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Learn to use the Windows 10 Recovery Drive


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By Lincoln Spector

Sooner or later, nearly every Windows user powers up the machine — and Windows simply refuses to start.

Every current version of Windows lets you create and run a self-booting rescue disc, but Win10 takes that tool to a new level.

The Windows 10 Recovery Drive comes with multiple tools for repairing and reinstalling Windows. You can, for example, use a system restore point to restore an image backup, run an automated Startup Repair tool, refresh Windows (either keeping or removing your data), or completely reinstall the operating system.

If you're lucky, you'll never need your Win10 recovery drive. But when things go serious wrong with Windows 10, you'll be extremely relieved to have it. Here's how to create and use a recovery drive.

Preparing the Recovery Drive — on a flash drive
The changes to the self-booting, Windows-recovery system start with the name. Bowing to changes in PC technology, it's no longer a rescue disc, it's now a rescue drive. In fact, creating a bootable CD or DVD is no longer an option; you must use a spare USB flash drive with a capacity of at least 512MB. But for a recovery drive with a complete set of tools, you'll need an 8GB or larger drive.

If your internal drive crashes, and you need to install Windows on a replacement drive, you'll be glad you splurged on teh 8GB drive.

Note that everything currently on the flash drive will be lost when you turn it into a Win10 recovery drive.

Most important, you'll want to create your new recovery drive now, while your Win10 setup is healthy. (Note: A recovery drive created on one PC might not work perfectly on another machine.)

Once you have a suitable flash drive plugged into your system, it's time to run Win10's Create a recovery drive option. There are two ways to do it:
  • In the Win10 search box, enter "recovery" and select the option under Settings.
  • Open Control Panel/Recovery (in the icon view).
Click Create a recovery drive (Figure 1) and follow the prompts. If your flash drive has a capacity of less than 8GB, uncheck the Back up system files to the recovery drive option. Otherwise, the drive-creation process will fail, possibly with a generic error message.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 1.jpg
Figure 1. Setting up a Win10 recovery drive starts with a click of the Create a recovery drive link.

Keep in mind that the actual drive creation can take considerable time — especially if you're backing up system files.

When the process is done, label the flash drive with something like "Recovery" plus the make and model of the PC. Store it securely, so it doesn't get used for some other purpose and you'll be able to find it in an emergency.

But before you do that, I strongly suggest testing that the rescue drive boots — you can also check out its various tools, preferably while reading the rest of this article.

Booting Windows from the recovery drive
Starting your system from the recovery flash drive should be easy — simply plug in the USB drive and power up your system. But if that doesn't work on an older system, you'll need to check the preferred boot order in the BIOS.

On newer PCs, the disaster of an unbootable PC can be compounded by the UEFI startup system. If you're left with "How the bleep do I get this thing to boot from a flash drive?" you'll probably find the answer in Fred Langa's Dec. 11, 2014, Top Story "How to solve UEFI boot and startup problems."

When the recovery drive boots, you'll first be asked to choose a keyboard layout — which is really a choice of languages and nationalities. (I chose US.)

The next screen, Choose an option (Figure 2), offers three choices. Obviously, you can ignore Exit and continue to Windows 10 and Turn off your PC. Click (or tap) Troubleshoot.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 2.jpg
Figure 2. To access Win10's repair tools, select Troubleshoot.

Next, you get three more choices: Reset this PC, Recover from a drive, and Advanced options (Figure 3). I'll start with the more flexible Advanced tools.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 3.jpg
Figure 3. The Advanced options offers a variety of tools for fixing Win10 issues.

One more thing: After selecting one of these tools, you might be asked to select an operating system — even though the only option is Windows 10. Don't worry about it; simply select Windows 10.

Advanced options: When you don't need to reinstall
Despite the heading, most of the offerings under "Advanced options" (Figure 4) aren't more advanced than anything else on the Troubleshoot menu. They are simply tools that might fix Windows without reinstalling the operating sytem. In other words, these are the tools you should look at first.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 4.jpg
Figure 4. The recovery disk's Advanced options includes various levels of repair.

I'll start with the easiest. (Note that all these tools are available within the default Win10 setup. Click Settings/Update & security/Recovery/Advanced startup. Next click Restart now/Troubleshoot/Advanced options. But, of course, you can't access those tools if you can boot your PC.)

  • Startup Repair: This simple tool examines all system files and settings that play a role in the Windows boot process. It then tries to determine what's at fault and attempts to fix it.
    Because it's relatively quick, this tool is a good place to start your troubleshooting. If it doesn't work, you can then move on to more extensive solutions.

  • Go back to the previous build: If you've upgraded from Win7 or Win8.1 within the last 30 days, and you haven't removed your Windows.old folder, this option will take you back to the previous OS.
  • System Restore: Most likely, you're already familiar with Windows restore points — records of previous operating-system settings and configurations that you can access and restore via Control Panel/Recovery. The option in the recovery drive works that same way

  • https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 5.jpg
    Figure 5. The Win10 recovery drive includes the basic Restore system files tool.

  • System Image Recovery: You also access backup images of your system hard drive or SSD, stored on another drive. (I'll assume you have a recent image backup; if not, click Control Panel/File History tool. You'll find the link, System Image Backup, in the lower-left corner of the File History window.)
    To restore an image from an external drive, you'll need to plug in both the recovery drive and the backup drive into separate USB ports.

    I succeeded in restoring a backup only after some struggles. On the first try, the image-restore system didn't see the backup drive. But rebooting the PC with the backup drive already plugged in solved the problem.

    Then the tool failed to restore the backup, stating: "Windows cannot restore a system image to a computer that has different firmware. The system image was created on a computer using BIOS and this computer is using UEFI." This, as it turned out, was a cockpit error: my computer had displayed two listing for the same flash drive (Figure 6), and I'd mistakenly chosen the one prefaced with "UEFI."

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 6.jpg
    Figure 6. Picking the correct flash drive

    The third try was the charm.

  • Command Prompt: Feeling nostalgic about DOS? Me neither. But there are times when the command-prompt environment is useful — for example, when booting to Safe Mode from the recovery drive.
    Unfortunately, recovery drive doesn't include a simple safe mode–restart option. In my opinion, that's a significant omission. (For more on booting in safe mode — including from a command prompt — see the Field Notes article in this issue and a Windows TenForums page.)

    The command prompt has other recovery uses. For example, use XCOPY (more info) to move your personal files to an external drive, or use DISKPART (info) to delete or create drive partitions (if you're careful and patient).

    Of course, you'll also want to remember the "exit" command, which gets you out of Command Prompt.
Reset and Recover: Reinstalling Windows 10
Now back to those first two Troubleshoot options, Reset this PC and Recover from a drive. Both reinstall Windows and offer essentially the same options.

Where the two options differ is that Reset uses the installation files on the internal drive and Recover uses files on the recovery drive. That's why you'll see the Recover option only if you used an 8GB or larger flash drive and chose the Back up system files to the recovery drive option when you created the recovery drive.

When would you use Recover instead of the Reset option? Typically when the special recovery partition on the main system drive has been destroyed or corrupted. You might also use Recover when replacing or upgrading the main drive and you're creating a clean installation.

Neither of these options will require a product key — assuming you're running the recovery drive on the original PC.

When selecting Reset the PC, you'll be asked whether you want to Keep my files or Remove everything (Figure 7). The first option reinstalls Windows but leaves your personal documents, photos, and other data files where you left them — at least if you left them in folders (Documents, Music, and so on) recognized by Windows as part of your libraries. Personal files in other locations might get deleted. (Obviously, you should have all your data files backed up before you do anything involving significant changes to Windows. In fact, your data files should be regularly backed up, period.) Reset the PC also remembers who you are; you won't have to set up your account all over again.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16541796/Figure 7.jpg
Figure 7. When resetting a PC, you can either keep personal files or start from scratch.

If you select Recover from a drive or if you go with Reset this PC and Remove everything, the installation process will delete all files. Once it's finished, you (or perhaps a new owner) will have to start from scratch, including setting up user accounts.

Remove everything has two more options: Just remove my files and Fully clean the drive. That last one, which can take hours, securely wipes everything off of the drive.

A secure wipe will make it impossible to recover any data from your hard drive. But the technique is problematic with SSDs, as reported in a PCWorld article. Microsoft hasn't answered my questions about this issue. For now, I'd skip this option on an SSD.

Final thoughts: The Win10 recovery drive could use some more tools — the lack of a "Boot to Safe Mode" option is particularly vexing. If you can't get to your usual sign-in screen, you can't get to the various Safe Mode settings via the standard Win10 Troubleshoot/Advanced/Startup Settings screen.

That said, Win10's flash drive-based repair system is still a must. Create a recovery drive and store it someplace where you won't forget where it is. One of these days, it may save, if not your life, than at least your sanity.