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System Image Backup

If you are a system administrator or an IT pro, the chances are you'll already be familiar with and have used image backup software such as Symantec Ghost or Acronis True Image. Windows has included a System Image Backup feature since Windows Vista, and it offers some compelling benefits over the competition, not the least of which is that backups can be created and restored without the need for any external media (DVD, USB Flash Drive).

Creating a System Image Backup

Oddly, if you search in the Start Menu or the Taskbar search box in Windows 10, no combinations of the words system, image, and backup will display a quick link to the System Image Backup utility. There are two ways to access it, and I'll detail both, though I fully expect both of these to be removed in a forthcoming Windows 10 update as the feature is likely to be deprecated.

The first of these methods is to click Backup and Restore (Windows 7) in the Control Panel, and then to click the Create a system image link that appears in the top left of the window. The reason I say that I expect for this to be removed in a forthcoming update is that this is included (as it was in Windows 8) to aid migration of users from Windows 7 who had files backed up using that OS's file backup utility, and in the Windows 8.1 update, it vanished. You should not think of this as a long-term feature of Windows 10 and therefore should not use the file backup utility it also provides.

The other method of accessing the System Image Backup utility is to open File History in the Control Panel; a System Image Backup link will appear in the bottom left of the window. Clicking the link opens the Backup and restore (Windows 7) page, but this as I mentioned is very likely to change, perhaps even by the time you read this.

The System Image Backup utility opens as a wizard that offers you three locations for storing your backup, on a local hard disk or partition on the PC (this must be an internal drive; USB-connected drives are not supported), on one of more DVDs or on a network location.

I want to deal with the issues this can throw up. The first of which is storing your backup on DVDs (Blu-ray burners are also supported). Let's set aside for a moment that burned optical disks tend to have a limited lifespan, and so can't be relied upon for long-term archival storage. A "typical" Windows 10 installation, however, at about 25GB in size would require up to 6 DVDs, and my own most basic installation at around 100GB would require 23 of them. That's a substantial time investment for both creating and restoring the backup, and that's assuming that none of the disks fail in the interim period.

Network storage can also present a problem. You can create your backup on any network location accessible on your PC. This can include server network shares, network-attached storage (NAS), and a USB hard disk plugged into your network router, but... you must never store a System Image backup on a network share you can only connect to by Wi-Fi. The reason for this is that the system image can be restored only from the Windows 10 Recovery Options, and these have no way to load Wi-Fi drivers, and as such, cannot connect to remote storage by any method other than by a physical network (Ethernet) cable.

There is also the small matter of your files. On some PCs, where files are stored on a server and synced using a roaming user profile, or where all your files are synchronized to a cloud backup service such as Dropbox or Google Drive, and where you don't have many files, you might be content to leave them sitting in your C:\Users folder. If you use OneDrive however, or if you have more files than can easily and quickly be downloaded from a web service, you should always store your files on a separate physical hard disk, or partition on your PC.

The reason for this is that a system image is a full snapshot of the disk or partition on which Windows 10 is installed at the time the backup image is taken. When you restore this backup image, that entire disk or partition will be restored exactly as it was at the time the backup was made. If files are stored on this drive or partition in the C:\Users folder (or elsewhere on the same drive), they will overwritten, and older versions of your files will be restored.

With cloud backup services such as Dropbox and Google Drive, this doesn't present too much of a problem, as restoring a backup will require those services to completely resync all of your files downward from cloud storage anyway. OneDrive works differently, however, in that it can simply pick up from where it left off before. The OneDrive client is getting much better with this type of problem, but because it works very differently from the other cloud backup providers, there's never any guarantee.

While this will sync all of your current files down from the cloud, it will also likely back up all the old versions of files, and files you've long since deleted that are included in your backup, to the cloud again.

There's also the fact that including personal files in a system backup will inflate the size of the backup file, perhaps considerably, and if you need to perform a complete format-and-clean reinstallation of Windows 10, you won't restore them anyway.

Moving your files away from your copy of Windows 10 is a good idea anyway, since if you have a major problem with Windows 10 that requires a clean reinstallation of the OS, you won't lose your files in the process.

When you have chosen your backup location, you will be asked which hard disks or partitions in the PC you wish to include in the backup. Anything you can't exclude because it's essential to the operation of Windows 10 is grayed out, and you're likely to not want to select anything else.

However, as you may have a small partition on which you store hardware drivers or other setup files for the PC that would be useful to include, or you may have a separate partition on which some win32 apps are installed.

When you click Next, you will be presented with details of the backup location and partition inclusion options you have selected, and asked to begin creation of the System Image Backup.

Restoring a System Image Backup

You restore a System Image Backup from the Windows 10 Recovery Options. There are, just as with performing a Reset, three ways to access these options (Windows 10 starts up far too quickly for the F8 startup menu to be something I can still recommend). You can open the Settings app, click Update & Security, and in the Recovery section, click the Advanced Startup button. You can also hold down the Shift key on your keyboard while clicking Restart from the Start Menu power options or sign-in screen. You can also start your PC from the USB Recovery Drive that you definitely created!! You will need to make sure your PC's BIOS or UEFI system is set to permit booting from USB devices, however.

Do not encrypt a drive or partition containing a System Image Backup with Bitlocker, as the Recovery Console will be unable to see it and therefore be unable to restore it. This does present some potential security issues, which is another reason to store your files away from your Windows installation and to maintain strong passwords and Windows Hello biometric authentication on all user accounts on the PC, as a restored backup will be unencrypted, and you will have to reencrypt it with Bitlocker afterward.

At the Recovery Options screen, click Troubleshoot and then Advanced Options. You will then see a link to See more recovery options which you need to click to then display System Image Recovery.

If a system backup image exists on the PC, it should be found automatically by the system; if no image is found however, perhaps because you are storing it on a network drive or because the disk containing the backup requires a RAID or another hardware driver, choose the Select a system image option, and click Next.

If you need to search for a network location, you will be asked for the full address of the network folder containing your System Image Backup in the format \\server\share. Alternatively, you can click Install a driver to load a RAID or other hardware disk driver.

If you do not know this, perhaps because it is managed by your system administrator, you can ask them or, on another PC that also has access to the file share, open its location in File Explorer and then click the icon to the left of the address (breadcrumb) bar to reveal the full network address.