How to Back Up and Restore Windows 10 from an Image File

A Windows 10 system image will allow you to restore your computer’s previous state in the event of a system-smashing disaster. A system image copies absolutely everything about your computer including Settings, Preferences, Documents, Applications, Registry settings – even your desktop background. System images aren’t as flexible as a file backups – you can’t restore individual files from a system image – but they’re a crucial part of any serious backup strategy.

Windows 10 has some built-in tools we can use to create and restore from a backup system image.

To use our backup image effectively, we’ll need a System Repair Disc or a System Recovery Drive. Should you need to apply a backup to a non-booting machine, you can use this media to boot your PC and apply the backup from outside your Windows installation. If you already have a Windows 10 installation disc, that will typically work as a System Repair Disc as well. If you don’t have the installation disc around, you’ll need to create some recovery media.

Create a System Repair Disc

If you have a CD or DVD burner and some blank DVDs or CDs handy, you can create a System Repair Disc.

1. Insert a blank CD or DVD into your CD or DVD drive.

2 Launch the “Windows 7 Backup and Restore” tool from the Control Panel. You’ll notice going forward that the user interface looks very similar to the old Windows 7 backup tool. That’s because we’re actually using that tool inside of Windows 10. Microsoft just “wrapped” the Windows 7 Backup functionality in Windows 10 styling.

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3. Click “Create a System Repair Disc” on the left-side menu bar.

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4. Select your DVD drive and click “Create Disc” to burn the recovery disc.

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Create a System Recovery Drive

You can also create a recovery drive which is the same as a recovery disc but on a USB drive.

1. Insert a blank USB drive into your computer. Its total capacity must be at least 512 MB.

2. Type “Recovery Drive” into the Start Menu and click “Create a Recovery Drive.”

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3. Uncheck the box next to “Back up system files to the recovery drive” and click “Next.”

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4. If necessary, choose a disc from the list, then click “Next.”

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5. Click “Create” to create the recovery drive.

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Now that you can boot your computer in the event of disaster, you can create a backup image. This image will be a “snapshot” of your computer’s current state, capturing absolutely everything at the time of backup.

1. Launch the Windows 7 Backup and Restore tool from Control Panel.

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2. Click “Create a System Image” on the left-side menu bar.

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3. From the drop-down list, choose the hard disk you want to use to store the system image, then click “Next.”

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4. Your boot disc and all its crucial partitions will be selected for backup automatically. Choose any additional partitions you’d like to include in your system image.

We recommend you don’t select any partitions that aren’t on the same physical disk. This way you’ll avoid accidentally overwriting files on a hard drive that wasn’t damaged by whatever spoiled your system disk.

When you’re ready, click “Next.”

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5. Review your selections to make sure they’re correct. When you’re ready, click “Start Backup” to begin the image creation process.

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When it’s time to restore from your system image, you’ll need your recovery media and the hard drive with the backup image. Remember that restoring from a system image is an all-or-nothing process. You must restore all the files from the system image or none of the files.

1. Boot your computer from your System Recovery Disc or System Restore Drive. You may need to press a hotkey at your BIOS screen (F2 or F12, probably) to select an alternative boot disk.

2. If you see a prompt for installing Windows, click “Repair this Computer” in the lower-left of the window.

3. Click “Troubleshoot.”

4. Click “Advanced Options.”

5. Select “System Image Recovery.”

6. Click the “Windows 10” icon to choose your operating system.

7. Select the desired backup image and click “Next” to begin the restore process.  When the process is finished, you’ll be able to reboot your computer, now returned to its previous state.

With a little preparation you can protect your computer in the event of a total system meltdown. A system image will allow you to return to your last good state, effectively hitting “rewind” on whatever wrecked your system.

10 comments

  1. Some utilities (like Acronis) claim they can restore to different hardware. How can this be since it seems to me that it would violate the Microsoft license agreement? i.e., how do you prove to Microsoft that the software you were running on PC “A” has now been moved to PC “B” and that you are not running duplicates copies on 2 different PCs?

    • Hi Dan! Windows uses the ID of your motherboard to determine whether or not you’re on a different computer. If your motherboard changes, Windows considers that a different computer. So if you try to use the same license key on two computers, that probably won’t work. You’d first need to deactivate Windows on one computer in order to free up a license for use.

      For OEM licenses, it’s even more stringent: the license is permanently tied to that motherboard and cannot be moved.

      • Hi Alexander:

        Thanks for your reply.
        So how is it that Acronis (and other companies) can claim products like their True Image are capable of restoring to different hardware? Or am I misinterpreting their claim?

        Dan

        • What True Image probably means is that the cloning process will work on any hardware, which it will. They can’t be responsible for software licensing, though. Even a non-activated copy of Windows will boot up and run for a short period of time, so the clone will work, just maybe not in the way you want it to.

      • Alexander:
        Also, what is the procedure for “deactivating Windows” as you put it, so that Microsoft will allow the transfer of license?
        Dan

        • Hi Dan!

          So I was wrong about deactivating, I was thinking of Adobe for some reason!

          You can just go ahead and install Windows on a different machine. When it comes time to activate, if you’re blocked, do the activation over the phone with a support rep. They should be able to handle the situation for you.

          • Alexander:
            Thanks for your timely followup to all my questions (and if you happen to know which one of the gazillion MS phone numbers to use then thanks once again!).
            Dan

  2. Hi Alexander:
    I believe a non-clone backup is smart enough to not copy blanks but I was wondering if a system image (clone) copies even the blank or unused space? If so, would that mean the target drive would need to be as least as large as the source drive (even if much of the source drive was blank and never used) ?
    Dan

    • Hi Dan!

      The Windows 10 system image function won’t copy blank blocks. It’s not a direct clone, but rather a backup of all the important files on your computer in a single drive image. Other systems, like Acronis and Clonezilla, can and will copy blank blocks.

      The difference is that the Windows 10 system image is fairly flexible, and knows only to copy actual data into a elastic digital storage structure. It’s backing up files, not the state of a hard drive. Cloning a drive is a little different, since it’s duplicating a physical disk’s current state. A “dumb” clone will copy every single bit, whether it’s meaningful or not. This is great if you need it, but for a normal user backup, it’s a bit over the top.

      It doesn’t help that the words “image” and “clone” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are different processes.

      • So just to be sure I understand you correctly, the Windows System Image as described in your article creates a file (like Acronis) that is bootable and when restored with it will create the state of my PC as it was when I created the image – correct? If so, who needs Acronis ?!?

        Dan

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