A Driving Instructor's Blog

Computers & Tech

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NextBase dashcamA bit of advice to anyone using a dashcam. I see a lot of people complaining that theirs is playing up, and other advice to regularly reformat the card – which seems to get a lot of people recording again. I strongly believe that part of the problem is with the card, and not the dashcam. Specifically, people are using the wrong cards.

I have always used SanDisk Extreme cards in my dashcams, and I have not had any problems. Extreme cards are not the cheapest, either. They’re pretty high spec. However, I recently wrote to SanDisk and asked them if Extreme cards were OK to use in such applications. Here is what they replied:

Thank you for contacting SanDisk® Global Customer Care. Please allow me to inform you that for Dashcams & security surveillance cameras, we recommend to use SanDisk® High Endurance Memory Cards since these cards are specially developed for high endurance applications and continuous read & write cycles. These cards are built for and tested in harsh conditions and are temperature-proof, shock-proof and waterproof.

Also, please be informed that using Extreme or Ultra line memory cards on these devices void their warranty.

So, using Extreme cards puts them under stress that they’re not designed for. It voids their warranty, but – more importantly if you read between the lines – there is a good chance they will malfunction or play up. I don’t know much about cards from other manufacturers, but I would lay odds that most people with dashcams are using the cheapest card they can find, and they certainly won’t be paying the extra few quid that goes along with high endurance types. Most of the time I see people asking what dashcam to choose they always want a cheap one, and the one they end up buying often costs them less than I pay for a SanDisk Extreme card – so there’s no way they’re going to buy a card even close to that.

I have a GoPro camera that records in 4k video. I bought a high capacity SanDisk card designed for 4k that I had to import from the USA because they weren’t available over here, but before I got it I tested a normal SanDisk Extreme card and the video was as choppy as hell. It wasn’t the card’s fault directly – it just wasn’t fast enough for 4k, and it wasn’t supposed to be. I’m fairly certain that this is one of the problems people experience when they use a card that simply isn’t up to the job in their dashcam.

NextBase insist that Extreme cards are compatible with their devices, and their own cards appear to be rebranded SanDisk ones. I don’t disagree that they work well for me, and probably for everyone else when they’re new. But the niggling problems people keep reporting might not be doing NextBase any favours, because I firmly believe that a lot of them are down to the cards protesting at being used outside of their specification, but the user blames the dashcam.

SanDisk high endurance cards only go up to 64GB, though other manufacturers produce higher capacity units.


I originally posted this article in October 2015, shortly after I started using PayPal Here to take card payments from pupils. Before then, I’d been using iZettle, but I had an unfortunate experience with them which forced me to find an alternative. Basically, iZettle updated their app and it wouldn’t install on my phone. When I contacted them, they basically told me my phone wasn’t supported – even though it had been up until then. They nearly destroyed my business overnight, and effectively told me “tough”. I was not happy. They came back to me sometime later and apologised for their error – apparently, the app had been given an incorrect filename on Google Play, and that was the cause of the problem – and gave me almost £1,000 of free transactions – but it was too late. In the two weeks it took for them to admit their mistake, I had purchased and started using a PayPal Here card reader.PayPal Here card reader

I’d considered PayPal Here even before iZettle. But at that time, PayPal Here was brand new, and staff were even more inept than iZettle’s, and more or less told me any money I took wouldn’t be accessible to me for 30 days because of a “reserve” that existed on the account I’d set up. I wrote about that at the time. PayPal was easily the better option on paper, but not having access to my money was obviously a major issue, so I went with iZettle.

To this day, I have no idea what the hell was going on with that “reserve” malarkey, but when iZettle went titsup I contacted PayPal again, and in the intervening time they appeared to have recruited  people who knew what they were doing and actually wanted to do it for me.

So, anyway. Armed with a new PayPal Here reader and a reserve-free PayPal account in 2015, I set to work.

Since then, I have taken more than £50,000 in card payments through PayPal Here (I’d also taken a fair bit through iZettle before that). As time has gone by, the number of people paying me by card has increased, and right now I’d say that about 70-80% of pupils pay that way (2018 card takings look like being about 30% higher than in 2017). The rest still use cash (someone block-booked 30 hours of lessons a couple of weeks ago and paid me £700 in notes, which I banked, because it isn’t mine yet), a few use bank transfers (a couple of months ago a new pupil’s father paid me £700 for a block booking this way), and a couple have routinely paid using contactless apps on their phones. I refuse to take cheques – if someone has a cheque book, they have a card, and I can read that instead.

The PayPal Here reader can carry out transactions via contactless, PIN, and swipe (though swipe is not necessary in the UK). Single hour lessons can be paid by contactless (if pupils have them) but anything above £30 has to be by PIN (contactless phone apps depend on the app they’re using, and one pupil easily paid for £50 two-hour lessons contactless this way).

Since I began using it, PayPal has updated the app several times, and it is extremely convenient being able to sign in using my fingerprint these days.

The massive benefit of PayPal over iZettle is that the money from a transaction goes into your PayPal account instantly. When you transfer it from there to your bank account, for all practical purposes that is instant, too (it says it can take “up to 2 hours”, but less than a minute is typical). With iZettle, it took nearly a week – and we’re talking a business week here, so Bank Holidays both here and in Sweden mattered – for money to get into your bank account.

How long do PayPal Here payments take to clear?

For all practical purposes, they’re instant.

When you take a card payment either by chip & PIN or contactless, funds are instantly transferred to your PayPal Here account. You can leave them there, or transfer them to your bank account whenever it suits you – either from the app or from PayPal on your computer.

My only minor gripe is that you have to transfer the money manually – you can’t set it to go straight into your bank account. It’s on my wish list.

How much does the card machine cost?

At the moment (2018), a PayPal Here card reader costs £54.00. They have special offers from time to time, where the machines are cheaper than this, and my backup was purchased when an offer was in place.

How much do they charge per transaction?

It’s 2.75%. For each £25 lesson paid for by card, you “lose” 69p.

Other card reader vendors have lower fees

I’m not saying you must use PayPal. Just be aware that other vendors’ fees are often on a sliding scale (iZettle’s was),  and you only get the lower rates if you take more than a certain amount per month – which for an ADI is often quite high. I triggered iZettle’s lower rate fees a couple of times, but the lower rate only applies to takings above the threshold.

For example, if there is a threshold at takings of £5,000 per month, and you pay 2.75% up to that, and 2.5% above it, then if you take £5,500 in that month, you pay 2.75% on £5,000, and 2.5% on £500. To get any real benefit, you’d need to be taking £10,000 per month or more. Small multi-car driving schools might benefit, but a self-employed ADI wouldn’t.

The charges are a rip off

Fine. Keep taking cash.

You’re not going to get away from transaction charges. A fee of 69p is nothing on a £25 bill. All you have to do is increase your prices slightly and you’ve covered the fee, anyway.

But I can save money if I don’t have to pay transaction fees

As I say. Fine. Keep taking cash. You probably also believe your car isn’t an overhead because you own it (it is), and that if you don’t have to pay a franchiser then you’re better off by the whole franchise fee (you’re not). A card fee is an overhead, that’s all.

I can’t see the point of taking card payments

Fine. Keep taking cash. It does tend to be the older ADI who thinks this way, though.

For me, from the day I first became an instructor, the ability to take card payments was on my wish list. As years went by, having to carry lots of cash around (sometimes, a heck of a lot) and make frequent trips to the bank was becoming a major headache. Bank branches – especially convenient local ones – are an increasingly endangered species, and with parking and lost lesson time, and cheques (some weeks, every pupil would pay by cheque), it was more like an atomic migraine than a headache. There is a business cost associated with that, which is proportional to how often you have to go to pay money in. With cheques especially, I’d only have a cash flow if I went to the bank, since £1,000 of cheques in your wallet is pretty useless. I’d been waiting for something like PayPal Here or iZettle – and there are others – to appear, and got in on the ground floor.

Is it of any benefit to take card payments?

As I said, it has saved me a lot – in monetary terms, and in terms of my sanity.

But another benefit is less tangible. Some pupils might be impressed if you pull out an iPad and have a glitzy demonstration video to get some point across. Believe me, many more are impressed when you tell them you can take card payments – even more so when you actually take a card payment from them. This might become less true in the future as the dinosaurs gradually die out, but right now it works in a highly positive way.


Privacy button on keyboardI’m being driven to distraction by the number of emails from sites I’m subscribed to either asking me to confirm I still want them to contact me (there were a lot of these when GDPR first came in), or telling me that they’ll still contact me unless I tell them not to (the more recent, and far more sensible, approach). To be honest, I’d just prefer it if they left things as they are and didn’t keep telling me about it, but everyone seems afraid of GDPR and they feel they have to do something – even if “something” is a fantastic pain in the arse.

The worst approach, though, is how an increasing number of sites have simply blocked European visitors.

The main culprits seem to be American food sites and blogs. It’s perhaps understandable when you consider the kinds of people who run them, but it’s still annoying now that simple Google searches throw up links that you can’t visit. It’s like we’ve gone back to The Dark Ages.

Well, I don’t like that one bit. Getting round it is easy, though. All you need is a VPN client. Fire it up, and you can pretend to be in any country in the world. I just pick an American server location, then refresh my browser, and the blocked site loads up normally. It also works when you get one of those “this content is not available from your location” messages on YouTube or other sites carrying broadcast items (MSN can be very irritating when it feeds you a link, then won’t let you see it when you click it!)

Incidentally, a year or so ago, there was that kerfuffle involving a British celebrity who had obtained an injunction so that his name could not be seen by anyone in the UK concerning some domestic issue he was involved in. It was a bit of a joke, because every other country could print it unrestricted, so finding out who it was would be easy for anyone who had contacts outside the UK (a large percentage of the population, I would imagine). Indeed, it was on many forums in black and white, though posts were quickly removed in some cases. At the time, I was curious, so I fired up the VPN and simply looked at some foreign newspapers to find out who they were talking about.

The client I use is called SlickVPN (I get it as part of my Usenet subscription).


Audacity main windowI don’t know about you, but I find that people are rubbish at leaving coherent voicemail messages. If they’re not rubbing the phone around their head making crackles and thumps, or blowing into the microphone so it sounds like they’re standing in a Force 9 gale (this is right up there with whistling on the annoyance scale for me), they’re mumbling or stumbling over their words. Many important voicemails come from people wearing headsets, and while these tend to be quiet at the best of times, clarity is often worsened by the user touching or adjusting the boom while they’re talking.

The result is that you have to listen to the message several times to extract the information, and even then it’s sometimes hard picking out details like phone numbers or other numerical details.

I had an important message last week which was definitely going to need several listens. The speaker was talking very quickly, and the nature of the call meant she was back-pedalling and stumbling over her words. Calling back wasn’t an option since they never answer calls directly, and this voicemail was already their response to an email I had sent (not replying by email, so everything is there in black and white, was another example of their back-pedalling). So it occurred to me that it would be useful if I could save the message indefinitely on my PC. I could then process and amplify it, and use decent headphones so I could hear it properly.

One way of doing it would be to use a 3.5mm jack cable between your phone’s headphone socket and your computer’s soundcard line-in. Except many phones these days use the USB port for the headphones (mine is one of them), and the way they use it is non-standard and isn’t guaranteed to work with audio devices the way you’d expect (mine is one of those, too). I wasn’t in the mood to start playing around with USB cables, so I looked for a different way.

On a Windows computer you can use something called loopback, where you effectively tap into the audio signals that get sent through your soundcard. All you need is an app to play your voicemail – like Skype – and suitable recording software to grab it.

My favourite sound recorder is Audacity. I use it to edit and enhance recordings I make at gigs, and it’s open source – which means it’s free (I’ve donated). Assuming you have installed Audacity, all you need to do is set your Audio Host to Windows WASAPI and your Audio Device to Speakers (Realtek High Definition Audio) (loopback). That last one might be different on your machine if you have a different soundcard driver.

My phone is on EE, and if you dial 07953 222222 from another phone (or Skype), then enter your mobile number and password, you can access your voicemail.

And that’s it. Dial in to your voicemail, set it playing, then click the record button in Audacity. Once you’ve captured it, Audacity lets you trim off the lead-in and -out parts so you’re left with just your voicemail message. You can make it louder in various ways, but the simplest is to select Effect >> Normalize… and apply a setting of about -2.0dB. You can save your file in various formats – MP3 if you’re not going to adjust it any more (small file) or WAV if you are (bigger file).


Ford Focus oil change messageThis article was originally written a few years ago, but it has become extremely popular, and gets hundreds of hits a week.

The original article refers to all models between 2016 and 2018. The reset procedure is different on the 2019 Focus (see later).

It all began back in 2016, when I got a message on my brand new Ford Focus TDCi Titanium centre display telling me that it was due for an oil change. I wouldn’t have minded, except that it was only on 5,500 miles and my official service points (set by my lease agent) are every 12,500 miles.

I spoke with the local dealer and they said just to book it in so they could reset it. I wasn’t too keen on that, since visits to the dealer inevitably mean at least half a day in lost lesson time.

I didn’t for a moment think it was anything other than an erroneous message. There is an oil warning lamp on the dash which I would never ignore, but centre display messages are a different matter entirely. I mean, how many of us have been driving up a 40% slope only to be advised to change the gear to 4th, 5th, or even 6th? The car just won’t do it. Before I quite realised this, my first action was to buy an OBD II monitor tool so I could check/reset the message myself, but the OBD found no faults, and there was nothing to reset. I should have realised this – and the oil change warning remained stubbornly visible.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place and Googled it. It turns out Ford has a system which gives an oil change warning at various points based on how it thinks the car is being driven. No fault is logged, since the trigger is software-based and is “calculated”. Apparently, you used to be able to set different trigger points manually (in America, at least), but there is no such option in the UK that I can see.

Since 2016, and across at least four other Focuses, I’ve had it come on at as low as around 1,000 miles, and at other silly points shortly after a service. None of my pupils (or me) drives it that badly, of that I’m certain.

How to reset the oil change warning

Resetting it is incredibly simple – though completely undocumented by Ford. All you do is:

  1. Turn on the ignition (or push the start button with the clutch up)
  2. Press the brake and accelerator fully down

After a moment, the centre display will tell you that the reset is in progress. Keep the pedals down until it informs you that reset is complete. No more oil change warning! From what I understand, this applies to all Focus models from MkII onwards.

Does this work on other Ford models?

You’ll have to try it and see. Logic would dictate that Ford has implemented the same procedure on all its current (pre-2019) models. However, when you consider Ford’s indexing system at the back of the User Manual, logic isn’t something they seem to waste much time on, and there’s every possibility that the reset procedure is totally different on other models. If you try it and it works, drop me a line so I can add the model here.

I am told it also works on the Ford Fiesta.

Does it work on the latest (2019) Focus?

No. Resetting the oil on the new model is done through the settings page on the information console (this is how it ought to have been on the earlier models). You simply scroll to the little cog symbol, then select Information, then scroll down to Oil Life. Press and hold OK and it resets after a few seconds. Mine came on after 3,900 miles!

How soon should I get my oil changed when the warning message comes on?

For a Focus, if your car is under the manufacturer’s warranty then I think they allow 1,000 miles on top of the normal service points (but check that with your local agents). My lease company allows me the range of 11,500-13,500 to book it in for a service. Whatever your local agent allows, outside of that might affect your warranty, so I say again: check with them before assuming anything.

Of course, if the oil change warning message appears before 12,500 miles (or whatever your service points are) then you can safely ignore it (or reset it, as explained above). It isn’t a sensor warning, just a software-based calculated value. If the oil warning dashboard light comes on, though, you mustn’t ignore that.

You shouldn’t ignore the message because you could damage your car

Someone wrote to me, making this point. As I have explained above, the alert (it isn’t a warning) is calculated based on how the in-car computer thinks you’re driving. Frankly, when it comes on at around 1,000 miles when you’ve only had the car a few weeks, or several days after it has had a service, and the oil definitely isn’t old, yes you can ignore it.

My lease agent sets the service points at every 12,500 miles. They will not allow me to have it serviced any earlier (±1,000 miles). I know that Ford talks of 7,500 mile service points, and that’s fine. If you have a private vehicle then follow their advice. But if the warning comes on at any other time before that you can safely reset it – if nothing else, until you can get it in for its service.

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility if an oil change really is due and you ignore it.


Tektronix Oscilloscope - CRT typeMany moons ago, I got hold of an oscilloscope from an army surplus depot. It was a pretty decent machine – a Tektronix – albeit very basic and dated. I haven’t used it in donkey’s years, and although it is still in the garage I wouldn’t dare turn it on now. It was one of the old CRT jobs, and they had high voltages inside, so with the damp and all that… too risky. It only cost me about £50, but a new one would have been several hundred, so it was a good deal at the time. Like the old TV sets, it weighed an absolute ton, mainly due to the massive transformer and valve chassis inside.

I’ve got a project on the go at the moment which involves an audio circuit – basically, a microphone input and a line-level output. I need to check the frequency characteristics of the circuit to make sure there’s no signal dropout (and to be able to quote this for the final product), so I was suddenly looking for an oscilloscope and a signal generator.

Over the last few years I’ve bought quite a bit of stuff from AliExpress. Consider this: if you wanted to buy, for example, a strip of 5050 LEDs (60 LEDs per metre, IP20), you’d be looking at paying at least £12 for a 5m reel in the UK – probably with shipping on top of that. You can buy the same from sellers on AliExpress for about £3.50 with free shipping. This price differential applies to virtually everything on there. You usually don’t pay any import duty, and even if you do it isn’t much. The only negative is how long things can take to arrive. Sometimes they come in less than a fortnight, other times (though rarely) it can take two months. Most shipments are tracked, and suppliers bend over backwards to help, and will replace lost or faulty items without quibble.

With that in mind, I hopped on over to the AliExpress website to see if they had any handheld oscilloscopes. I almost drowned in my own drool when I saw what they had. You can get “pocket” oscilloscopes the size a smartphone for not much more than $100, and many include a signal generator built-in. I’d earmarked one of these, but then I discovered the Instrustar ISDS205X Virtual PC USB oscilloscope. It has a signal generator and logic analyser, and seemed too good to be true. I asked the supplier if it was Windows 10-compatible – it was – and duly placed an order.

It took about two weeks to arrive (nearly one of those weeks stuck at Heathrow customs judging from the tracking data, and the fact I did have to pay import duty of about £12 on its £70 selling price).

Instrustar virtual PC oscilloscope - main moduleThe oscilloscope consists of the main module, housed in a 160 x 110 x 28mm metal case with rubber end-caps, and a collection of probes and cables – plus the all-important software on a mini-DVD. The instructions on the DVD are typical Chinese-English material, but since I am not a Brexiter I can work around that and see things for what they are rather than demanding an immediate bonfire to burn things I don’t like. So I installed the drivers and plugged the oscilloscope into my PC. It is powered by the USB port, so no separate PSU is needed.

I wasn’t expecting much from the software, and all I wanted was for it to work. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is a huge understatement. The software is very smart-looking.

instrustar_sw_thumbWhenever you run it you have a choice between “professional” and “simplified” and various other displays. The snapshot, above, is of the simplified one showing a 2kHz square wave produced by the internal signal generator being monitored on Channel 1. If you click the image, you can see the display in more detail.

I’m running it on a Windows 10 machine with a 4k display, and it works perfectly. I haven’t got to grips with all the functions yet, but you can save data – so it is also a logger. A further huge bonus is that the signal generator has a “sweep” mode, so I can set it to start at 20Hz and go up in increments of maybe 100Hz (or whatever I choose) to 20kHz, and save the data. This means I can connect the signal generator output to my circuit input, attach the oscilloscope to the output (one channel per stereo channel), set it to “sweep”, and record the results. A feature I think it might also have is that I can mathematically compare the input and outputs and get a difference (even if it doesn’t, a spreadsheet will do that for me).

I doubt that I will ever use the full range of features, but at least I have everything I need for my latest project.


Maplin logoBack in the day, when I first got into technology, the go-to place for all your bits and pieces was Maplin Electronics.

Back then, pretty much all they supplied was electronic components, and it was all done through mail order using order forms, with items being selected from a catalogue which rivalled the old-style phone directories in size. When I was very young, the Dandy or Beano annuals were the most eagerly anticipated publications of the year. If you were into electronics, the new Maplin catalogue was the thing.

Maplin was the cheapest source of small quantities of components to the hobbyist. It also had the most extensive range.

I built my first AM radio receiver from a Maplin circuit (making my own printed circuit board). I also built my first modem from a Maplin kit – a 300 baud device in a large blue box (I might still have it somewhere). I also built or repaired dozens of other things thanks to them, and learned a lot, too.

As I got older, and computers appeared on the scene, I spent less time building varied circuits and began to focus on computer-specific ones. As more time passed, there was an ever-declining need to build anything at all. This shift affected Maplin, and they branched out into retail consumer electronics. In those early days of supplying components, I think they only had two actual shops, and I dreamed of one opening near me. Nottingham has two Maplin stores now, and there are 217 around the country.

In my opinion, a large part of the problem was that most of the stuff they began selling was overpriced and non-branded. You could get better for much less money online. Electronic components were still available, but hidden in the back of the store, and the range was drastically reduced – even more so if you wanted it to be in stock right now for an emergency. And the staff were not always as helpful as you’d expect. I remember one time not that long ago waiting to be served at the click-and-collect in one branch, and the staff repeatedly walked past me, looked at me, and ignored me as they congregated in a group on the other side of the shop floor (until I yelled across that I was waiting to be served). Don’t get me wrong – other times they were great… but not always.

But if only for the sake of nostalgia, it was a shame to hear that they have gone into administration.

Irrespective of my own potted history linking to their current situation, Maplin as a retailer has been hit hard by the fall in the value of the GBP due to Brexit. Indeed, Brexit is cited as a significant factor in their collapse.


Places in the UK where broadband is slowExtensive government research has identified several areas in the UK where broadband is quite slow.

Note that the population density in the UK as a whole is over 270 people per square kilometre. The population density in the areas identified as having the slowest broadband – mainly the extremities of Scotland and rural Wales – is as low as 3-4 people per square kilometre (and in one area, 3-4 probably represents the average IQ of the population there as well).

MPs are apparently planning next to spend a lot more money on identifying that it is darker at night than it is during the daytime, and that ice melts when it warms up.


Microsoft OutlookI use Office and always have done. I like Microsoft, and see no reason to resort to using a hammer and small chisel to make cuneiform tablets for the purposes of communication just because I’m jealous of how big Microsoft is.

Anyway, yesterday I came home and discovered that a new Windows Insider update had come through, but the installation had failed. After re-booting, my system restored itself to the previous build, and I made a note to try the update later that evening. In the meantime, I checked my email, and deleted the stuff I didn’t want. It was then I discovered a stupid, drawn-out quacking sound each time I deleted a message. The problem – well, the change – was too recent for there to be any coherent information on Google.

In Outlook’s settings, there is nothing associated with sounds other than turning off the one you get when an email arrives. I’ve lived through the hell of that annoying chime every time an email arrives, and switched it off long ago. So I was stumped.

But then, the following day, and to add insult to injury, I found out that when I opened Excel and launched a spreadsheet, a new and very annoying sound had been added to that action, too.

Long story short. I disabled “Provide feedback with sound” in Excel’s Options >> Ease of Access panel, and that stopped Excel making noises. The big benefit was that this stopped Outlook doing it, too.


I originally wrote this in 2015 and updated it in mid-2016. It has been popular again recently as a result of the Wannacry and Petya/NotPetya outbreaks.

I upgraded to Windows 10 [2014], and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. The only drawback to Microsoft’s “free upgrade” at that time was that you didn’t get an installation disk (though you can make your own), and it was just that: an upgrade. Hard disk internal view

I have been building my own computers for the last 15 years or so, and I like them running in tip-top condition. Windows has always suffered from what is known as “OS decay” (also called “software rot” and “Windows rot”). The simple fact is that ALL software is liable to degrade over time, and it isn’t just a Windows issue, and what happens is that all the juggling of files, upgrading, installing and uninstalling, software bugs, crashes, and so on, can cause a lot of small changes on a computer. Over time these may accumulate to such a level that the system becomes slow or unstable, and the only sensible way around it is to format your hard drive and do an absolutely clean install of Windows, followed by all your other drivers and software. Absolutely the last thing you want to be doing is upgrading a system which is already in bad shape. But that’s pretty much what you had to do with Windows 10 in order to take up the free offer.

I’ve done clean installs so many times on my own machines (and those of others, including over the phone when I worked in tech support) that I can usually do a format and have a clean machine running in a few hours. I have all my software’s installation files saved along with my software keys, which I just cut and paste as and when I need them. It sounds easy, but even when it’s your own system and you know what you’re doing, it’s still a bloody nuisance. You lose anything you haven’t backed up, and no matter how careful you are there’s always something you forget or misplace. I’ve never been 100% happy with doing it this way. It’s a right pain in the arse.

In the past I’ve toyed with using disk imaging software. The idea behind this is that you can effectively take a snapshot of your hard drive – with Windows and all your software on it – save it, and then copy it back (re-image) on to your disk at some point in the future if you need to. Each time you restore a saved image snapshot, you end up with a system which is in exactly the same condition it was in when you took the snapshot.

For some years I used Paragon software for creating backup images of my Windows installations. On paper, Paragon’s program was very good, but in all honesty it was the absolute pits when it came to doing an actual restore. It wasn’t at all user friendly, which is why I’ve tended to go for clean installs. But with Windows 10 initially being an upgrade rather than a standalone install, I decided that I really did need a proper disk imaging system once and for all.Macrium Reflect

After a bit of research, I found Macrium Reflect. It is available as a free version, and installs in a few seconds. I can’t believe I mucked about with Paragon for so long. I have since upgraded to the Pro version of Reflect.

When you first run Reflect it nags you to create bootable rescue disk (the Pro version also allows you to create a bootable USB stick), which you need in order to restore an image. Creating the rescue disk is very simple, and once you’ve done it you’re free to create your main image.

With my initial Windows 10 upgrade, what I did was this:

  • backed up all my important stuff (photos, documents, emails, etc.) to separate hard drives
  • ran the Windows 10 upgrade in order to activate my free licence
  • did a clean install of Windows 10 (which you can do once you have the licence)
  • installed my drivers
  • created a Reflect image of that system (“clean image”)

Then I installed all my software, activated it, and created another image (“clean working image”).

Periodically, I create a rolling image of my system as it stands at the time. If anything goes wrong in the short term I can restore that, but more serious issues might require me to use one of the previous two images.

A good example of needing to re-image my system stems from my participation in the Windows Insider Program. Due to a couple of cranky Insider builds, I decided I wanted a clean install. All I had to do was export my Outlook files (my other personal files are not stored on the C drive), then run the Macrium restore. It took about 5 minutes and I had a fully operational clean install from the “clean working image”. I then reinstalled any software I’d purchased since that image was made, and that was it.

Macrium Reflect is perfect anyone who wants to create a safe backup of their system. Just remember that you need somewhere to store your image files. My system has 8TB of storage across seven HDDs, but if you only have single HDD you’re going to need at least 20GB free space to create an image.

Doesn’t Windows’ own backup keep my files safe from Wannacry?

No. Windows backs up your personal files, not itself. If you get a virus, this will infect Windows and probably all your backed up files anyway.

Is a disk image safe from Wannacry?

As long as the image is clean (i.e. you didn’t have the virus already on it) then the image itself is safe to use. However, it would not be wise to keep the image on a networked drive where any virus could get at it. In the case of Wannacry, it encrypts everything – and I assume this would include .ISO images and anything else it found.

My images are stored in the cloud, and on spare hard drives and USB devices.

Why is imaging better than a full reinstall?

My own opinion is that it is a pain having to start from scratch with all your software when you do a full reinstall, whereas restoring an image yields a 100% functional system (or one that is close to 100% if you installed software after you made the image).

Bear in mind that a Windows installation DVD is about 4.7GB maximum capacity. A clean image of your hard drive following a clean reinstall will typically be about 20GB (over 5 DVDs). My clean working image is about 60GB (15 DVDs). Since DVDs can get scratched and become unreadable (especially ones you burn yourself), that method of storage is unreliable (in my opinion and experience).

You need to allow for these file sizes when you are backing up.

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