Disaster recovery might not be the catchiest topic in computing, but it's certainly something to stay abreast of. We recently showed you how to make a Windows system image, which contains an exact copy of everything on your hard drive. In this guide, we'll walk you through using the image to recover your PC – even if it's not starting, or has been encrypted by ransomware.
If you need help in creating a system image, please read through our dedicated tutorial first. This also describes what system images contain and how they differ from other forms of backup. In short, a system image is a like-for-like replica of your Windows installation. System images hold a copy of every file on your system disk at the time they were made, so you can recover your hard drive with Windows, your apps and your files intact.
We'll assume you already have a system image handy on a USB stick, external hard drive or DVD. The first steps in the recovery process depend on whether your PC is still working. If you can boot Windows and get to your desktop, you can start the recovery from within Windows itself – see below. Otherwise, you'll need to skip to the next section of this guide.
Recovering when Windows still starts
Start your PC and open the Settings app (you can use the Win+I keyboard shortcut). From the Settings homepage, click the "Update & Security" tile. Now, click the "Recovery" page in the left navigation menu.
On this page, press the "Restart now" button under the "Advanced start-up" heading. Windows will reboot and display its recovery screen, illustrated below.
Recovering when Windows does not start, or you can't use your desktop
If Windows won't start, turn off your PC. Next, restart your PC and repeatedly press the F9 keyboard key until the recovery screen, illustrated below, appears. Alternatively, or if F9 doesn't work, you should see the recovery menu appear automatically after a few failed startup attempts.
Using the recovery screen
Once you're at Windows' startup recovery screen, click the "Troubleshoot" button. From here, choose "Advanced options" and then the "System Image Recovery" item.
At this point, your PC should restart. You'll need to wait a few moments while Windows prepares the system image recovery environment. You'll be deposited at a screen which allows you to choose your user account. Click your account name and enter your Windows password at the prompt.
Next, the System Image Recovery wizard will start. The first stage is to select the system image to recover from, so press the "Next >" button to begin. You can choose from system images saved on your PC and those on external media. Insert your system image DVD or USB drive now, or alternatively click the "Advanced…" button and follow the prompts to use an image on a network share.
Once you've selected your image, press the "Next >" button and follow the wizard's guidance to restore the image. This may take a long time depending on the size of the image. Remember that existing data on your system disk will be overwritten. After the process completes, you should be able to reboot your PC and find Windows is exactly as you left it when the system image was made.
Flashing a system image when Windows isn't installed
Finally, it's worth noting you can deploy a system image even when Windows isn't already installed on your PC, or you can't reach the F9 recovery environment. To use this option, you'll need Windows installation or recovery media – we'll opt for the former, which you can acquire with this guide.
Burn the Windows installation image to a DVD or USB stick and boot your computer from your device – you may need to refer to your PC's documentation to confirm how to do this.
Follow the first few steps in the Windows setup program until you reach the "Install Now" screen. Instead of installing, click the "Repair your computer" link in the bottom-left of the window. This will launch a recovery menu which includes the option to restore a system image.