Create a System Image Backup in Windows 10

Create a System Image Backup in Windows 10

Both Windows 8 and Windows 10 offer a type of backup known as a System Image Backup and it is a legacy tool left over from Windows 7. Often referred to as “system image” or just “image”, this type of backup is basically a complete copy of your hard drive compressed into a single file.

The advantage of this type of backup is that it backs up everything including your installed applications – it is the only built-in backup mechanism that does so. The other mechanisms I covered in this series (Part 1: Save to OneDrive and Part 2: File History) are more focused on protecting your data with the idea that Windows and applications can be easily reinstalled later.

While this sounds like an awesome way to keep your system protected, there are a couple of downsides. First, the backups take quite a while and are normally done manually (in contrast, using OneDrive or File History is automatic). Also, the backups are large and each backup is a separate (large) file. You will need a good-sized USB hard drive or network share in order to keep your system image. Finally, they are an “all or nothing” backup.

That means that in order to restore a single file, you need to restore (and overwrite) your entire Surface. As you can image, overwriting all of the files/apps you’ve updated or installed from the date the backup was created (perhaps months ago) might be worse than losing a single file.
Tech-Savvy Folks: If you feel comfortable with virtualization, you can get around the “all or nothing” problem by implementing virtualization software (like VirtualBox) and restoring the image to a VM. When restored, you can pull the file(s) you are after then delete the VM.

For that reason, you should consider a system image a “Disaster Recovery Backup” – i.e. you use it when a disaster has happened like your Surface has been completely wiped or you have such a bad malware infection that you can’t recover it.

Create a System Image Backup in Windows 10

You will have the option to backup to a USB hard drive, multiple DVDs, or a network share. In all of these cases, ensure there is enough space (or blank DVDs) to hold the contents of your hard drive plus about 20% as a cushion for overhead (i.e. if your Surface has 200GB of data on it; you will need at least 240GB of free space to be safe). If you want to backup to multiple DVDs, you will need a USB DVD burner that works with your Surface. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend the DVD option unless you have no other choice.

  • Log in with an administrator account and ensure your Surface is plugged into power.
  • If you want to back up to a USB hard drive or USB DVD burner, plug it into your Surface. If you plan on using a network share as your backup location, make sure you can connect to it.
  • Search for “Backup and Restore” and select the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) option from the search results.
  • Choose Create a System Image from the left side of the window.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery - Create System Image

  • You will be prompted to pick a location to share the system image backup. You can pick any of the 3 options. For this example, I’m going to use a USB hard drive. Tap or click Next.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery - Save Location

You will see a screen outlining what will be backed up. Tap or click Start Backup to proceed with the backup.

Microsoft Store

If you have BitLocker turned on, you will get a warning like the one below. If you do, tap or click OK then Start Backup to proceed.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery - Confirm

The backup will take some time to complete. I would plan on it taking, at least, a half-hour. You should make sure your Surface stays connected to power the entire time.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery - Saving The Backup

If you need to, for some reason, you can stop the backup operation by tapping or clicking Stop Backup. Doing so will not damage your Surface but it will render the backup unusable.

Restore a System Image Backup in Windows 10

Of course, creating the system image is only half the process. In order to be useful, you need to be able to restore the image. Since system images are best used as disaster recovery backups, let’s assume your Surface is only bootable from a Recovery Drive (which, conveniently, was covered in Part 3 of this series).

Restore a System Image from a Recovery Drive:

  • Make sure you know where the system image (you want to restore from) is located and that it’s available (i.e. you have your backup USB hard drive with you).
  • Connect your Surface to power.
  • If you can, copy off files that might have changed between now and the date of the system image.
  • Boot from your recovery drive and select Troubleshoot from the available options.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery Drive

  • From the troubleshooting options, select Advanced Options then System Image Recovery and follow the on-screen directions. You will be asked to provide the system image to restore from at some point.

Windows 10 Backup and Recovery Advanced Boot Options

Be aware the restore may take quite some time, so keep your Surface connected to power for the duration. After you complete the recovery, your Surface will be restored to the state it was in when you performed the system image backup.

If needs be, you can do the restore from within Windows at the Backup and Restore (Windows 7) screen from the restore section highlighted below:


If you choose to do the restore from here, the same basic process applies (keep connected to power, know where your system image is located, follow the on-screen instructions).

How Often Should I Make a System Image Backup?

If you want, you can make one nightly but, if you’ve followed the advice from the earlier parts of this series, and you’re using OneDrive and File History backups, I would recommend you perform a System image backup no more than monthly. Personally, I do mine just prior to applying patches.

I would also recommend that you keep, at least, the system images from the previous 2 months and delete older ones to save space on your backup drive. That way, you have a fallback in the event your latest image gets corrupted.


(Top image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


  • I’m running windows 8.1 pro and trying to follow these instructions to make an image before upgrading to windows 10. I’ve searched for “backup and restore” in both the search (swipe in from the right) and control panel screen and am told there is no result found. Is there more specific navigation I can use to find this?

  • another thing for the tech savy folks.. you can use disk2vhd.. then you can mount it anytime you want and grab files if needed.

  • Hi,

    I wondered if you could help…….?
    I seem to be having problems with my attempts to re-install a full system mirror, after selecting the ‘image’ which is automatically detect on the external USB HDD it then prompts :

    ! To restore this computer, windows needs to format the drive that the windows

    Recovery Environment is currently running on. To continue with the restore,

    shut down this computer and boot it from a windows installation disc or a

    system repair disc and then try the restore again

    If you don’t have a system repair disc, you can create one now.

    I followed this, and followed the instructions, but I’m prompted with the same message.
    Can you help ? Any Thoughts?

    • I’m experiencing the exact same problem. I’ve spent an hour with MS techs at the store and another hour on the phone, and they were so clueless in every regard—the store tech didn’t even know that Windows Backup was in Windows 10—that I haven’t gotten any help yet.
      The internet is filled with tutorials showing this same process using the Advanced Startup Options in Windows 8.1/10, but none of them have screenshots showing what happens past the selection of the system image to restore, nor do they address this problem or even hint at what happens beyond that step.
      I’ve found a handful of comments to these tutorials from people having this same issue. Surely we’re just missing some simply step somewhere what I have no idea where.
      I’ve made a USB recovery drive with the recovery drive utility in Windows 10. It’s bootable and I used it to reinstall Windows 10 successfully just to make sure I could. Even when booting from this recovery drive the same message appears. To be fair, the message states to boot from a Windows installation disk or from a system repair disk. On a surface you don’t have an optical drive, so both of those aren’t options. You can make a recovery drive, but that’s not a “system repair disk”. I don’t think this is a problem, however, since the utilities to recover from a Windows Backup system image are present in the recovery drive environment.
      I also don’t think the recovery drive should even be necessary: when you select “Restart Now” (in Settings -> Update & security -> Recovery) to access the advanced startup options and then select System Image Recovery as indicated in this tutorial, the Surface restarts into a system image recovery partition. So it’s already not booting from the same partition that will be wiped by the restore. Why would they take the trouble to boot you into a special recovery partition that only exists for restoring from Windows Backup images if you weren’t able to restore from that partition anyways?
      I just got off the phone with MS support and they told me that the techs at full MS stores have the necessary tools to manually load the backup image back onto the Surface SSD. Seems this thing should just work the way it’s supposed to, especially since it’s MS hardware running MS software. They could have at least taken the time to verify that Windows utilities work as expected on their own machines. It’s a bit harder for them to say it’s an issue with 3rd party hardware in this case.
      Anyways. All my attempts so far have been futile. I have an appointment at a legit MS store tomorrow with a “real” tech, so I’ll see how it goes. Since this is the only place I’ve commented at I’ll report the conclusion here.

  • Hi,

    I recently took a knock on my bike on the way to work, and my surface pro 3 was damaged in the process. Luckily the LCD still works, so ill be able to get most files off of my system, but I was wondering if this process would aid me in restoring an image to the replacement Microsoft is sending to me.

    Am I trying to create an image of the drive that way? I just have too much time invested into the Surface, ill have to re-install programs, and a whole slew of customizations, I wanna save time.

  • Do you know if you can make a generalized image of a Microsoft Surface Book for deployment to multiple Surface Books for easy setup or disaster recover? I am being told that if the OS embedded into the processor that a generalized image would not be possible.

    Thank you,

  • I Did It !!! not as easy as they make it sound like. I used a usb hub. I put the reboot recovery thumb drive in on of the slots and the storage drive that had my image in another slot. Not sure if I needed this but that is how I make my exact entire set up come back perfectly after I had to send in my Surface 4 for replacement. When I loaded my Image the load stopped when it was almost done, screen stated Image load failed. Although when I boot my surface while keeping the USB drive with the image on it plugged in my system came back perfectly everything the same as before I sent in the broken surface !!

  • Hi there so I want to store everything into the cloud. Now when I do that can I now clean this whole surface 3 out. When all done can you now put back what you want back into your surface 3. Its been very very very slow. Never had this issue before. thanks a lot…

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