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System Image Backup in Windows 8.1

Posted by Hemprasad Y. Badgujar on January 11, 2015


There is no traditional backup and restore functionality in Windows 8.1, but there is still a way to create a full image of system drive (the disk/partition where Windows is installed) that can later be restored from Recovery Environment.

Please remember to create Recovery Drive for easy access to Repair your PC options!
You might also want to create a Custom Recovery Image for better Refresh your PC functionality.

Caveats for System Image Backups in Windows 8.1

Clearly, Microsoft wants you to use File History, OneDrive (aka SkyDrive) and maybe even Storage Spaces for storing, syncing and backing up your personal files, and Refresh your PC or Reset your PC for restoring Windows to a working state. Maybe that is why System Image Backup is so difficult to find in Windows 8.1.

Here are a few things you should know about system images in Windows 8.1:

  • You can create only one System Image Backup on a drive: any previous versions will be overwritten.
  • There is no easy way of scheduling image backups, and for the previous reason, it is not really recommended either. You do not want to automatically overwrite a good system image with image of a computer that does not run properly.
  • System Image Backup cannot be used for restoring individual files or folders: restoring the image means overwriting everything on the target drive. File History is the proper solution for backing up and restoring personal data in Windows 8.1.

Using DISM to verify that Windows Component Store is intact

Before you create a full backup, it is strongly recommended to check for corruption in Windows Component Store – there is no point in backing up a broken installation that will probably fail in the near future.

Open elevated Command Prompt: either open Start screen, type cmd, right-click on Command Prompt and select Run as administrator; or if you’ve set to display Command Prompt in Taskbar Navigation settings, use keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+X to bring up Quick Links menu (a list of commands for power users) and click Command Prompt (Admin).
In the black window, type or copy-paste the following command to have DISM (Deployment Imaging and Servicing Management) tool verify the integrity of Component Store: Dism /Online /Cleanup-Image /ScanHealth . Press ENTER key to launch the command.

The check takes up to 15 minutes to complete, and if the result reads “No component store corruption detected”, you have the green light to create the System Image Backup.
If the result reads “The component store is repairable” instead, type Dism /Online /Cleanup-Image /RestoreHealth and press ENTER key to fix the corruption. The process can last up to 15 minutes again and positive result reads: “The restore operation completed successfully. The component store corruption was repaired.” Move on to the System Image Backup creation then.

In case the RestoreHealth command fails no matter what, it is best to perform a non-destructive reinstall of Windows 8.1. This seems to be the only solution to the infamous DISM error 0x800f081f.

Creating a System Image Backup in Windows 8.1

To access the feature, open Search everywhere (keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+Q), type File History and click the result.
Yes, you read it right: “File History”. Smile Also, connect your external hard drive with plenty of available disk space now.
Click the link titled System Image Backup in the bottom left corner of the File History window.
Windows 8.1, File History window. Click 'System Image Backup' in the lower left corner.

First, System Image Backup looks for available DVD-writers and hard drives. While you can use network drives for backing up your PC, it is not recommended because backed up data cannot be securely protected for a network target.
I cannot recommend using DVD-s for backups, either – optical media is vulnerable to scratches that might ruin the whole backup set, so the only usable option here is hard disk drive.

In accordance with common sense, you cannot create a system image on the same physical drive where Windows is installed. You see, if this hard drive goes bad, you would lose both Windows and all backups.

In the Create a system image window, select On a hard disk. The best one might be already selected, but you can change the target drive using the combo box.
I recommend using destination drives that are connected to standard controllers (not SCSI, SAS, RAID and other controllers that Windows cannot automatically recognize or find driver for) or standard USB ports.

If you’ve created a system image on the selected drive before, there will be a line stating “Most recent backup on drive:” beneath the combo box. Here’s the catch: previous system image will be overwritten, so you can really have only one backup at a time on the same drive.
Click Next.
Windows then lists your backup location and size, plus drives/partitions that will be backed up.
Again, if there is a previous system image on the drive where you want to back up your PC, a yellow warning sign with the text “Any existing system images for this machine might be overwritten” appears.
Click Start backup if you’re satisfied with the settings.
Depending on the size of selected drive(s), the backup might take several hours. Click Close after it is complete.

Scheduling System Image Backup in Windows 8.1

While it is not recommended to schedule System Image Backups in Windows 8.1, you might prefer to do so if you have more than one external hard drive dedicated for backups.
In such case, you can manually create one backup on the first drive (for example, drive F:) and leave it untouched forever – this will be your fail-safe backup right after installing and updating Windows and necessary software (you should use File History for backing up your personal files and folders). Then schedule a PowerShell command that creates and updates backup on a different physical drive (for example, drive E:) on weekly basis.

To use this advanced scenario, use keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+Q to open Search everywhere, type schedule and click Schedule tasks.
Right-click Task Scheduler Library and select Create Basic Task from the menu.
In the Create Basic Task Wizard window, type Name for the new task. Description is optional.
Click Next after you’re done.
Set Task Trigger to Weekly and click Next. If programs and apps on your Windows device change rarely, you can select Monthly instead.
Because creating a system image slows your PC down for quite some time, choose a start time when your machine is most probably not in heavy use.
Click Next again.
Leave Start a program selected for Action and click Next.
Type powershell.exe into Program/script field and then copy and paste the following line into Add arguments (optional) field:
wbAdmin start backup -backupTarget:E: -include:C: -allCritical -quiet
Replace drive letter E: in the -backupTarget argument with the appropriate one for your backup destination disk if necessary.
Because Windows 8.1 always assigns drive letter C: to system drive (the one where Windows is installed), changing this one is not needed.
The -allCritical option includes everything (additional partitions/volumes or drives) required to start and run Windows properly in the backup. I guess you all know what -quiet means.
In the final screen of Create Basic Task Wizard, tick the Open the Properties dialog for this task when I click Finish check box and click Finish.
In the Security options section of Task Properties window, select the Run whether user is logged on or not option and tick the Run with highest privileges check box. Then click Change user or Group button next to the When running the task, use the following user account field.
Type system into Enter the object name to select field and click Check Names. The name turns into all capital letters and gets underlined. Click OK.
Back in the Task Properties window, open Settings tab and enable the Run task as soon as possible after a scheduled start is missed option. This ensures that the backup is always created.
Finally, click OK to save the task changes. Make sure that the destination drive is always connected during the scheduled time.

To verify that the backup task runs and finishes properly, open WindowsImageBackup folder on the target drive. There should be a subfolder with your computer’s name – open it and then open another subfolder, Logs, and see if the Backup_error_<date and time>.log file is empty. If it is, the backup finished successfully.
Please note that you might have to use administrative privileges to open the folders for the first time.

Another way is to check backup log in Event Viewer. Use keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+X to open Quick Links menu and click Event Viewer. Alternatively, right-click or tap and hold the Start tip on Taskbar.
Expand Applications and Services Logs, Microsoft, Windows, Backup items and click Operational. You’ll then see the list of events related to backing up your device. Here are some most common backup events in Windows:

  • Event ID 1 – The backup operation has started.
  • Event ID 4 – The backup operation has finished successfully.
  • Event ID 5 – Backup started at <date and time> failed with following error code <number>.
  • Event ID 8 – Backup cancelled.
  • Event ID 14 – The backup operation has completed. This event appears even if backup was cancelled or did not finish successfully.
  • Event ID 20 – Backup started at <date and time> failed as another backup or recovery is in progress.
  • Event ID 50 – Backup failed as required space was not available on the backup target. Free up some disk space on the target drive or increase available disk space on Windows disk.

 

How to restore Windows 8.1 from a System Image Backup

First, you need to get into Windows 8.1 Recovery Environment (WinRE) using Recovery Drive or bootable Windows 8.1 installation DVD. If Windows is running, you can invoke Settings charm (keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+I), click Power and hold down SHIFT key while clickingRestart.
Detailed instructions are included in Repair your computer in Windows 8 and 8.1 tutorial.

Click or tap Troubleshoot in Choose an option screen, then choose Advanced Options in Troubleshoot screen.
 

Next, in Advanced options screen, click or tap System Image Recovery, and choose Windows 8.1.

 

How to use Recovery Environment for refreshing, restoring or resetting Windows 8 and 8.1

First part of this article describes how to get into Windows 8 or 8.1 Recovery Environment (WinRE) and repair smaller problems such as file system corruption and corrupted Boot Configuration Data.

Options to try before Refresh your PC, Reset your PC or restoring backup image in Windows 8 and 8.1
  • Always boot to Safe Mode at least once – this often repairs corrupted file system and essential system files.
  • If Windows is able to boot, use System File Checker and icacls.exe to repair corrupted system files.
  • While Windows is running, use free WhoCrashed for determining BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death) causes.
    Reliability Monitor might also reveal faulty drivers or software.
  • Try a non-destructive reinstall of Windows 8 or 8.1. It certainly takes a lot of time, but it often works much better than Refresh Your PC. This repair method leaves all your files, settings, installed programs and apps intact. It is also about the only option for fixing DISM RestoreHealth failure 0x800f081f.
Step 3 – Refresh your PC

In case Automatic Repair and System Restore did not help and you do not have any system image backups available, you can use the brand new option in Windows 8 and 8.1 – Refresh your PC. This method is pretty close to Non-destructive reinstall of Windows 8 or 8.1, but you will lose all apps and Desktop programs that were not installed from Windows Store unless you have created a Custom Recovery Image.

Please note that you cannot use the Refresh Your PC feature if Windows 8 or 8.1 is installed on a drive with GPT (not MBR) partition table until you force the “UEFI only” boot setting in BIOS/EFI. Windows will not detect GPT partition alignment correctly if BIOS booting is enabled.

All your personal files, documents and most of personalization settings will remain intact, and a list of removed programs will be available on your Desktop. Windows settings and all installed app settings will revert back to defaults to avoid possible conflicts.

Please be aware that even if using a Custom Recovery Image, Desktop programs will lose their custom settings and revert back to defaults.

Those who upgraded from Windows 8 to 8.1 without clean install/removing everything, can encounter a problem where Windows 8, not 8.1 is restored. This is because you need to update Custom Recovery Image after upgrading to Windows 8.1 – the image on Recovery Partition is still Windows 8.

Refresh your PC restores default contents of the following folders on system drive (the one where Windows 8/8.1 is installed):

  • Windows
  • Program Files
  • Program Files (x86)
  • ProgramData
  • Users\<user name>\AppData

In most cases, you must have Windows 8/8.1 installation or recovery media (DVD) available. Media prompt will not appear only if a custom recovery image is available.

Some users report “Unable to refresh your PC. A required drive partition is missing” and “The drive where Windows is installed is locked. Unlock the drive and try again” errors during the refresh process. In most cases, rebuilding Boot Configuration Data helps. This might also resolve the problems that made Windows unable to boot.
A less common cause is that Windows 8 or 8.1 cannot locate a proper driver for the hard drive controller and therefore cannot access partitions. If Windows is able to start, try installing proper chipset drivers (such as Intel or AMD) before refreshing your PC.

You can also launch Refresh your PC while Windows 8 or 8.1 is running – use keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+I to open Settings charm and click Change PC settings.
In Windows 8, open General tab on the left and click Get started in the Refresh your PC without affecting your files section.
In Windows 8.1, open Update & recovery tab on the left, then open Recovery tab and click Get started in the Refresh your PC without affecting your files section.
The following process is nearly identical to the one described below.

To start, click Refresh your PC in Troubleshoot screen. If you have a custom recovery image on some external drive, make sure the drive is connected. If Windows 8 or 8.1 is running in normal mode, not Recovery Environment, you can also verify the custom image is available.
If Refresh your PC does not detect a custom recovery image, or one has not been created, it will use defaults and all installed Desktop programs and non-Windows Store apps will be removed.

An overview of refreshing will appear. Click Next if you are satisfied with the consequences.
If you started this operation some other way, you might have to sign in first.

As usual, you must choose a target operating system. Click the correct Windows 8/8.1 installation in the list. In most cases, there is just one.

If the process asks you to insert your Windows installation or recovery media, insert it and the process will continue automatically.

Windows 8 and 8.1 will remind you that you must have your PC plugged in. Click Refresh to start the process.

The process will take from 15-20 minutes to several hours, depending on the number of installed programs and the speed of hard drive or SSD. It has several stages, such as “Preparing”, “Getting devices ready”, “System” and “Welcome”.

In most cases, this action solves all problems and Windows 8/8.1 is able to boot and run normally.
Windows 8.1 will restore your synced settings and apps after signing in (if you had syncing to OneDrive enabled before refreshing) – this takes some time and your device might be slower than usual during this.
If necessary, reinstall all removed programs after this – the list is available on your Desktop as an HTML document titled “Removed Apps” and it contains links to program downloads.
If you restored a Custom Recovery Image, you must reconfigure all Desktop programs and non-Windows Store apps. Your File History is intact, but you must register the recovery image again.

Step 4 – restore a disk image backup or recover files

Windows 8 does have a traditional backup program that is well hidden under the name Windows 7 File Recovery. If you automated it properly, you can click System Image Recovery in Advanced options screen and follow instructions in Restore a System Image in Windows 7 and 8 article.

Windows 8.1 has the disk imaging backup hidden even better. In case you’ve created System Image Backup, you can restore it here.
If you are using free AOMEI Backupper instead, read this article about restoring disk image using bootable rescue media.

EaseUS Todo Backup Free users should follow the Restore disk image tutorial.

In case you do not have any backups and you have not turned on File History in Windows 8 or 8.1, you can use my Data Recovery CD/USB orPuppy Linux to copy your documents, pictures, videos, music, settings, etc to a flash drive or external hard disk.
After copying is complete, run Step 3 (Refresh your PC, does not affect your documents or personalization settings) or Step 5 (Reset your PC, removes everything and installs a clean copy of Windows), copy your rescued files back to your computer if needed, and do start making regular backups this time.

Step 5 – Reset your PC

Reset your PC is a last resort – you should definitely try restoring a backup image or copy important files to an external drive first. Also, make sure your File History drive is not connected if you have turned the feature on and need to keep your personal files and Libraries.

Resetting means removing all user accounts, settings, personal files, installed apps and Desktop programs and reverting to a clean (default) Windows 8/8.1 installation.

This option is useful if you want to sell, donate or recycle your PC and make sure no one can recover your personal data.

Please note that you cannot use the Reset Your PC feature if Windows 8 or 8.1 is installed on a drive with GPT (not MBR) partition table until you force the “UEFI only” boot setting in BIOS/EFI. Windows will not detect GPT partition alignment correctly if BIOS booting is enabled.

Those who upgraded from Windows 8 to 8.1 without clean install/removing everything, can encounter a problem where Windows 8, not 8.1 is restored. This is because you need to update Custom Recovery Image after upgrading to Windows 8.1 – the image on Recovery Partition is still Windows 8.

You’ll need your Windows 8/8.1 installation or recovery media (DVD) and product key to run Reset your PC.

If you encounter the “Unable to reset your PC. A required drive partition is missing” and “The drive where Windows is installed is locked. Unlock the drive and try again” errors during the reset process, try rebuilding Boot Configuration Data first. This might also resolve the problems that made Windows unable to boot.
A far less common cause is that Windows 8 or 8.1 cannot locate a proper driver for the hard drive controller and therefore cannot access partitions. If Windows is able to start, try installing proper chipset drivers (such as Intel or AMD) before refreshing your PC.

You can also launch Reset your PC while Windows 8/8.1 is running – use keyboard shortcut WINDOWS KEY+I to open Settings charm and clickChange PC settings.
In Windows 8, open General tab on the left and click Get started in the Remove everything and reinstall Windows section.
In Windows 8.1, open Update & recovery tab on the left, then open Recovery tab and click Get started in the Remove everything and reinstall Windows section.
The following process is nearly identical to the one described below.

To reset Windows 8 or 8.1, click Reset your PC in Troubleshoot screen.
An overview of resetting will appear. Click Next if you are satisfied with the consequences.
As usual, you must choose a target operating system. Click the correct Windows 8/8.1 installation in the list. In most cases there is only one, anyway.
If the process asks you to insert your Windows installation or recovery media, insert it and the process will continue automatically.
If your PC has more than one drive (e.g. two internal hard disks), Reset your PC asks whether you want to remove all files from all drives.
Click Only the drive where Windows is installed in case you are repairing your Windows 8 or 8.1installation.
If you’re about to sell, donate or recycle the PC, click All drives instead.
Next, two options for removing files appear:

  • Just remove my files will delete all files normally. This is a quick process and is suggested if you just want to reinstall Windows 8 or 8.1 and continue using this computer.
  • Fully clean the drive will delete all files securely so that recovery programs are not able to restore these. This option is recommended if you are planning to sell, donate or recycle your computer – and it will certainly take from several to many-many hours to complete.

 

A reminder of consequences appears with a suggestion to keep your computer plugged in. To start the process, click Reset.
If you chose the quick reset option, the process will not take long – much less time than refreshing Windows 8 or 8.1. Plan about 10-30 minutes for the process.
In case you chose to fully clean all drives, the process will certainly take at least a few hours.
Just like Refresh your PC, the process has several stages, such as “Preparing”, “Getting devices ready”, “System” and “Welcome”. Please stand by.
Like I warned, you will need Windows product key after Reset your PC is complete. Type it in and click Next. If you do not have one right away, clickSkip instead – but please remember that Windows 8 and 8.1 will work for only the next 30 days without activation.

The process will continue exactly like with brand new PC-s – License terms, Settings, Personalization, User Account, etc.
Windows 8.1 allows restoring your apps and settings from another synced PC (if you had syncing to OneDrive enabled before resetting), or setting it up as a brand new PC. Please note that syncing takes some time and your PC might be slower during that time.

After all this is done, Windows 8/8.1 should run flawlessly.

If you’re not planning to get rid of the device, remember to configure Windows Update, System Restore, File History and backups; reinstall free anti-malware program(s) and other free security apps, such as WOT Safe Surfing Tool and Secunia PSI. Also, do not forget to create a custom recovery image after reinstalling all apps and Desktop programs.

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