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System imaging utilities typically compress the data on your hard drives so that the image file takes up a lot less space than the original installation. Various solutions use different compression schemes, but you may be interested to know that Windows 7 uses the tried-and-true Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format that Microsoft also uses in Windows Virtual PC and its server-based Hyper-V virtu-alization solutions. That means system images created with Windows 7 will be supported for a long time to come.

System images contain complete PC environments. You can't arbitrarily restore only parts of a system image, as you can with data backups. Instead, when you restore a system image, it restores the entire PC and overwrites any existing operating system you may already have on it. That means you should be careful before restoring a system image: any data you have on the disk will be overwritten. Of course, you're using automatic backups, too, right?

To create a system image, launch Backup and Restore and click the Create a system image link on the left. This launches the Create a system image wizard, shown in Figure 24-16, which walks you through the steps needed to completely back up your PC system. You can save system images to hard disks or optical storage (such as recordable CDs or DVDs), as well as network locations (Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate only). However, network-based system images cannot be securely protected, as hard drive-based and optical disc-based backups can.

You can only write a system image to a hard disk that is formatted with the NTFS file system. That's because system images often exceed the 4GB file size limit imposed by the older and less reliable FAT32 file system.

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Figure 24-16: System Image is one of the best features in Windows 7.

Click Next. As shown in Figure 24-17, the wizard will give you a chance to confirm the backup settings and remind you which partitions are being imaged. It will also provide an estimate of the amount of space needed to create a system image. The required storage space varies according to the size and usage of the hard disk on your PC.

Figure 24-17: System Image is ready to go.

Click Start backup to begin the system image process.

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