Ask Paul: Is Microsoft Excluding Third-Party Recovery Environments from Windows 10?

Posted on February 10, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Paul, Windows 10 with 23 Comments

Ask Paul: Is Microsoft Excluding Third-Party Recovery Environments from Windows 10?

A reader asked me this week whether Microsoft was preventing PC makers from adding their own recovery environments to Windows 10 going forward. They are not. But they should.

Here’s the question.

I have a friend who bought a brand new ASUS laptop with Windows 10 pre-installed. I was surprised to find no recovery manager utility to create USB/DVD disks from the pre-installed factory image. Instead the user manual directs you to use the Windows 10 recovery options. Does this mean that the so-called factory image recovery and media creation utility is now dead in Windows 10?

I asked Microsoft and received the following answer:

Microsoft provides an in-box recovery solution so customers can easily restore their system to a factory-like state while preserving feature updates. This recovery solution also offers the ability to restore preinstalled customizations as well, if configured by PC makers. Microsoft’s OEM partners can elect to offer their own recovery solutions in addition to the in-box recovery provided by Windows.

So let’s discuss this a bit.

As most PC users know, PC makers have been providing their own custom recovery environments with new devices for decades. Back in the day, they would bundle recovery CDs or DVDs in the box with the PC, and in more recent years users were instructed to make these discs themselves.

These environments were necessary because Microsoft didn’t at one time offer a foolproof way for end users to recover Windows themselves. Over time, this improved greatly, starting with businesses, who had access to the excellent recovery tools in the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) and elsewhere.

Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft finally began offering its own sophisticated Reset This PC recovery tools with Windows. These tools let you reinstall Windows at any time, while optionally retaining your settings, data, and modern app installs.

In Windows 10, these tools have gotten even better. And there is a new Refresh Windows tool—which is actually external to Windows, but is linked to from within Settings—that lets you perform a true clean install of the OS.

This is a big deal.

As Microsoft notes, the Reset This PC functionality that Microsoft first included with Windows 8 is configurable by the PC maker, meaning that it will restore your PC to its initial factory state. That state can of course include whatever drivers, utilities, and crapware that the PC maker chooses to include. Which means that it’s not really possible to do a true clean install.

That’s what Refresh Windows accomplishes: It’s like a cloud-based version of Reset This PC that works with a clean Windows 10 Setup image instead of the version your PC maker modifies. It is a wonderful addition to the PC user’s toolset.

More important, these tools—Reset This PC and Refresh Windows—obviate the need for PC makers to make custom recovery environments for each computer model they sell. Not only is this functionality built into Windows now, but it works amazingly well, and is quite quick. And if the user prefers to bypass the PC maker’s custom Windows 10 install, they can do so.

So, no, Microsoft isn’t preventing PC makers from duplicating functionality that’s built-in to Windows. But maybe it should: It’s own tools are first-rate.


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Comments (24)

24 responses to “Ask Paul: Is Microsoft Excluding Third-Party Recovery Environments from Windows 10?”

  1. 5664

    I used Refresh Windows on my Lenovo Flex 4 and it worked beautifully. Only thing I'm missing is that it no longer detects when  switch it to a tablet. Bummer, no automatic mode change.

  2. 2371

    At some point PC makers will have to figure out that the amount of work that is needed to maintain these customized recovery partitions, the bad PR, and support to troubleshoot issues with them, is just not worth the money they make from the crapware installs.  Except for required drivers needed to boot the computer, they should not be customizing much of anything.  Direct the resources into making better drivers and cost reduction!

  3. 5485

    In reply to glenn8878:

    Backup and recovery has been an utility like a toaster in the Mac world for years and years. Up to the point that the OS can be installed from the Cloud (downloads and installs the OS) or Timechine enabled hard drives. Just put your wireless password to connect the network and optionally the iCloud account credentials (if download is needed) ... wait and that is it. Personally never had an issue with this.\

    PS: Windows 10 is so so modern ...

  4. 1753

    We buy Fujitsu Lifebooks and they still come with Windows 7 and Windows 10 recovery DVDs.

  5. 9518

    As Aidan Finn pointed out in "Top 5 Trends in Azure Hybrid Cloud Management", biz thinks backup should be treated as a utility -- Microsoft is trying to oblige. In the private user space they've got recovery, reset, & refresh options, *I think* largely because those private users have no more love for backup procedures than their IT counterparts. *To me*, if you can setup a reliable backup solution, and keep things simple, those backups combined with ISOs when MS provides them, are superior alternatives.

    Yes, not having to think about backups or ISOs is Much easier, except when Microsoft's tools [or an upgrade/update] won't work, & then you may be sunk.

    Pragmatically utilities, & more importantly drivers, are the reason to have a factory restore option. OEM utilities might not be available as a download -- the same for drivers, assuming you can identify every device needing them, e.g. some cameras, web cams, touch screen hardware etc. might be for practical purposes one-offs, with little or no info regarding the company providing that hardware, the company not having a web site etc.

    AFAIK the general procedure is for the manufacturer to set up a device the way they want it to ship, create an image from that, deploy that image to every shipping device of the same model, with that image incorporated into the recovery image on the Recovery partition. [It's a bit of work, but I think you can usually access & mount that recovery image itself, e.g. for individual file/folder access.]

    Since 10 means re-installing new builds/versions of Windows [either fresh or upgrade], while a disk/partition image backup should be made, it's best in my experience to identify hardware components, and save the drivers used [at least the oddball ones]. The folders to save somewhere off the device are Windows\inf\ [which can also be easily accessed after mounting an image backup archive], & more importantly Windows\System32\DriverStore\FileRepository\, which can't be easily copied unless the copy of Windows owning it is running at the time. You may or may not be able to find the setup files to copy for any OEM utilities.

    Why bother? When you upgrade builds [fresh or via Update etc.] Windows 10 may substitute another driver for a component & that driver may not work, or it may not install any driver, leaving the component inop. It can be a PITA to find & install the correct driver from the folders in the FileRepository, but at least it's possible.

    As far as Windows own recovery & reset & rescue stuff goes, one weakness is that the USB sticks they create may or may not boot the device -- the same goes for backup software, so test. As far as Windows images go, I prefer ISOs together with Rufus to put them on a USB stick [bootable for those times you want/need to boot to the media].

    Why ISOs? It's a regular, simple download, & once downloaded, you can save it to use as often as you want/need. Downloading the same or maybe fewer files via Windows Update or using Refresh generally takes [sometimes MUCH] longer, and saving that download is more work when it's possible. If you don't want or need bootable media, mount the ISO in 10, run setup.exe, and you have the same 2 options as Refresh, to keep everything or nothing. If it runs full screen [while setup is still running in Windows], Alt+Tab still works.

    Another potential weakness is the image stuck on the Recovery partition... I've had build updates add a 2nd Recovery partition, not fully update an existing Recovery partition, & Recovery itself just not work. I've had the install process [upgrade or fresh] halt or die, leaving behind a modified BCD boot loader setup -- when that's happened the option to boot to the recovery process may/may not work, assuming it's still there.

    IMHO still can't beat the convenience of a disk image backup... Put everything on one or more partitions back exactly the way that they were in usually less than an hour [depending on how much data is stored on the Windows partition, and the data transfer rate, might be looking at as little as 10 or 15 minutes].

  6. 442

    I agree, it's about time Microsoft provided these tools as part of Windows, and they work extremely well.  The 3rd party OEMs should back off of their methods which only cloud the market with unneeded work, knowledge requirements and trouble.

  7. 5530

    Completely agreed with everything that has been said, but i'd add one exception: Lenovo. Lenovo's OneKey Recovery is integrated deep into their hardware, it is triggered by it's own 'NOVO' power button (usually recessed into a pinhole) and it bypasses Windows UEFI boot, making it a true lifesaver when a catastrophic failure. It's a peace of mind that most ThinkPad customers will want to see stick around.

  8. 5394

    The issue is where is this located? Is it in the separate partition that the manufacturer includes with the hard drive? Is this why they no longer want you to create installation recovery discs, which I might make initially, but never really use. Do you lose the recovery partition if you choose to upgrade to a newer larger HD?

    The problem with this whole issue is... it just hard for the novice to figure out. Windows doesn't help with its help files that tell you everything and nothing at the same time. The best thing is just let the computer install Windows via online in an automated process, which I presume can be done already. The motherboard should already contain the product code so there's no need to validate the Windows License.

    • 6453

      In reply to glenn8878: The issue is where is this located? Is it in the separate partition that the manufacturer includes with the hard drive?

      Partitions, plural. I've seen some Windows 10 OEM setups that had 8 of them; HP I think it was.

    • 442

      In reply to glenn8878:

      It's really not much more than a simple routine to pull all "setup" configurations out of Windows, delete any data and programs, and reset the out of box setup for Windows.  Nice thing is, just like a modern cell phone wipe, it also restores with all corresponding updates already installed and ready.

  9. 5184

    I completely agree.  MS should control this more tightly.  OEM's should only be allowed to supplement the recovery with critical drivers.

    Back in 2012, I started dabbling with Mac and iOS development.  I wanted to upgrade the slow mechanical hard drive in my 2011 Mac Mini to an SSD.  I was impressed with the solution Apple had in place to reinstall OS X after replacing the hard drive.  It appears to be built into the BIOS/firmware as I was able to initiate a reinstall on a new SSD without doing anything to it prior to the install.  There was no image to download ahead of time.  No drivers I had to try to find.  Everything was handled and it simply needed an Internet connection.  I was blown away.  Jealous, honestly, that MS didn't have something this smooth for PC's.

    Just a few weeks back, I went to replace the mSATA drive in my wife's 2012 Dell XPS 12.  We've been having some performance issues with it after it wakes from sleep and hibernation.  She could also benefit from a faster drive and more space.  It had a rather slow 128 GB SSD.  Thought it might be worth a shot to replace the drive.  In this case, I wanted to preserve what she had on the drive since she tends to store some things locally rather than on OneDrive.  She gets confused about where things are--doesn't really understand the difference between local storage and OneDrive and doesn't really want to think about such things. 

    I used Acronis True Image to replicate the drive.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a simple case of replicate and extend the primary partition.  There was an OEM recovery partition, the Windows recovery partition, and an Intel Rapid Start hibernation partition after the primary partition.  Those prevented me from extending the primary partition after the drive replacement.  It wasn't clear if the OEM recovery partition was necessary.  I suspected not, but needed to research to confirm.  I had no idea what state the OEM recovery partition was in and there was no way to verify.  It probably had a Windows 8 image on it since that's what the machine shipped with.  The machine had been upgraded to Windows 10.  I decided to blow the OEM recovery partition away.  I knew I could delete the Intel Rapid Start partition and recreate later if needed.  I could also get rid of the Windows recovery partition by creating recovery media.

    Point with all this is that it just isn't as simple with PC's as my experience has been with my Mac Mini and, more recently, a 2012 MacBook Pro.  Yes, the Mac upgrade wasn't quite the same since I really didn't care about preserving data (I had all my data on OneDrive), but the ease of it still sticks out in my mind.

    To add to Paul's position, I also think MS needs to require that all recovery and hibernation partitions be positioned before the primary partition so that drive upgrades are simpler to perform with the primary partition easily extended when a larger disk is added.  I don't know why the Dell XPS 12's was out of whack, but I've also seen the same partition craziness with my daughter's Lenovo Yoga 13.

  10. 5234

    "Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft finally began offering its own sophisticated Reset This PC recovery tools with Windows."

    Actually, Microsoft provided Windows RE starting in Windows Vista.  They included guides on how OEM's could easily create one extra menu option at the bottom of WinRE for factory image recovery.  They could either use a command script, or launch their own recovery environment.  They even provided full sample command scripts that were allowed to be used as-is, if the OEM chose to do so.  "Reset this PC" just automates the process for the OEM, so they don't have to manually create their own recovery image separate from the deployed image.  In fact, OEM's could even create a launcher in Windows to reset to WinRE and launch the requisite menu command.  Microsoft never provided a way for users to create installation discs from factory images in earlier versions of WinRE though - that was solely the responsibility of the OEM.

    • 442

      In reply to Waethorn:

      This process is far better than the old WinRE setup.  No need for external USB flash drives, or the OS on a disc or anything.  Just press the button and confirm.  Wiped and ready for a new user.

      • 5234

        In reply to Narg:

        Um.  It doesn't clear everything back to square one.  It keeps installed drivers if they were installed via INF (but removes EXE drivers).  It's not consistent.  It also keeps updates, and if an update is the cause of the problem, it won't be solved by using that functionality.

  11. 5462

    "So, no, Microsoft isn’t preventing PC makers from duplicating functionality that’s built-in to Windows. But maybe it should: It’s own tools are first-rate."

    Agreed. However I still prefer using Acronis True Image, from the boot disk only.

  12. 2481

    And for us the brother, sister, grandchild, nephew, niece that is always being bugged to fix someones computer this is such a nice universal tool.  I now just keep two usb keys of Windows 10 ready one with PRO and one with Home.

  13. 8850

    I would have to agree the recovery, refresh, restore functionality built into Windows 10 these days is first rate and works well depending on individual circumstances. As you correctly mentioned pc-makers do included a recovery option to restore your PC back to its factory state which unfortunately includes all the gunk that comes with it.

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