If you’ve been following along with my Clean PC article series, you know that you can replace your PC maker’s crapware-laden version of Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 with a clean version. But if you find that process a bit too arcane, you have other options. Among them is the system image capabilities in Windows, which can create a backup you can use to return to that clean PC install at any time in the future.
Note: My first Clean PC walkthrough for Windows 8 is coming soon.
It’s important to understand your options, especially when it comes to a new PC. Most people won’t actually do this, but one of the first things you can explore when you get a new PC is what recovery tools you have at your disposal. Some PC makers bundle their own recovery options, while others build on to the PC Reset and Refresh capabilities that come with Windows 8 or newer. If you’re lucky—or have purchased a clean Signature edition PC from the Microsoft Store—those tools will help you return your PC to a factory-fresh state that is crapware free.
All too often, however, the recovery tools on your PC will simply return the machine to a factory-fresh install of Windows that does include crapware. In such a case, you can opt to use my walkthrough guides to replace the PC maker’s install of Windows with a clean version. But you may not wish to do that for some reason. As an alternative, you can do the following: use one or more of the free tools described in my article Clean PC: Remove Crapware from a New PC to remove the crapware you don’t want from the PC, and then built-in tools in Windows to back up your clean PC to a system image, which you can then later use to restore your PC to that crapware-free state.
This approach has a few advantages.
First, in addition to removing the crapware from your install of Windows, you can also make your PC more up-to-date by installing all of the available Windows Updates before making the system image. That way, you’ll have much less to install after you restore the PC. (And if you’re fastidious enough, you may choose to make a new system image backup each time you restore your PC, and after you’ve installed all of the then-latest updates.)
Second, because a system image backup is indeed a backup of your entire PC, you may choose to install other applications—Microsoft Office, iTunes, Photoshop, whatever—and include them as part of the system backup. That way, when you restore the PC, you will have a lot less to install, though of course you may need to update those applications at that time, too. Likewise, you could choose to include a bunch of your data in that backup, though they too could be out-of-date at a later time, which could be problematic if you’re using OneDrive data sync. But again, that’s up to you.
The system image backup has two components: a USB- or DVD-based recovery drive (called a system repair disc in Windows 7) that you will later use to boot your PC so you can restore it to the backup, and the system image backup itself, which will typically be stored on an external USB hard drive or, if you have a home network, another PC or home server. Here, I’ll describe how to create both of these components.
Note: Windows actually has built-in tools that let you boot into a recovery environment. This environment will also let you access your system image backup. But you should still make and use a recovery drive since it will always work, whereas the recovery environment might not be accessible if something goes wrong with the PC.
Create a recovery drive
To create a recovery drive, type recovery drive (or, in Windows 7, system repair disc) in Start search to run the utility in Windows that will create a bootable disk you can use for system recovery later. The version in Windows 7 can be used to create a CD- or DVD-based repair disc, while the version in Windows 8.x works with (4 GB or bigger) USB flash drives. When you’re done, you will want to put that disk/disc aside, label it if possible, and make a note of what you need to do to boot your PC from the disk/disc.
Create a system image backup
Creating a system image backup varies a bit between the different versions of Windows, and of course you should ensure your PC is at least up-to-date with Windows Updates before proceeding.
In Windows 7, type backup in Start search and then select “Create a system image” (on the left) in the Backup and Restore control panel that appears. The Create a system image wizard will begin.
This wizard will let you create a backup to an external or secondary hard drive (preferable) or to a set of DVDs. It’s 2015, so I’ll assume you’re using a hard drive.
In Windows 8 or newer, type file history in Start search and then select “System Image Backup” (in the lower left) in the File History control panel that appears. The Create a system image wizard will begin.
This wizard will let you create a backup to an external or secondary hard drive (preferable), a network location (also good) or to a set of DVDs. It’s 2015, so I’ll assume you’re using a hard drive or network location.
Restore your PC from a system image backup
This is where the rubber meets the road. At some point in the future, you will want or need to restore your PC to its originally clean state using the system image backup you created. To do so, you will need to boot your PC with the recovery drive or system repair disc you previously created.
For Windows 7, the PC will boot to an Advanced Boot Options screen. Choose Repair Your Computer and tap Enter.
Next, choose System Image Recovery from the System Recovery Options window that appears. Then, choose to restore your PC to an earlier time using a system image and click Next. The Re-image your computer wizard begins.
Here, you can choose the latest image available (the default) or you can select a different system image. When you’ve chosen, click Next. In the next step, you can choose to format the PC’s hard drive and repartition disks (as Windows 7 Setup would do) to match the layout of the system image. Generally speaking, you should enable this option. Click Next to continue, and in the final phase of the wizard, you can verify what you’re doing and click Finish to continue. The PC will be restored using the system image you created.
In newer versions of Windows, the PC will boot to a set of screens where you choose your language and keyboard layout. After that, choose Troubleshoot, Advanced Options, and then System Image Recovery.
After signing in to one of the available administrator accounts, the Re-image Your Computer wizard will start. (On some devices like Surface Pro 3, you may need to supply a Bitlocker recovery key from your OneDrive account as well.)
From here, you can choose the most recent system image—which is selected by default—or browse for the system image backup you prefer. Once you’ve selected the backup you wish to use, click Next. Click Next again, and then click Finish in the next phase of the wizard. You’ll be told via a prompt that continuing will replace all of the data on the drives with the data in the system image backup. Click Yes to continue. Your PC will be re-imaged.
Once this process is complete, the PC will reboot and the lock screen will appear so you can sign in to Window normally.