Windows can create “system image backups,” which are essentially complete images of your hard drive and all the files on it. Once you’ve got a system image backup, you can restore your system exactly as it was when you backed up, even if your installation is badly corrupted or completely gone.
Windows contains many different backup tools. Most people won’t want to use this feature at all, and should just back up files with File History or another file-backup tool. But enthusiasts or system administrators who want to create a complete image of a system at one point in time will appreciate and use system image backups.
You can’t restore a Windows system image backup on a different PC. Your Windows installation is tied to your PC’s specific hardware, so this only works for restoring a computer to its previous state.
While you can’t restore a system image backup on another PC, you can extract individual files from a system image backup. Microsoft says it’s not possible to extract individual files from a system image backup, and they don’t provide an easy tool to do so — but they’re just standard VHD (virtual hard disk) image files that you can “mount” and copy files from using File Explorer or Windows Explorer.
Be sure to connect the drive containing the system image backups to your computer before continuing.
Creating system image backups is still fairly simple. On Windows 7, it’s integrated with the normal backup tool. On Windows 8.1 and 10, just open the File History backup window in the control panel. You’ll see a “System Image Backup” link, which will open the “Backup and Restore (Windows 7)” tool. Click the “Create a system image” link to create a system image.
There’s a good chance your system image backup will be quite large, so you’ll want to have a large drive to put it on. An external USB hard drive is ideal.
If Windows is still working properly, you can do this right from the Windows desktop. However, this option only appears to be present on Windows 7. It was removed in Windows 8, 8.1, and 10.
To do this, open the Control Panel and locate the “Backup and Restore” panel. You can just search for “backup” in the Control Panel to find it. At the bottom of the window, click the “Recover system settings or your computer” link. Click “Advanced Recovery Methods” in the window that appears and then click the “Use a system image you created earlier to recover your computer” link.
You can also restore your image from a special boot recovery menu. This is the easiest way to restore images on Windows 10 or 8.1, as the option to restore a system image is no longer available from the desktop.
On Windows 10 or 8.1, hold down the “Shift” key on your keyboard and click the “Restart” option in the Start menu or Start screen. If your computer isn’t booting properly, Windows will automatically boot to this menu after a failed boot. If it doesn’t, then even the startup options themselves are corrupted.
Your computer will boot to the special recovery menu. Click the “Troubleshoot” tile, click “Advanced Options,” and then click “System Image Recovery.”
On Windows 7, reboot the computer and press the “F8” key while it’s booting. Select the “Repair Your Computer” option and press Enter to boot into recovery mode.
Choose your keyboard layout when asked, and then select the “Restore your computer using a system image that you created earlier” option in the System Recovery Options window. Select a system image from a connected drive and go through the rest of the wizard to restore it.
If you’ve created a recovery drive, you can boot from a recovery drive and restore your image from there, too. This is the only way to restore images when Windows can’t boot at all, or if Windows isn’t currently installed on the PC. If you haven’t created a recovery drive yet, you can create a recovery drive on another Windows PC that’s currently working properly and take it to your current PC.
Insert the recovery drive and boot from it. This may require changing the boot order in your computer’s BIOS or accessing a “boot devices” menu.
On Windows 10 or 8.1, you’ll see the same options you would in the boot options above. Just select Advanced Options > System Image Recovery. On Windows 7, select the “System Image Recovery” link.
If you have a Windows installation disc or flash drive lying around, you can boot from it and restore a system image. This will work even if Windows isn’t currently installed on the PC. If you don’t have any installation media lying around, you can create a Windows installer USB drive or DVD on another Windows PC and take it to your current PC.
Boot from the Windows installation media like you would the recovery drive above. Just as if you were booting from a recovery drive, this may require changing the boot order in your computer’s BIOS or accessing a “boot devices” menu.
Whatever type of installation disc you’re using, go through the first few screens until you reach a screen with an “Install now” button. Ignore that button and click the “Repair your computer” link at the bottom-left corner of the window to access the same system repair tools you’d access from a recovery drive or from the boot-up menu above.
System images are a very useful way to restore your entire PC exactly as it was when you backed up, although they aren’t for everyone. They aren’t even for most Windows users — that’s why Microsoft even tried to remove this option back in the development versions of Windows 8.1 before succumbing to pressure from enthusiasts and restoring the feature.
Image Credit: daryl_mitchell on Flickr