Tip: Be Prepared to Recover Your Surface Pro 3 No Matter What Happens

Posted on March 29, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

I’ll be publishing a guide to dual-booting Surface Pro 3 with Windows 10 soon. But while investigating this topic I ran into a number of issues that are somewhat unique to Microsoft’s tablet. So before getting to dual-booting, I wanted to quickly document the ways in which you can prepare to recover your Surface Pro 3 no matter what happens.

First, get some USB flash drives

You will need at least one 8 GB flash drive (preferably two) and one 16 GB flash drive to create the recovery disks described below. I recently purchased a few Kingston Data Traveler 3.0 USB flash drives because you can write on them with a sharpie, and they’re not at all expensive. Here’s the 8 GB version ($5.50) and here is the 16 GB version ($7.50).

Create a standard recovery drive

If you own a Surface Pro 3, you should do this now and keep it in an easily accessible location. Hey, make two.

Here’s how: Use Start Search, look for recovery and choose “Create a recovery drive” from the results. Make sure you have an 8 GB or bigger USB flash drive, and leave the option “Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive” selected.

Download the Surface Pro 3 recovery image and create an uber recovery drive

Microsoft makes a Surface Pro 3 recovery image available for download: this is critical for restoring your device back to its factory fresh state if everything goes wrong and the on-device or USB-based recovery tools are unavailable for some reason. This image will be used to create a special recovery drive—it requires a 16 GB USB flash drive—that includes everything that is normally on a USB recovery drive plus the recovery files that are normally accessed from the Surface Pro 3 disk.

To get the image, you will need your Surface Pro 3 serial number, which is written in tiny gray text on the slightly lighter gray Surface Pro 3 kickstand. Good luck with that. (I needed a magnifying glass and a light.) The download is a 6.4 GB ZIP file. Once you’ve downloaded the file, unzip it to your desktop. Then, format the USB flash drive as FAT32 (more on that in a moment), erase it and rename it to something obvious like RECOVERY. Then, copy the contents of the folder you just uncompressed onto the recovery drive. Put it in a safe place and retain that ZIP file just in case too.

Remember: the flash drive MUST be formatted as FAT32. NTFS will not work.

Learn how to boot your Surface Pro 3 into the UEFI firmware, and from a USB flash drive

You won’t typically need to access the Surface Pro 3 firmware—called UEFI, for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface—all that often. But you should know how to do it:

First, shutdown Surface Pro 3. Then, press and hold on the Volume Up button and press Power. Keep holding down on Volume Up until the Surface logo appears, and then release it. Surface Pro 3 will load the UEFI firmware, which you can navigate with keyboard, mouse or touch. (Take that, BIOS.)

Surface Pro 3's UEFI-based firmware interface.

Surface Pro 3’s UEFI-based firmware interface.

Booting from a USB disk is similar:

Power down Surface Pro 3. But this time press and hold on Volume Down, then press Power, and then release Volume Down when the Surface logo appears. (Alternatively, you could configure the firmware to use a boot order of USB -> SSD but then you would need to be careful about leaving in bootable USB flash drives.


Recovery environment, accessed from bootable USB drive.


If you find that a USB flash drive is not booting your Surface Pro 3, there’s probably a simple reason: the flash drive MUST be formatted as FAT32. NTFS will not work. So when you are making a recovery disk as above, or a Windows 10 (or whatever) install disk as in the coming dual-boot article, make sure you’re using FAT32 not NTFS. I will provide instructions as needed.

You may be wondering why FAT32. I certainly was, given that NTFS is more powerful, modern and efficient. I’ve never seen a proper explanation, just that EFI/UEFI-style firmware is compatible with FAT-type disk formats, but not NTFS.

Furthermore, UEFI cannot boot from an MBR-based partition, and must use GPT partitioning instead. This has an important ramifications when it comes to creating a Windows 10 (or other version of Windows) install disk as I’ll describe later. But GPT is actually more modern than MBR, so this one at least makes sense.

Make sure you can boot Surface Pro 3 with the two disks you just created

Now, make sure it works. You don’t want to discover you screwed something up when you really need this tool.

Shut down Surface Pro 3. Insert one of the recovery disks. Hold down Volume Down and power up. When the Surface logo appears, release the Volume Down button. The tablet will boot off the USB disk.

OK, now you’re ready for anything.

Including, as it turns out, dual-booting Windows 10.

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