Making a Compact Backup Image of Windows 10

In another post, I recommended using drive imaging software to make a backup of a Windows 10 installation. That other post recommends doing so as a way of capturing the free upgrade to Windows 10 offered to users of Windows 7 and 8 for one year ending in July 2016. The user could upgrade to Windows 10, activate the update, make an image of the installation, save the image somewhere, and then restore an image of the earlier, preferred Window 7 or 8 installation, and go back to work as usual. That way, if the user wanted or needed Windows 10 later, s/he would have it. Of course, it would be a good idea to have a backup of the preferred Windows (7, 8, and/or 10) drive in any case.

A full Windows installation could be large, even when saved in compressed form in a drive imaging program (see below). Fortunately, there were ways to reduce the size of the image somewhat. Here were the leading suggestions:

  • Delete Windows.old. According to How-To Geek, the C:\Windows.old folder in a new Windows 10 installation “contains all the files and data from your previous Windows installation” and “Windows will automatically delete the Windows.old folder to free up space after a month.” The folder is retained for that month in case the user wants to revert to the previous Windows installation (e.g., Windows 7). But I had encountered a number of claims that the reversion to Windows 7 from Windows 10 did not work properly. To me, the backup image (via e.g., Acronis) was the better way to preserve a snapshot of the previous Windows installation: it would not place a big lump of useless material on my C drive, and I could keep it for longer than a month. Geek advised using Disk Cleanup to get rid of Windows.old (see next paragraph).
  • Use Disk Cleanup. The Windows Disk Cleanup tool was available in Windows 10 via Win-R. (That’s short for “press the Windows Key and the R key at the same time.” The Windows Key (a/k/a WinKey) was the one with the Microsoft Windows logo on it, typically located near the bottom left and/or bottom right corner of the keyboard.) After using Win-R to open the Run dialog, the next step was to type cleanmgr and hit Enter. (The more mainstream route: Start button > search for Disk Cleanup.) That opened a dialog asking which drive should be cleaned. When I ran Disk Cleanup on drive C with a fairly new Windows 10 installation, I got this:

Disk Cleanup

  • Clean Up System Files and System Restore Points. Within that Disk Cleanup dialog, the button to Clean Up System Files (at the bottom of the image shown above) ran a recalculation. The first time, Disk Cleanup did not include an entry for Previous Windows Installations (i.e., Windows.old). But that entry did appear after I pressed this button. (As shown in the foregoing image, selecting an item on the list would produce an explanation below the list.) The Disk Cleanup dialog also offered a More Options tab. That led to opportunities to open the Programs and Features list, in case there were any unnecessary programs I wanted to uninstall, and to delete older system restore points. I noticed that the Windows.old folder remained, though, so I used Unlocker (available, after installation, by right-clicking on the Windows.old folder) to delete it.
  • Delete $Windows.~WS and $Windows.~BT. According to The Windows Club, these folders (visible after going into File Explorer > View tab > show Hidden Items) were temporary folders that I could safely delete. Here, again, Unlocker provided a convenient tool for deletion.
  • Visual Inspection. I used WinDirStat to gain a visual depiction of the largest files on my drive C. (Note that WinDirStat was available as a portable program and, as such, was included in my customized, semi-portable Start Menu. In other words, I did not have to install it: it was already available on another drive on the machine where I had now installed Windows 10. But I could also have run it from a USB drive or SDHC card if necessary.) As I moused around in WinDirStat, the status bar at the bottom of the screen showed that by far the largest file on my drive C was hiberfil.sys, the hibernation file. Pagefile.sys was another large one. I could have tried to shut off the hibernation option and could have moved the paging file to another drive,but I wanted paging on the fast solid-state drive (SSD) where drive C was located, and I wanted hibernation. I also noticed that a large chunk of the drive was taken by files in the C:\Windows\Installer and C:\Windows\WinSxS folders. Links available through a search suggested that there was not much I could do about those without adverse consequences.
  • Run CCleaner. The well-known CCleaner was available in portable form (thus included in my portable Start Menu). I ran it and selected everything, in its Windows tab, except Start Menu Shortcuts, Font Cache, Menu Order Cache, Window Size/Location Cache, and Wipe Free Space. I was pretty sure that I did not want those altered in any case. Likewise, I selected everything in the Applications tab. (There was not a “check all” option; I had to check each item individually.) Then I clicked the Analyze button. The analysis took a while. When it was done, CCleaner presented a list of items that could be removed. (The list was not sortable by size of item.) In the Windows and Applications tabs, I unchecked everything, and then rechecked only those items that promised substantial size savings. I ran Analyze again, to make sure, and then I clicked the Run button.
  • Other Possibilities. Various pages (by e.g., and The Windows Club) offered additional possibilities for space reduction. Generally, these writeups and my own experience suggested that we had reached a point of diminishing returns and increasing risk, where improper program functioning and general system instability could result from a too-zealous effort to trim fat.

Now that I had reduced the size of the Windows 10 installation somewhat, it was time to make my drive image. The first question was, which drive imaging software was best for the purpose? Searches (1 & 2) led to indications that the first choice would be between using the built-in Windows backup tool or using a third-party alternative. In Windows 7, the built-in option had drawn much criticism. I dimly recalled trying and disliking it myself. But perhaps the Windows 10 version was better (see e.g., PCWorld, MakeUseOf).

For some years, I had been using Acronis True Image Home 2011. It had been very reliable. I had heard complaints about more recent versions, though it had been suggested that some such complaints might have to do with use of Acronis in a hot imaging situation (i.e., while Windows is running, rather than booting Acronis from a DVD); I had almost always used it for cold imaging and restoring. A recent review in PC Magazine (2016) selected StorageCraft ShadowProtect 5 ($100) and Acronis True Image 2016 ($50) as Editor’s Choices. A BackupReview article (2014) that munged Windows drive C imaging with general-purpose data backup (two very different things) named Acronis first and also mentioned Paragon ($40), AOMEI (free), and Macrium (available in a free edition), among others, and described ShadowProtect as complex.

For present purposes, I was interested in two kinds of features in the imaging program of choice. First, I wanted it to offer things that I had found useful in Acronis. I was especially interested in being able to choose the level of compression. It seemed that sometimes a higher (but not the highest) compression level would actually be faster, because the CPU could handle it and the resulting file would require less time to write to disk. For purposes of space saving, Acronis also offered the option of excluding specified files. I would typically exclude hiberfil.sys and pagefile.sys (above), as well as \$Recycle.Bin and \System Volume Information. I had found that some imaging programs did not offer these options. As I recalled, Macrium was among those, though possibly its newer and/or more expensive versions had caught up. If I’d had to buy an imaging program for this purpose, I would have researched Acronis, ShadowProtect, AOMEI, and Paragon first.

(Further reading reminded me that there were probably other features that I might be taking for granted. For example, sometimes it could be very useful, and even downright crucial, to be able to back up to, or to restore from, a USB or other external drive.)

The other kind of desired feature was the ability to create an image that could be converted into a virtual machine. I was interested in this because I was considering virtualization as an alternative to Windows 10 — running Windows 7 in a virtual machine in Linux, that is. I had done that with Windows XP in Ubuntu, some years earlier, but had quit when Windows 7 came along. If I was going to run Windows 7 in a virtual machine in Linux, I could also run Windows 10 in another virtual machine, for those applications that might have no peer in Linux or Windows 7. So it was interesting that BackupReview said ShadowProtect images could be booted in VirtualBox. MakeUseOf noted that the Disk2VHD utility might also take care of this need. If I had needed to buy a new imaging program at this point, or were more certain of the virtualization route, I would pursue the results of a search for further insight.

So that was it. To make a compact Windows 10 drive image, I needed to delete unnecessary files, and I needed to use a good image backup tool or program. I would want to save the image to a partition other than drive C, which meant using an external drive – or else using partitioning software to make a separate partition on the internal drive, if I didn’t already have such a partition.

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One Response to Making a Compact Backup Image of Windows 10

  1. Nice write up Ray. Another option you may want to consider is Veeam Endpoint (free), which I tried recently and was pretty impressed with. The “volume level” backup apparently excludes deleted files, temp files, and the paging file. So it can reduce the size of the disk image.

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