How to create a system image backup in Windows 10

Windows 10 presents File History as its default backup solution, which automatically creates new copies of your files as they change. It’s good practice to also keep a complete system image, which can be used to recover your entire PC – operating system included – in the event of a disaster.

Windows 10’s advanced backup tools are carried over from Windows 7. Somewhat confusingly, you’ll find them in Control Panel as “Backup and Restore (Windows 7).” Don’t be confused by the presence of Windows 7 in the title – these all work without issues on Windows 10. Microsoft just emphasises File History as a more accessible approach to backups for typical home users.

Whereas File History is designed to only backup your personal files, a system image backup creates a recoverable clone of your operating system’s drive. In the future, you can use the disk image to recover your PC, even if it’s unbootable or Windows won’t start. Windows installation media on a DVD or USB can be used to clone the contents of the disk image back to your hard drive.

Windows 10 searching for Control Panel screenshot

Disk images only include your operating system drive, so if your device has multiple drives – such as an SSD for the system and a hard drive for your files – you’ll need to remember this. A system image is only one aspect of a complete backup plan; it’s best used alongside a system such as File History to handle your personal files. This way, you can easily recover your files, while also ensuring you can restore your operating system if you fall victim to malware or your hard drive fails.

Before following this guide, you’ll need to have a storage medium to save the disk image to. Windows supports network drives, external hard disks or a set of DVDs. System image backups can have extremely large file sizes, as they contain a replica of everything on your hard drive. You’ll ideally need a large external hard drive or network share.

To make a disk image, open Control Panel (type “control” into Windows 10’s Start menu). On the “System and Security” tile, click the “Back up and Restore (Windows 7)” link. From the next screen, click the “Create a system image” link in the left navigation bar to start the procedure. You’ll need to be logged in as an administrator.

Screenshot of creating a system image in Windows 10

Windows will now search for devices and drives to save the backup to. Select the correct option from the radio buttons to match the medium you’ll be using and then press “Next”.

Screenshot of creating a system image in Windows 10

The final screen confirms where the backup will be saved to and lets you check the drives which will be included in the system image. The screen also includes an approximate indication of how large the backup will be; if you’ve got a lot of files on your system drive, this could be hundreds or thousands of gigabytes.

Screenshot of creating a system image in Windows 10

Click the “Start backup” button to begin creating the system image. This may take a long time to complete depending on the size of your backup. However, subsequent runs to the same location should be quicker, as Windows can use block-based comparisons to avoid rewriting unchanged sections of the image.

Windows 10 recovery options

Once your disk image has been made, keep it safe on your external storage medium so it can be used in an emergency. You should make a new image on a schedule to ensure it’s kept up-to-date with changes on your PC. If you’re already using Windows Backup (in “Back up and Restore (Windows 7)”), it’s possible to include a system image as a component of your backup.

To use your disk image to recover your PC, open the Settings app and navigate to the “Update & Security” category. From here, click the “Recovery” page and then press “Restart now” to begin the recovery procedure. Your PC will reboot and allow you to commence the system image recovery procedure.

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