Archive for December, 2009

Backup and restore drivers with DriverBackup 2

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

We’ve probably all been there at some point. Something’s gone majorly wrong with your PC, and you’re left with no choice but to reinstall Windows. If you’ve not backed up your files, you’ll weep for a while at their loss, before summoning the strength to slam that installation disk into the drive and watch as the progress bar crawls across. However, an issue you’re likely to encounter, especially if you’re still using XP, is missing drivers. I know from experience that XP never seems to find all the drivers I need, resulting in hardware not working, and the display only accepting a tiny resolution until I hunt down the disks or download the necessary drivers using another PC. With XP approaching its ninth birthday, it’s likely to become harder and harder to find the drivers you need next time you have to reinstall, so keeping a backup of them would be a rather smashing idea. Luckily there are a few smashing bits of software that will do just that for you. I’ve been testing out one such utility, called DriverBackup 2, and it’s rather jazzy. 

Once you've picked what drivers to back up, there are a few simple options to choose before starting.

 The first thing to note is that it doesn’t need to be installed, which is a nice timesaver, though I would rather just be able to run an installer and be done with it. Instead, you just need to grab the files, and run the .exe called ‘DrvBK’ once they’ve downloaded. If you’d rather have it installed like all other software, just make a new folder in your C:\Program Files\ directory, and then copy or move all the files over. You can then make a shortcut in your Start Menu or desktop to the .exe file and access it like any other bit of software. Dull  bits out the way, let’s delve into the thrilling world of backing up drivers. 

If you’re using XP, you’ll just need to start the software like any other, but Vista and Windows 7 will likely want you to right-click and choose ‘Run as administrator’. DriverBackup will then scour your installed drivers, before presenting a lengthy list of them under their relevant categories: ‘Processors’, ‘Keyboards’, etc.  A small but nice touch is that the software will display the default Windows icon for each item, making it easy to visually distinguish between the multitude of different types. Little ‘+’ icons appear to the left of each category and device, allowing you to expand and hide devices and individual drivers for each device. 

 There is also a checkbox by each entry, allowing you to pick and choose which drivers you want to backup. Whilst Windows will find a good number of the drivers by itself  at install – particularly for important devices like the processor, hard-disk, and graphics card – I’d rather have them all backed up so I know I’ve got them all safe and ready to use if something should go horribly wrong. In addition, clicking on a device or individual driver file will give you more information about it, such as manufacturer and release date, which may help you decide whether you need to include it in your backup. 

Once you've picked what drivers to back up, there are a few options to choose before starting.

Once you’re ready to begin, click the ‘Start Backup’ button near the bottom right of the software. You’ll then be confronted with a window that looks a bit daunting. You can just ignore most of it, except ‘Path’, which instructs the software where to save the backup. I prefer to create a folder on my PC for the backup, and then copy it manually to an external disk, USB, or hard-disk, but if you’d prefer, you can just make the backup directly to an external device like the ones listed above. Wherever you’re sticking the files, click the ‘Browse’ button, and navigate to that location. The second and final thing that you need to alter on this screen is the checkbox down at the bottom left: ‘Generate files for automatic driver restoration’. Ticking this will ensure that the software creates an additional file that allows you to restore the drivers using DriverBackup 2, which means you won’t have to use Windows’ built-in Device Manager to install them all manually. In addition, it might be a good idea to keep the DriverBackup 2 files around on a disk, since you might not be able to connect to the Internet to download the software again until you’ve got your drivers sorted. Irony, eh?

Drivers can also be automatically restored using the software.

Finally, let’s venture into the dangerous, disturbing hypothetical world of doom. Your hard-disk had just exploded in a small ball of flames, or a less disastrous but equally disturbing error has befallen your beloved PC. You’ve gotten it fixed or replaced the faulty part, and now you’ve reinstalled Windows. However, some of your devices aren’t working correctly. So long as you can find the dust-covered disk you stored the drivers on, you can restore them in one of two ways. The first is the slower, more nerdy way – manually using Windows device manager. The second is the faster method, which involves using DriverBackup. Since you won’t have it on your cleanly installed PC, if you copied it to your driver backup disk, you can just copy it back onto your PC, or if you didn’t, you’ll need download it on another PC if you can’t access the Internet, and then transfer it over. You can then run the software as before, but this time change to ‘Restore mode’ using the second button at the top of the software, and select the backup file (provided you opted to create one when you backed up your drivers.)  Click the ‘Open backup file’ button, navigate to and select the relevant file. As with the process of backing up, you can then tick and untick those that  you want to restore, before finally clicking the ‘Restore’ button at the bottom right to pop the drivers back onto your PC.  DriverBackup will then beaver about, restoring your drivers to their rightful place. You’ll probably need to restart before you can check that everything’s working okay.

Since the download available on SourceForge is, by default, in Italian, and it take a bit of hunting to find the multi-language version, I’ve uploaded the English-only version to MediaFire, which can be accessed here: I’ve zipped up the file to make it smaller, but Windows should be able to extract it using its built-in tools. In summary, DriverBackup is a smashing little bit of kit that could help save you a great deal of time next time you need to reinstall Windows or something goes wrong with your drivers. It just falls short of a 5-star rating due to the kerfuffle of having to look through the folder for the right file to run the software, and the lack of automatic method of installation for the software. 

Another look at Windows 7

December 25, 2009 2 comments

Windows 7 comes with revamped software, faster performance, and features to speed up your work.

Those of you who’ve been visiting the blog for a while may remember that I tested out the Release Candidate of Windows 7 back in June. At the time, it was running on a virtual machine inside Windows XP. I was impressed, but not blown away. However, I’ve now grabbed the final release, thanks to the hefty student discount that I’m entitled to thanks to the good chaps over at Software 4 Students. Since it’s now all up and running and I’ve been using it for a few days, I thought I’d share my experiences of upgrading, and pick out a few features that I’m rather liking.  

I opted to do a clean install rather than an upgrade since I have a nasty habit of installing too much software and having too many files, which ends up slowing down the operation of my PCs. This was a nice excuse to clean out all the junk and start afresh with a shiny new operating system. After popping the disk in, I had to opt for either upgrading – which would mean that all my files and software would be kept – or a clean install – the route that I chose. This process was simple enough, but I did have to choose the drive to install it on – so if you’ve got multiple disks or partitions, you’ll have  to have a quick look through the options to choose the one that your current OS is installed on. I fear this might prove a bit tricky for some; I can imagine my Mum calling for help if she were forced to make a decision as to what section of the drive to install her snazzy new OS on.  

The disk then whirred about for a while as the installer worked its magic, extracting the files from the disk, restarting, expanding files, and copying them. I was concerned in the final stages of installation that something had gone wrong; it sat there for a good 20-30 minutes in the last stage, which were the final preparations, but it sorted itself in the end, and was ready for me to put in the usual information that is demanded; software key; computer name; user name; keyboard layout; time-zone and so on. After that, it restarted once more, and was then ready for me start using it.  

A pleasant surprise was the fact that drivers for hardware and devices all sorted themselves. When I’ve installed and reinstalled XP on my desktop, I’ve gained some strange enjoyment from hunting down and installing drivers. However, I didn’t need to do this with Windows 7; everything worked fine – even the laptop’s built-in web-cam functions, which helps to save time and ensures that users who aren’t quite so sad as I am don’t have to waste time with drivers, or calling for their resident IT person, concerned that nothing seems to be working.  

I only encountered one problem, and that was with McAfee. The first thing I do with fresh installs is to load on McAfee Security Centre software, but during the process of doing so, Windows popped up a disconcerting message that slapped me in the face and reported that the driver for McAfee firewall was incompatible, and had therefore been disabled. Naturally, my first reaction was rage at McAfee. Thankfully, the software then set about updating itself to a more recent version, and after a few updates and restarts, it got to a version that had made friends with Windows 7, and the two played nicely together thereafter. I was then met with a barrage of Windows updates, which is fine by me. One of them seemed to get stuck – the malicious software removal tool for December, so I cancelled this, allowing the others then kick in and sort themselves. The failed update can be beaten into submission by forcing it to try to reinstall again if I desire.  

Something else that I was surprised to see was that during the install Windows grabbed all my files from Vista and plonked them into a new folder on the C: drive called ‘Windows.old’. This meant I didn’t have to restore back my important files from my off-board hard drive. However, it’s best not to rely on this feature though, since something might go wrong during the install and your files could vanish in a puff of metahporical smoke. Aftering nabbing my important stuff from this folder, I deleted it using the disk cleanup wizard, since it was taking up over 60GB (!) of space, which is a fairly hefty chunk out of a 250GB Hard Disk.  

I’ve only installed two other software packages: Office 2007, and Adobe CS4 – incidentally, both of which I got a massive discount on from Software 4 Students – I love that company! As expected, they both installed without hitch and work absolutely fine.  

Having previously gone into more detail about features in my Release Candidate review, I won’t babble on much about the new features, but I’ll just pick out two or three favourites and briefly write about them.  

Hovering on an item will show a live preview

The new and improved taskbar is likely to the first thing that you notice has changed about Windows. Large icons are now used, which has the positive effect of creating more space for programs. Each icon then contains all instances of that software open: so multiple Word document would all be accessed from that one icon, and all your open Internet Explorer tabs and Windows would be shown when hovering on it. Previews of open windows were first used in Vista, but these have been improved in Windows 7 by making them larger and clickable, as well as causing the window to float to the front of the screen when hovered on its thumbnail. In addition, the item on the taskbar are clever enough to change their appearance

Right-clicking on an item on the taskbar brings up a selection of useful tools.

depending upon what the software is up to. For instance, when copying, moving, or deleting files, the Windows Explorer icon gains a green background that moves along, similar to a status bar. This saves you opening the window to see the progress, as well as allowing you to keep a beady eye on it to make sure it’s doing what you’ve told it to. 

In addition, further functions are accessible for some software by right-clicking on the icon. This will pop out a list of common functions or documents, allowing you to access them without having to open the window first. For example, the Internet Explorer icon gives access to recent sites and such features as ‘New tab’ from its context menu. In addition, the taskbar can also act as a dock – meaning you can pin icons there to quickly launch software, like the old quick launch toolbar, but more useful. 

Some software includes an area that expands, giving you access to features or files.

Similarly, the Start Menu has been improved. Most noticable are the menus that slide out from some programs when hovered on. This can help to speed up the process of opening recent documents, and gives you quick access to common features. Software that supports this feature can have items pinned to keep them there permanently – you might like to use this for a commonly used template, or you can remove items that you don’t want listed. In addition, the search feature that Vista users will be familiar with is now much faster and more efficient, allowing you to find files, programs, and Windows settings & tools super fast. 

Multitasking is also sped up by the ability to snap windows to different sides of the screen. Dragging a window to the left  edge makes it fill that half of the monitor, and dragging one to the right does the opposite. Moving it to the top makes it maximise. This simple feature comes in handy by saving you moving and resizing windows when you’re doing such things as trying to read a website whilst making notes in a separate document. 

Overall, my impressions of Windows 7 have been very positive. However, I would say that if you’re not able to get a discount on it, there’s no real reason to rush out and grab your copy. It’s a good improvement over both Vista and XP, but I don’t know if it’s enough to justify spending your hard-earned money on. Having said that, if you’re looking to purchase a new PC any time in the future, you should definitely make sure that it’s coming with Windows 7 – there are a number of small but useful features that help to save you time. If you’re currently stuck with Vista, you’ll probably find that Windows 7 is a big improvement in terms of performance – especially if you do a clean install; but if you’re still using XP and it works fine for your purposes, I see no reason to bring yourself up-to-date until you get around to buying a shiny new computer. 

All that remains is to wish you an enjoyable festive season – hopefully you’ve received some nifty new software, games, or gadgets from friends or family.