Don’t ask me how, but somehow I’ve ended up with the responsibility of maintaining Windows PC’s/laptops for many a friends and family – I guess it comes with working in IT. I don’t complain (most of the time) but instead I try and make the most of this as a learning opportunity.
To rundown some of the problems and challenges I’ve faced over the years in my attempts to make life easier for myself:
Missing Driver CD’s + Time Consuming Installation
Since none of them could ever find their system restore or driver CD’s, I took it upon myself to find an easier and less time consuming way of installing Windows for them. I started looking into building unattended Windows XP disks and discovered nLite, a fantastic piece of software that greatly simplifies building unattended XP disks.
The discs not only had XP Service Pack 2 (then SP3), IE 7 and system drivers slipstreamed, but also customized the installation with default user accounts and removing unwanted components (outlook express, windows messenger, etc). I even customized the default local user profile and had my own wallpaper and screensaver (built using Flash at uni).
I went one step ahead and came up with a USB flash drive loaded with software, applications and plug-ins (MS Office, CCleaner, flash, divx, etc) to install on a freshly installed XP machine. These were silent installations that were triggered one by one using a batch script.
I was SO proud of my unattended discs and silent installation USBs! I’ve still one or two discs at home but lost the USBs over the years.
Note to self: I will one day write a set of instructions on how to build the unattended discs and silent installation USB for my own reference.
Missing Unattended XP Discs
The discs themselves were prone to damage or went missing, especially the USB’s. The novelty of unattended installation wore off after a while and I continued my on-going research into how to further make life easier for myself. That’s when I came across imaging, which really did make life a lot easier (and still does).
I trialled a few free imaging software but the one I settled with was Macrium Reflect. The idea was simple – prepare a fresh XP the way u want it, capture the image, store it somewhere safe and forget about it. When XP needed re-installing just boot off the recovery disk, browse to the image and restore the XP to the exact state it was in when capturing the image.
Compared to true unattended installation, imaging was very fast, just 10-12 minutes from start to finish.
I still use Macrium Reflect to this day and am yet to experience any problems with it. After having installed Windows afresh, I typically install all system drivers and Office 2007 along with any of the following before capturing the image depending on the user’s needs and preferences:
- Flash player
- Shockwave player
- DivX Plus
- K-Lite Codec Pack
Utilities and other applications
- VLC Player
- Adobe Reader
- A web browser (other than IE) – optional
- Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware
- AVG Anti-Virus (Free)
I run CCleaner one last time before capturing the image to get rid of unwanted temp files, history, etc.
Backing up Data
Having a boot image is all fine and good but I still had to backup their work for them when it came to re-imaging their computer. It took a lot of persuading but I eventually got most of them to invest in a second hard drive (internal or external).
How did I do it? Like I said, it took a lot of persuading and many tactics to get them to buy into the idea, not least of which included hunting for bargains. I even gifted one to my sister :).
Backing up the Desktop
Even with an additional hard drive I found many of them (especially my cousins) were keeping data on the desktop and I STILL had to worry about backing these up.
The solution was a registry edit to redirect their desktop folder to the second hard drive. Simple!
Having a fresh boot image does save me time in the long run but I still have to update all the software when the time comes to re-image a machine. Looking back at my experiences, the rate at which I re-image an individual computer is usually every 8/9 months (or six months if it’s my brother :)) by which time at least a couple of applications are outdated.
This is where ‘AllMyApps’ comes into the picture; essentially an online database of software, utilities and applications, it also comes with a desktop app which takes care of updating all locally installed software and applications without you having to do it manually.
I only discovered this little gem a few months ago – what I now do is install AllMyApps on a PC/laptop and configure it to update all software automatically and THEN capture the image. This way when the computer is re-imaged AllMyApps takes care of updating all software.
This concludes my run up to my current keen interest of network based imaging solutions, which will be coming up in the next post.
I may provide tech support to friends and family for (almost) free, but I insist they bring their machines down to me to take a look at when they need me to. This way I can take my time working on it and do a good job of it too (saves me paying for travel too! :)).