So what's the difference between a clone and an image? Essentially, a clone creates an exact copy of your hard drive on another drive--files, master boot record, and all. The clone consumes the entire hard drive, but it's plug-and-play if you ever need to use it. Images, on the other hand, create a single, mammoth file containing all the stuff on your PC. It takes a bit more to get an image backup ready to roll after a disaster, but you have more flexibility in how you store it, since it's essentially just a great big file. Lincoln Spector has a more detailed comparison if you're interested.
There are excellent backup tools available that let you create clones and images, including the free personal versions of Macrium Reflect Free and EaseUS Todo Backup. We explain how to use Windows' native imaging tool step-by-step in PCWorld's guide to creating a free, foolproof backup system--one you should implement ASAP. Regular backups are your data's only savior if disaster strikes.
Optional: Update your drivers
This step isn't for everyone. Few things can introduce troublesome ghosts in your machine faster than a driver that refuses to play nice for whatever reason. If your from-the-box PC's working fine and you only ever plan to perform basic tasks like surfing the web, working with Office, and stuff like that, feel free to forget your computer even has drivers and keep on keeping on. Windows Update should've snagged reasonably new drivers for your hardware anyway.
But if you cobbled together a DIY rig or are rocking a gaming machine, it's a good idea to see if more updated drivers are available for your hardware. Windows Update isn't always on the bleeding edge of driver updates, and new drivers for, say, your motherboard or network card can provide beneficial feature and performance updates. Gamers will need to update their graphics card drivers fairly often to ensure optimal performance in the newest games.
PCWorld's guide to updating your Windows drivers has all the info you need to proceed. If a driver does somehow manage to bork your PC, Windows automatically creates a System Restore Point when you install new device drivers. And if true disaster strikes in some bizarre, extreme case, you've got the backup image you've created--right?
At this point you're pretty much ready to roll. Sure, there are some other tasks you should perform, such as moving over files from your old PC and saving the product keys for Windows and your other installed software (Belarc Advisor rocks for the task), but you can do all that at your leisure. For now, just bask in the glory of owning a new PC, secure in the knowledge that it's fully optimized, protected against attack, and recoverable if disaster strikes.
Enjoy! And if you're migrating over from a previous computer, be sure to check out PCWorld's tips for breathing new life into an old PC. Just because a machine's being retired doesn't mean it's junk.
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