from the Windows CD if using XP Home: In the “Valueadd” folder on XP Home the CD you’ll find a folder called “MSFT”, and in that folder you’ll find one called “NTBACKUP”. Open that folder and run the file “NTBACKUP.MSI”: This will add backup to XP Home; although you still won’t be able to make an Automated System Recovery disk; so you’ll have to manually select everything on the disk and back it all up using the backup facility.

    One thing you will find is that Windows Backup or ASR will start kicking up about the new disk being bigger than the image data says it is if you’re restoring your Windows backup to a new larger HDD; but that’s not that hard a problem to overcome: Just think geek and use common sense.

    Reinstalling the OS and starting from scratch only gets done by me in the case of backup failure, (Online AND external HDD backup failure.) or lethal multiple virus attack – Both of which have actually happened to me once surprisingly.

    • Giovanna Visconti says:

      Sharron, what/where is the freeware prog that deletes dupe files and orphaned .dlls? Do you have a URL?



      • Sharron Field says:

        I’m so sorry: I missed your reply somehow.

        A month later and I can now tell you that I don’t have a url – I haven’t used that prog for about 4 years. Google will have it though: Search for “Duplicate file finder” or something similar.

  4. Marianne Bogle says:

    I have used both backup and re-install.

    Unfortunately, when working on someone else’s machine, the problem tends to be they don’t know where there cd’s for the original applications are…nor have they done backups. If they are an old customer, I have already made images of there drive’s from original install, that I can use on a new hard drive or wipe the old drive and install.

    If the cd’s can’t be found, I then use a number of open source products to install because of course they don’t want to go out and buy a new installation of Word…money is always the problem. I then will make a image of this hard drive, for the next possible time.

    When building a new machine…I totally do an install, because everyone wants something different in or on their machines.

    With my own machines, I backup only my data, because I know when a new edition of Ubuntu comes out, I will wipe my hard drive and do a totally clean install, so I have all new packages to play with. I do have all my firefox bookmarks and such saved at foxmarks, so I never lose those.

  5. This is something I have to think about soon, so it’s quite a coincidence that you wrote this article now.

    The family PC (a Dell XPS Gen 5) is loaded with crap, and is extremely sluggish, not to mention I get strange blue pixels on the screen wherever there’s a bright spot (i.e, on a light source in games), so I decided to do a wipe.

    I think an OS reinstall is obviously the best way to go in this situation. Thanks for the tip about Dell systems, by the way. That will really come in handy this time around (last time, it took me forever to track down all the neccesary drivers).

  6. Kevin Mason says:

    i would do an OS reinstall just to help get rid of all the crap that is on my pc

  7. i use drive image, but ,i make the image as soon as i do a clean install and have all ( at the time ) updates, and programs i use, and, i do this twice a year on my pc’s, just to clean things up, always making a fresh image after it is upadted

  8. For me whenever i do any major hardware change i.e. mobo, CPU, ram, or system drive a clean install is the way to go it guarantees that there will be minimal quirks in the OS that could cause system instability and that you are using the new device to the maximum level possible. irregardless of that i find that it is a good idea to do a clean install every 6 months to clean out crap that is left over.

  9. Nice information presented in the post, thanks for sharing such a great post.

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