Inside the Dell PC Restore Partition

An Exploration by Dan Goodell
Disclaimer: I am not associated with Dell Computer Corp. in any way, except as an end user. The information presented here does not represent official information from Dell or Dell representatives. This is just some conclusions from personal exploration of the restore partition shipped on several recent Dell desktop and laptop computers. This information is provided as-is, so interested others may look over my shoulder at what I've found with these particular machines. Though it may apply generally to many new Dell computers, the reader should take that into consideration.
Many years ago, Dell started shipping computers with a small Dell Utility partition hidden at the front of the hard disk, followed by the main (Windows operating system) partition. Beginning around July 2004, select Dell computers in the Dimension and Inspiron model lines began shipping with a third partition hidden at the end of the hard disk. This third partition contains the "Dell PC Restore by Symantec" utility--colloquially referred to as DSR ("Dell System Restore"). This is a utility that can be used to return a computer to its "as shipped" state, with the XP operating system restored to the condition it was in when the user first unpacked the computer from the box. Pressing the right keys when the computer is starting up will boot this DSR partition.

WARNING: The details that follow require an above-average understanding of the technical topics involved. If you do not understand the material presented here, either find a technically-knowledgable friend or do not attempt to repair your system yourself. Improper changes can render all data on your hard disk inaccessible!
What This Document Is NOT About

This is not a "modding" webpage. It is certainly possible to modify or customize the DSR partition, or update the on-disk Ghost image with a new, customized image, but that is beyond the scope of what this webpage is about. It's possible to have too much information, so to avoid confusing readers the content of this page is intentionally limited to providing information about what Dell has done--how the DSR system works and how to fix it if it breaks.

This document does not cover Dell MediaDirect. It is about PC-Restore. MediaDirect is discussed here only to the extent of its impact on the PC-Restore system.

This document covers only computers that originally shipped with Microsoft XP. Dell computers that shipped with Microsoft VISTA do not use this type of DSR system.

DSR Versions

There are two basic types of the DSR partition, differing in the operating system to which they boot. Early types of the DSR partition boot to DOS, a 16-bit operating system. The later type boots a WinPE 32-bit operating system.

All DSR versions use the FAT32 file system, so the operating system booted has to be FAT32-aware. The earliest versions of the DSR partition booted to MS-DOS 7.1 (the version of DOS from Windows 98). Later, Dell began using DRMK, their own variation of DOS. These are 16-bit operating systems.    (Note to reader: DRMK apparantly stands for "Dell Real-Mode Kernel". The purpose of DRMK may be to avoid paying licensing fees to Microsoft, not to add extra DOS functions.)

When Dell began shipping computers with Ghost 10 preloaded, the DSR partition was changed to WinPE, a 32-bit operating system.    (Note to reader: PE, or "Preinstallation Environment", is what you boot to if you boot from a Windows 2000 or XP installation CD.)


The Backup Image

The majority of the space in the DSR partition is occupied by a backup image. This section explains what an image is.


Symantec Ghost 10

In early 2006 Dell began shipping computers with a time-limited trial version of Symantec Ghost 10. This section describes the effect this change has on the DSR feature.


How the DSR Partition Boots

Both DSR types boot by using MBR boot code customized by Dell. This Dell MBR does not affect the boot process when booting the Windows partition or the Utility partition--indeed, no special MBR is needed to boot either of those. However, the DSR partition cannot be booted without this new MBR.


Inside the DOS-Type DSR Partition

The DOS version of a DSR partition serves one purpose: to wipe the XP partition and replace it with a copy of the original, "as-shipped" contents of the XP partition. This section discusses how it works.


Inside the PE-Type DSR Partition

A WinPE version of the DSR partition serves multiple purposes. These multiple purposes are available from a "Symantec/Dell Recovery Environment" (SRE) menu. This section discusses the SRE in further detail.


Troubleshooting the Restore Process

The Dell-specific Ctrl+F11 process is supposed to completely automate the restoration process, returning the hard disk to the state it was in when Dell shipped the computer. However, overwriting the MBR by using a boot manager, using the commands "fixmbr" or "fdisk /mbr", installing from a Windows installation CD, and assorted other tasks a user might do will inadvertantly break Ctrl+F11, rendering the system unable to boot the DSR partition. Furthermore, changing the partitioning by adding, deleting, or resizing partitions will cause DSRcheck to fail, so even if Ctrl+F11 works, the restore process will abort without attempting to restore the Ghost image.

This section explains how to fix the Ctrl+F11 and DSR process following repartitioning or OS reinstallation.


Appendix: Understanding the Dell MediaDirect Partition

Some Dell notebook computers include a special Dell MediaDirect feature. MediaDirect enables you to watch DVD movies, slideshows, or listen to music without having to boot the complete XP operating system. MediaDirect is installed in a special partition on the hard disk, but is hidden so you cannot see it when XP is booted normally. When the computer is off, pressing the MediaDirect button will boot the MediaDirect partition instead of XP.

Appendix: What About Microsoft Vista?

Dell computers originally shipped with Vista preinstalled do not use the DSR system described in this document. This section contains some general notes, but since this document is about the DSR system, a detailed discussion of Vista systems is outside the scope of this webpage.

Appendix: The Dell Utility Partition

(Note to reader: the Dell Utility partition is a separate, independent partition, but is required for proper functioning of the PC-Restore partition.)

In my analysis of the Dell Utility partition, I noted that there was a great deal of flexibility permitted regarding that partition--it does not need a special MBR, does not need to be the first partition on the disk, does not need to be listed first in the partition table, and can tolerate different partition sizes and different operating systems. The inclusion of a PC Restore partition, however, places restrictions on the location and contents of the Utility partition.

Appendix: Additional Reading

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author: Dan Goodell
last revised: 03/14/2009