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Creating and Restoring a System Image Backup

Windows 10 includes the Windows Backup program (Sdclt.exe) originally released as part of Windows 7. Its feature set is basically the same as its predecessor, and it's included primarily for compatibility with backups created using that older operating system.

If you have a working backup routine based on the Windows 7 Backup program, we don't want to stand in your way. The version included with Windows 10 does all the familiar tasks you depend on, and we suggest you carry on. After all, the best backup program is the one you use.

For Windows 10, there are better backup utilities, but we continue to recommend the Windows Backup program for the one task it does exceptionally well: Use it to make a system image backup that can re-create a complete PC configuration, using a single drive or multiple drives. Restoring that system image creates a perfect copy of the system configuration as it existed on the day that system image was captured.

You don't need to install, update, and activate Windows, reinstall all your applications, and then configure your applications to work the way you like; instead, you boot into the Windows Recovery Environment, choose an image file to restore, and then complete the process by restoring from your latest file backup, which is likely to be more recent than the image. The image files that Windows Backup creates are largely hardware independent, which means that-with some limitations-you can restore your backup image to a new computer of a different brand and type. (Just be prepared to jump through some activation hoops on the new PC.)

Use a system image to save your custom configuration

The single greatest use for a system image backup is to clean up an OEM configuration, leaving Windows intact, removing unwanted software, and installing your favorite apps. Being able to return to a baseline configuration quickly is a trick that IT pros learned long ago, as a way of deploying Windows in large organizations. By mastering the system image backup feature, you can accomplish the same result even in an environment with a few PCs instead of a thousand.

Creating a system image backup

Type backup in the search box to find the Windows 7 Backup And Restore tool.

The vintage Windows 7 backup tool isn't necessary for file backup tasks, but it's ideal for capturing a complete image of a Windows installation for disaster recovery.

When you first open Windows Backup, a message alerts you that the program has not been set up. You can ignore the Set Up Backup link forever if you simply want to create a system image backup (an excellent idea if you just finished performing a clean installation with all your drivers and programs installed and ready to use). Click the Create A System Image link in the left pane.

Ignore the options in the center of that window and instead click the Create A System Image link at the left side of the window. That opens the efficient Create A System Image Wizard. The first step asks you to define a destination for your system image.

The ideal destination for a system image backup is a local hard disk, internal or external. If the Windows Backup program detects a drive that qualifies, it suggests that destination in the list of hard disks at the top of the dialog box.

The second option lets you choose a DVD writer as the target for the backup operation. You'll need to supply two, three, and maybe more blank discs to store the image backup. Although this option might have made sense in a bygone era, it's downright quaint today. Most new PCs don't even include a DVD drive, making backups stored on that media inconvenient at best and potentially useless. Even when a DVD drive is available, a single corrupted disc in the series can ruin the whole backup.

Windows Backup says your drive is not a valid location:
If you try to choose a removable drive that is not a hard drive, such as a USB flash drive or SD card, Windows Backup will return this error message: "The drive is not a valid backup location." In its conventional backup role, Windows Backup can save data files on just about any storage medium. System image backups, however, must be saved on a hard disk, a DVD, or a network location.

When you create a system image backup, the resulting image file stores the complete contents of all selected drives during its first backup. If the backup target is a local (internal or external) hard drive, subsequent backup operations store only new and changed data. Therefore, the subsequent, incremental backup operation typically runs much faster, depending on how much data has been changed or added since the previous image backup operation.

If you choose a shared network folder as the backup destination, you can save only one image backup. Any subsequent image backup wipes out the previous image backup.

Save multiple image backups on a network:
If you specify a shared network folder as the destination for an image backup, beware of the consequences if you try to reuse that location for a subsequent backup of the same computer. If the backup operation fails for any reason, the older backup will be overwritten, but the newer backup will not be usable. In other words, you'll have no backup.
You can avoid this risk by creating a new subfolder in the shared network folder to hold each new image backup. The disadvantage, of course, is that each image file will occupy as much space as the original disk, unlike an incremental image backup on an external hard drive, which stores only the changed data.

If you have multiple hard drives, Windows displays a dialog box, in which you choose the volumes you want to include in the backup. By default, any volume that contains Windows system files is selected. If other drives are available, you can optionally choose to include them in the image backup as well.

The disk space requirements for an image-based backup can be substantial, especially on a well-used system that includes lots of user data files. Windows Backup estimates the amount of disk space the image will use and will warn you if the destination you choose doesn't have sufficient free disk space.

After you confirm your settings, click Start Backup to begin the process of building and saving your image.

System images are stored in virtual hard disk (.vhd) format. Although the data is not compressed, it is compact because the image file does not include the hard drive's unused space and some other unnecessary files, such as hibernation files, page files, and restore points. Incremental system image backups on a local drive are not written to a separate folder. Instead, new and updated files (actually, the changed blocks in those files) are written to the same .vhd file. The older blocks are stored as shadow copies in the .vhd file, allowing you to restore any previous version.

The final step of the image backup process offers to help you create a system repair disc on a writable CD or DVD. This option might be useful for an older PC, but it's redundant if you've already created a recovery drive as described in the previous section.

Restoring a system image backup

The system image capabilities in Windows Backup are intended for creating an emergency recovery kit for a single PC. In that role, they function exceptionally well. If your hard drive fails catastrophically, or if you want to wipe your existing Windows installation and start with a clean custom image you created a few weeks or months ago, you've come to the right place.

Your options (and potential gotchas) become more complex if you want to use these basic image backup and restore tools to work with a complex set of physical disks and partitions, especially if the disk layout has changed from the time you created the original image.

In this tutorial, we assume that you have created an image backup of your system disk and want to restore it to a system that is essentially the same (in terms of hardware and disk layout) as the one you started with. In that case, you can restart your computer using a recovery drive or a Windows 10 installation drive and then choose the Repair Your Computer option.

Choose Advanced Options and then select System Image Recovery.

If the backup deities are smiling, you should see the dialog box. Assuming that Windows recognized the drive containing your system image backup, your most recent system image backup should be available in the first (recommended) option.

If you're restoring the most recent image backup to the same system on which it was originally created and the backup is stored on an external hard drive attached to the computer, your job is easy. The latest system image should be available for your selection. Verify that the date and time and other details of the image match the one you want to restore, and then click Next to continue.

If the image file you're planning to restore from is on a network share or if you want to use a different image, choose Select A System Image and then click Next. You'll see a dialog box that lists additional image files available on local drives. Select the correct file, and click Next to select an image created on a specific date if more than one is available. If the image file you're looking for is in a shared network folder, click the Advanced button and then click Search For A System Image On The Network. Enter the network location that contains your saved image, along with a user name and password that have authorized access to that location.

Restoring an image backup completely replaces the current contents of each volume in the image file. The restore program offers to format the disk or disks to which it is restoring files before it begins the restore process; if you have multiple drives or volumes and you're nervous about wiping out valuable data files, it offers an option to exclude certain disks from formatting.

The important point to recognize about restoring a system image is that it replaces the current contents of system volumes with the exact contents that existed at the time of the image backup you select. That means your Windows system files and registry will be returned to health (provided the system was in good shape when you performed your most recent backup and that no hardware-related issues have cropped up since then). Whatever programs were installed when you backed up your system will be restored entirely. All other files on the restored disk, including your documents, will also be returned to their prior states, and any changes made after your most recent backup will be lost.

If you keep your documents on the same volume as your system files, restoring a system image is likely to entail the loss of recent work-unless, of course, you have an up-to-date file backup or you have the good fortune to have made an image backup almost immediately before your current troubles began. The same is true if you save documents on a volume separate from your system files but have included that data volume in your image backup. If you have documents that have not been backed up, you can avoid losing recent work by copying them to a disk that will not be affected by the restore process-a USB flash drive, for example, or some other form of removable media. You can use the Command Prompt option in the Windows Recovery Environment to copy these documents.
The main hardware limitation for restoring a system image backup is that the target computer must have at least as many hard drives as the source system, and each drive must be at least as big as its corresponding drive in the source system. This means, for example, that you can't restore a system image from a system that has a 500-GB hard drive to a system with a 256-GB SSD, even if the original system had far less than 256 GB of data on its drive. Keep in mind also that on a system with multiple hard drives, the BIOS determines which one is the bootable drive, and this is the one on which Windows will restore the image of your system volume. (You have no choice in the matter, aside from reconnecting the drives or, if your BIOS permits it, selecting a different bootable drive.)

If your new computer meets the space requirements, restoring a system image should work. This is true even when the source and target computers use different disk controllers. Similarly, other differences-such as different graphics cards, audio cards, processors, and so on-shouldn't prevent you from restoring a system image to a different computer, because hardware drivers are isolated from the rest of the image information and are rebuilt as part of the restore process.

Your backup folders are "empty":
If you use File Explorer to browse to the folder containing your system image backup, when you rest the mouse pointer over a folder name, the pop-up tip might identify it as an "Empty folder." Alarmed, you right-click the folder and choose Properties, only to find that the folder apparently contains 0 bytes, 0 files, and 0 folders. Don't worry. This is the normal condition when your backups are stored on an NTFS volume because, by default, only the System user account has permission to view the files. (That's a reasonable security and reliability precaution, which prevents you or another user from inadvertently deleting a key backup file.) If you're confident of your ability to work safely with backup files in their native format, the solution is simple: Double-click the folder name. Follow the prompts, including a User Account Control (UAC) consent dialog box, to permanently add your user account to the folder's permissions list, giving you Full Control access to the folder.