Win8.1 Backup + Recovery

Windows 8/8.1 presents several new backup and restore possibilities. I thought I would run through each of them and consider their usefulness in various situations. I'll provide a short video demonstrating each, so you can see them in action.

I've setup a Windows 8.1 system and updated it fully (see below for the system specs). Additionally I have installed a couple of Modern/Metro apps, and a couple of legacy desktop applications. I've created a few files in the Documents folder, and added a custom desktop image. From this baseline, I will walk through configuring each kind of backup, and then doing each kind of restore. After each restore I'll answer the following questions:

  • How long did the backup take?

  • How long did the restore take?

  • Are my Modern/Metro apps still present and installed?

  • Are my legacy desktop applications still installed?

  • Are my personal files still present in the Documents folder?

  • Is my custom desktop image still present?

  • Is the system still fully updated?

System Image

System Image makes and restores full image backups of your running system, just as it did in Vista and Win7. However, both backups and restores are invoked a little differently than they were in prior versions of Windows.

Performing a backup: Open File History and give it a moment to discover locally attached media. The System Image Backup link will then appear in the lower left corner:

Performing a restore:

  1. Invoke the Charms, click the Settings charm, and click on Change PC Settings.

  2. Click on Update and Recovery.

  3. Click on Recovery.

  4. Under Advanced Startup, click the "Restart now" button.

  5. Windows changes to the Advanced Boot menu, with a full-screen, blue background. Click on Troubleshoot.

  6. Click on Advanced Options.

  7. Finally, click on System Image Recovery. There are a few more options after this, but they are pretty self-evident.

You can skip steps 1-4 if you boot from a Recovery Drive that you've created. Or you can boot from a Windows 8.1 installation DVD and choose the Repair Options.

What gets restored:

Everything. The restored system will be exactly like it was when you backed it up.

Here's a quick (3 minutes!) video showing System Image Backup and Restore on a Win8.1 system:

PC Refresh (without recimg)

PC Refresh is a new concept in Windows 8/8.1, and it can be a little bit confusing. Its basic function is to reinstall all of the Windows operating system, while leaving your personal files in place. It will also keep track of apps you have installed from the Windows Store, and reinstall those along with the OS. It will not reinstall any legacy desktop applications you have installed … unless you perform additional steps I'll detail in the next section.

When PC Refresh reinstalls Windows, it gets all needed files from a special WIM image. When a PC builder such as Dell or Lenovo sets up a new PC, they usually write a customized WIM image to a hidden spot on the PC's hard drive.

If you buy your own copy of Windows and install it personally, this WIM image is not created during the installation. But you have that image on your Win8/8.1 install media, so you're OK, unless you lose that media.

So it is very important to understand that PC Refresh is not a backup. It is a way to restore Windows, the operating system, from trusted media. So it's useful in some situations, but not all. For instance, if you have an OEM PC with the WIM image on its hard drive, and that hard drive breaks, then you will not be able to do a PC Refresh unless you can provide Win8/8.1 install media from some other source.

This is important: if you lose your hard disk, you lose all data on it. PC Refresh does not protect against data loss; it only restores the operating system a fresh, new state. Additionally, if you do not have OS reinstall media, you cannot perform PC Refresh if the PC's original hard disk is corrupt or dead.

Performing a backup: not necessary!

Performing a restore:

  1. Invoke the Charms, and click on Change PC Settings.

  2. Choose Update and Recovery in the left pane.

  3. Choose Recovery in the left pane.

  4. Under Refresh your PC without affecting your files, chose Get Started.

  5. The rest of the process is pretty straightforward, so I won’t document here. Watch the video below to see it all.

What gets restored:

  1. Windows (the operating system) is returned to the same state it was in when freshly installed

  2. You lose all Windows Updates completed since that date.

  3. Your personal files are not restored from anywhere - they are left in place, just as they were.

  4. Windows store apps, and basic customizations (like the Windows Desktop) all remain as they were at the moment you invoked the restoration.

  5. Some PC Settings, such as power and sleep settings, will revert to how they were the day Windows was installed.

  6. You lose all desktop applications installed.

Here's a 3.5 minute video showing PC Refresh in action:

PC Refresh (with recimg)

Having seen what PC Refresh can do, one wonders: why can't it restore the desktop applications you've installed? After all, nobody's really using that many Windows Store ("Metro" or "Modern") apps, right?

Remember that PC Refresh is simply overwriting your existing OS files with fresh new ones from a WIM image, typically the one laid down on the PC when it was built, or the one from your Win8.1 install media. This isn't really a "backup", it's a "reinstall-in-place" that leaves your personal files alone.

Old-style Windows desktop applications write to lots of places where Windows keeps its files and configuration data. And every developer does things his/her own personal, idiosyncratic way. For that reason, there's no clean way to cleanly restore them as they were, and still guarantee that the OS is fresh and new. They will need to be reinstalled from their own installation media, and Windows has no idea where that is.

My understanding (which may be flawed) is that Windows Store apps can be reinstalled, because Windows does know where to get the reinstallation media: the Windows Store. It also knows that everything there has been tested to be safe, to install and uninstall cleanly, and to follow much stricter standards than the old desktop applications did. So, PC Refresh only needs to store the unique ID for each app, and then after reinstalling the OS, go get and reinstall those Windows Store apps. Easy-peasy.

OK. That said, what if you've created your own perfect Windows installation, with a bunch of desktop applications that you use regularly, and know to be safe and well-behaved. Wouldn’t it be nice to make that the image that you restore back to when you perform a PC Refresh?

You can do this. The secret is a command-line utility called "recimg". It works by creating a new WIM image of the operating system, all of your desktop applications, and all of your configuration changes. It's easy to use, though it does take a long time to run.

Here's how to do it!

Performing a backup:

  1. Open an elevated cmd session

  2. Run the command: recimg /createimage %systemdrive%\CustomRefresh

Performing a restore:

  1. Invoke the Charms, and click on Change PC Settings.

  2. Choose Update and Recovery in the left pane.

  3. Choose Recovery in the left pane.

  4. Under Refresh your PC without affecting your files, chose Get Started.

  5. The rest of the process is pretty straightforward, so I won’t document here. Watch the video below to see it all.

What gets restored:


Here's a 3.5 minute video showing recimg, followed by PC Refresh:

PC Restore


File History


My Conclusions


Appendix: The Test System

Test hardware:

  • The machine is a Dell Optiplex 745. Nothing extravagant for this test!

    • Core 2 Duo 6400 @ 2.13GHz

    • 2GB RAM

    • 80GB SATA hard drive.

    • A backup drive is used in some tests. It's a Zalman VE300 USB external case containing a 500GB WD Scorpio Blue hard disk running at 5400 RPM.

    • I used a Lantronix Spider for remote KVM to the test machine.

    • I used Screencast-o-Matic to record the remote KVM session. (Not technically hardware, but this software didn't get anywhere near the test system.)

Software setup:

  • Installed Windows 8.1 (took 22 minutes).

    • Windows 8.1 was installed from Technet media, not OEM 'recovery disk'.

  • All critical updates took 28 minutes via wsusoffline.

    • After wsusoffline completed, I ran Windows Update to get the optional updates wsusoffline does not do.

  • Used Ninite to install TeamViewer and 7-Zip (takes about 2 minutes).

  • Used the Windows Store to install VLC and Facebook apps. Took about 3 minutes.

  • Customized the desktop with an old baby picture (yes that's me!)

  • Used the following line of PowerShell to create 10 documents at c:\Mota\Documents:

    • $d=get-date; $text="Text written at "+$d; for($i=1;%i -le 10;$i++) {add-content $i".txt" $text}

  • The full installation of this system, including updates, data, and WinRE partition, occupied about 13.4 GB on disk. Keep that in mind; your own backups and restores will probably encompass more disk space, and thus take correspondingly longer to run.