Windows 8 and 10 let you to create a recovery drive (USB) or system repair disc (CD or DVD) that you can use to troubleshoot and restore your computer. Each type of recovery media gives you access to Windows’ advanced startup options, but there are differences between the two options.

RELATED: How to Use the Advanced Startup Options to Fix Your Windows 8 or 10 PC

The system repair disc has been around since the Windows 7 days. It is a bootable CD/DVD that contains tools you can use to troubleshoot Windows when it won’t start correctly. The system repair disc also gives you tools for restoring your PC from an image backup that you’ve created. The recovery drive is new to Windows 8 and 10. It’s a bootable USB drive that gives you access to the same troubleshooting tools as a system repair disc, but also allows you to reinstall Windows if it comes to that. To achieve this, the recovery drive actually copies the system files necessary for reinstallation from your current PC.

Which Recovery/Repair Tool Should You Create?

While you can use both tools to access the Windows advanced boot options for troubleshooting startup, we recommend using a USB-based recovery drive when possible, since it contains all the same tools as the system repair disc, and then some. That said, there’s no reason not to go ahead and create both, and in fact, there are a couple of reasons you might want to create a system repair disc as well:

  • If your PC cannot boot from USB, you’ll need the CD/DVD-based system repair disc.
  • The USB-based recovery drive is tied to the PC that you used to create it. Having a system repair disc around will let you troubleshoot startup problems on different PCs running the same version of Windows.

Like we said, though, both tools will let you access the advanced boot options and other recovery tools if you can’t access them any other way. Also, know that the recovery drive backs up the system files necessary to reinstall Windows, but you should not consider it a back up. It does not back up your personal files or installed applications. So, be sure to keep your PC backed up, as well.

RELATED: Three Ways to Access the Windows 10 and 8 Boot Options Menu

Create a Recovery Drive (USB)

To open the recovery drive creation tool, hit Start, type “recovery drive” into the search box, and then select the “Create a recovery drive” result.

Update: Before you continue, ensure the USB drive you will be using is formatted as NTFS. Windows will format the drive as FAT32 during the process, but the creation tool seems to need the drive in NTFS format to begin.

In the “Recovery Drive” window, you’ve got a choice to make right off the bat. If you select the “Back up system files to the recovery drive” the creation of the recovery drive will take a good bit longer—up to an hour in some cases—but in the end, you’ll have a drive you can use to reinstall Windows in a pinch. We think it’s well worth selecting this option, but make your decision, and then click the “Next” button.

Note: Instead of backing up system files, Windows 8 includes an option named “Copy the recovery partition to the recovery drive” instead. This option copies the hidden recovery partition created when you install Windows, and also gives you an option to delete that partition when the process is done.

Select the USB drive you want to use for the recovery drive, keeping in mind that the drive will be erased and reformatted. When you’ve made your selection, click the “Next” button.

When you’re ready, click “Create” to let Windows reformat your USB drive and copy the necessary files. Again, this step can take a while to complete—especially if you’re backing up system files.

After the process is complete, you can close the “Recovery Drive” window. Note that if you’re using Windows 8, you’ll also be asked if you want to delete the recovery partition. If you do delete the recovery partition, you’ll need the recovery drive to Refresh and Reset your PC in the future.

Create a System Repair Disc (CD/DVD)

To create a CD/DVD-based system repair disc, head to Control Panel > Backup and Restore (Windows 7), and then click the “Create a system repair disc” link on the left.

In the “Create a system repair disc” window, select the disc-burner drive with a writable CD or DVD inserted into it, and then click the “Create disc” button to create your system repair disc.

Windows begins writing the disc immediately. Unlike creating a recovery drive, burning a system repair disc only takes a few minutes because it’s not also backup up system files to the disc. When it’s done, it gives you a bit of advice about using the disc. Note that the repair disc is tied to your version of Windows. If you have Windows 10 64-bit installed, that’s the kind of PC you can use the repair disc on. Click the “Close” button, and then click “OK” to close the “Create a system repair disc” window.

Using a Recovery Drive or System Repair Disc

Most of the time, you won’t really need a recovery drive or system repair disc. If Windows fails to start normally twice in a row, it automatically boots from your recovery partition on the third restart, and then loads the advanced startup options. This gives you access to the same tools as a recovery drive would.

RELATED: How to Boot Your Computer From a Disc or USB Drive

If Windows can’t bring up these tools automatically, that’s when you’ll need the recovery drive, system repair disc, or a Windows 8 or 10 installation disc. Insert the recovery media into your PC and start it up. Your computer should boot from the recovery media automatically. If it doesn’t, you may need to change the boot order of your drives.

When the PC boots from the recovery media, you’ll see options for troubleshooting and repairing your PC. You can refresh and reset your PC or access advanced options to use system restore, recover from a system image, or automatically repair your computer. You can even get a command prompt that lets you fix problems by hand.

If Windows isn’t starting normally, you should try the “Automatic Repair” option first, and then maybe pursue the “System Restore” option. Reinstalling Windows—whether by restoring from an image backup or resetting your PC entirely—should be a last resort.

RELATED: How to Fix Startup Problems with the Windows Startup Repair Tool

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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