Home / Windows 10

Backing Up and Restoring Windows 10

IT pros will commonly want to reimage a PC when encountering a problem. With Windows 10, however, this raises a question: What system imaging tool do you want to use? This is because there are actually two different ones included with the OS. These tools work in different ways; both have their strengths and weaknesses, both have specific scenarios in which they are most useful, and one of them which is likely the better of the two is also probably going to be deprecated in the future and become unusable.


When you install Windows 10 on a PC, it automatically creates its own system backup image called a "Reset" image. This is cleverly maintained because it updates itself on a regular basis with the latest hardware drivers and Windows Updates so that, unlike a static System Image backup, when it's restored, it won't need updating with months or years worth of updates and drivers.

It's commonly a driver or an update that's the cause of a problem in the first place, so what's the point in this? The Reset feature in Windows 10 stores only those updates and drivers that have been installed on the PC for more than 30 days, the reasoning being that if you've been using them for a month already, there's likely nothing wrong with them as you'd have spotted a problem already.

Even better, the reset process doesn't wipe your user account(s) or files. A common problem with the System Image backup process is that a user's files need to be stored either on a server or on a separate partition or hard disk to Windows 10 itself, as the process of restoring the backup completely wipes everything currently on the Windows 10 partition, and replaces it with the contents of the backup.

A Reset image can be restored from the Settings panel; you'll find it in Update & Security in the Recovery section. Indeed, it's so straightforward a process that a nontechnical PC user can do it without issue. You're asked if you want to keep your files [and folders], or if you want to Remove everything and wipe the PC (useful if you're selling it or giving it to a friend or family member), and the process is automated from there on.

Completely wiping a PC using the Reset facility removes all user accounts and files from the PC but does not securely erase them. To securely wipe currently unused space on your PC, you will need a third-party tool such as CCleaner from piriform.com. You can also wipe the free space on your PC by opening the Command Prompt (Admin) from the Windows + X menu and typing cipher /w:[directory name or drive letter].

On the face of things, this sounds like the ideal solution to image backup problems. End users can do it themselves, nondestructively, with all updates and hardware drivers included and with no risk they'll lose any of their files. What's not to like?

As with everything on PCs, there is a caveat, and it's an important one. A Reset image won't keep any installed win32 desktop apps or any configuration options that can't be easily restored from OneDrive, Azure, or a domain profile. It doesn't keep Windows Store or Store for Business apps either, though the process of reinstalling these is very straightforward compared to win32 software.

Thus, while this is a great solution for a home user that lives solely in the Microsoft Edge web browser, if the user has the full Microsoft Office suite, Adobe Creative Cloud, or any other non-Store apps on their PC, these will all need to be reinstalled and configured from scratch.

Windows 10 Reset works by using files located in the WinSXS folder to reimage the OS in such a way so as to keep it up to date. This means that manual checking and repair of the Reset image in the event of an error or corruption (Reset is intended to be self-managing and robust) isn't possible, as there isn't a single image. While Reset is intended to operate effectively 100% of the time, some IT pros (myself included) might want to also manually create a system backup image... just in case of a disk or partition corruption that would prevent Reset from working.

Restoring a Reset Image on a Nonbootable PC

Reset can be invoked from within the Settings panel in Windows 10, as I detailed earlier, and is very easy to operate. However, you might find that your installed copy of Windows 10 isn't bootable, and you cannot launch Reset from the desktop. Alternatively, you might find that the desktop environment is unstable, and crashes such as a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) occur before you can invoke Reset.

In both cases you can run Reset from the Recovery Options in Windows 10. There are several ways to access this menu:

  • From the Settings app, in the Update & Security section, click the Recovery tab and then click the Restart now button in the Advanced Startup section.
  • From any power control (the Sleep, Shutdown, and Restart buttons in the Start Menu or at the Sign-in screen), hold down the Shift key while clicking Restart.
  • Start the PC from the Recovery Drive you created for it, because you did create one-didn't you!?
If your PC is encrypted using Bitlocker, you will need your 48-character unlock key. You are prompted to back this up when you encrypt a drive, but if you use a Microsoft account and have chosen to back up the key there (you have to opt into this at encryption time), you can find your keys stored online at https://onedrive.live.com/recoverykey.

When the Recovery Options menu loads, you have two further options to choose from depending on whether you want to use the Reset image on the PC's hard drive or a Reset image you copied to the Recovery Drive automatically when you created it.

To reset a PC from an image on the Recovery Drive, click Use a device, and select the USB Flash Drive that's your Recovery Drive.

Then, or if you are using the Reset image on the PC itself, click Troubleshoot, and at the next screen, click Reset this PC. You will then be guided through the process of restoring Windows 10 using the correct Reset image. Note that you will need to know an Administrator password to complete this process.