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If you’ve ever reformatted your hard drive, reinstalled Microsoft Windows, reloaded all your applications, and reset all your settings, you know what a time-consuming and generally heinous process it can be. I’ve had root canals that were more pleasant—and way less of a hassle. But sometimes, such as after a nasty spyware attack or when Windows has accumulated too much sludge, that kind of radical reconstruction is absolutely necessary. And Vista will only amplify the problem. Before you move to Vista, make sure you back up!

Many PCs come with recovery CDs that will restore your system to factory-new condition, but you can get the job done faster—and add all your favorite programs and system settings to the restoration—by creating a recovery partition. A partition, of course, is a cordoned-off section of your hard drive that gets its own drive letter. All you need is the right software and enough available space to hold your stuff.

The “right software,” in this case, is a partition utility and a backup program that can create a compressed “image” of your newly reformatted and reloaded hard drive. We’re partial to Symantec’s Norton PartitionMagic 8.0 and Norton Ghost 10.0, respectively—they’re both PC Magazine Editors’ Choices—but you can use any nondestructive partitioning utility and the backup app of your choice, of course. And all you need to do is create a partition that’s large enough to hold your stuff; then back up your primary drive to the partition. If and when the time comes to restore, run Ghost and expand the backup image to your primary drive. Presto: You’re back in business.

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