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Following on from my discussion with @JustinD in the comments here, is it technically possible to simply xcopy the contents of a Windows partition to a partition freshly created and formatted on a new drive, and have the copied OS boot up normally as before?

My understanding is that the MBR is located at the first sector of the drive preceding the first partition, and thus is inaccessible to xcopy. Thus even if all the files are transferred, the lack of a proper boot record on the target disk should prevent it from booting unless a Startup Repair is performed. Looking at all the programs that offer disk/partition cloning, if all that was required was a simple file copy then surely nothing more than a LiveCD/USB would be required for a successful OS transfer? Or one could just connect the new drive, xcopy the OS and then swap drives if it was that simple.

So, can one simply xcopy Windows (and the System Reserved partition, if it exists) and expect it to boot?

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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Short answer: no.

You can, however, image (also commonly called "ghost") the drive to another. Norton Ghost, Acronis and other tools exist to accomplish this.

What does work however with Windows XP (not applicable to Vista and up) is starting the installation, letting the file copy finish. Then, delete everything the new installation created except the files in the root of the drive (boot.ini, ntldr, etc). At this point you can copy over all the files (once again, except the root) from the old installation and it will boot back up.

There are very few reasons to do this, but it works!

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Just what I thought (and as per my own observations). But since @JustinD is absolutely insisting it works, I have no idea how he accomplished this. Imaging (such as with dd on Linux) obviously would perform a sector-wise copy and ignore the concept of individual files (which xcopy copies), and would hence copy the entire contents of the HDD including the MBR. –  Karan Dec 17 '12 at 17:30
Admittedly, I never tried the xcopy method. –  Pier-Luc Gendreau Dec 17 '12 at 17:41
Actually I had occasion to test this a couple of days back with Win7 and it did not boot, as expected. I'm still wondering whether there might be any situation where it will work, as apparently experienced by him. As for your edit, at that point the XP installer would have written to the MBR, so it will obviously work, but that's different from the scenario described. –  Karan Dec 17 '12 at 17:43
Yup, it's the MBR recreating that's the main sticking point here. IMO xcopy simply cannot do this, so I'm at a loss to explain it. I still think he had the previous MBR present and so it worked. –  Karan Dec 17 '12 at 17:50
@mdpc: You'd need to use the fixboot/fixmbr commands (XP) or bootrec's fixboot, fixmbr and rebuildbcd options (Vista+). Who even uses DOS these days, plus it'll not detect newer SATA drives, won't work with NTFS anyway and its /mbr option will most likely not help with Windows or worst case even mess up an existing install. –  Karan Dec 17 '12 at 22:52
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For W7 and W8 (should work same) - You can definitely use xcopy in WinPE to do this - you can't do it in Windows while it is running because of file locking.

  1. Boot to WinPE and xcopy the root of C:\ to another disk.
  2. After copied, delete C:\Boot\BCD (file).
  3. Then run bcdboot C:\windows /s D:
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Yes, I mentioned above that you'd need to fix the MBR or rebuild the BCD store. Without that just using xcopy will not result in the copy of Windows booting. –  Karan Jun 11 at 21:55
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