Disaster Recovery optimize

How do I create and use a Windows 7 System Image to recover from a crash?

It is a fact, systems crash eventually. Jack Wallen shows you how to use System Image to recover from catastrophic system crash.

What do you do when a computer crash happens? Hopefully you have been managing a viable, full backup of your data so you can get that machine back up and running as quickly as possible. But what happens when, unbeknownst to you, that data backup is not usable? For whatever reason, it's not there or it's corrupt...what do you do then? Well, hopefully you have an image of your system to fall back on. And you should.

Creating a system image in Microsoft Windows 7 is a very simple task. With Windows 7 you have all the power and tools you need to create a perfectly good system image of your machine. But I wouldn't do this at just any time. Instead you will want to take this image soon after the operating system has been installed and is set up precisely how you want it. And it won't matter what applications you have installed, because you are not limited to burning the image to a CD or DVD. You can also house that image on an external drive. Very handy should that image grow beyond the size of a standard DVD.

So, how is this done? Let's take a look at the process step by step.

It's almost inevitable. In fact, it's almost a mathematical law:

w + (d*V) = lC

Where W = the more you work at your computer, d = data, V = value of data on said computer, and lC = likelihood of crash.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a TechRepublic download.

Step 1

Click on the Start button and enter "backup and restore" (no quotes), which will launch the Control Panel in the Backup and Restore window. In this window, you can do a number of things:

  • Create a system repair disc.
  • Select a backup to restore files from.
  • Recover system settings or your computer.
  • Create a system image.

Obviously it's the last piece that we want. You will find the link for that tool in the left navigation. Click on that, and you are ready for the next step.

Step 2

When you click the Create a System Image link, Windows will start searching for valid locations to place the image file. Once Windows has stopped searching, you will have three options:

  • On a hard disk
  • On one or more DVDs
  • On a network location
Let's take a look at the process of doing this on a hard disk. Once the discovery process is over, the tool will show all possible destinations in a drop box. Select the location you want (Figure A) and click Next.

Figure A

If you decide to do this on a network location, make sure your network connection is fast and reliable.

Step 3

The final step is to review what is being backed up as well as the size of your backup. You don't have to worry that Windows will try to save a too-large image on a drive. If there is not enough room, the process will not proceed. When you are OK with the settings, click the Start Backup button (Figure B).

Figure B

Your backup size will be reported to you. The older your system, the larger the image file (in most cases).

Depending on the size of the system image you are creating, this process can take quite some time. In fact, this is a process I would leave as an overnight job (just make sure it does not interfere with any backup jobs you have scheduled).

Step 4

Now, what to do with that image? Let's say your machine does tank. What is the process for restoring from the newly created image file? Simple. But you will have to have created a System Restore disk.

To do this, click on the Start button and enter "system repair" (no quotes) in the Search field, and when the results appear at the top of the window, select Create a System Repair Disc. This will open a single window where you select the drive to use to save this to. You can use only a disk drive in this case. You don't have to worry about whether you are using a CD or DVD as the system repair disc is fairly small in size. Select your drive and then click Create Disc.

Step 5

Hopefully it will not come to this step, but should you have to recover your system all you need to do is pop in the system repair disc, boot from it, and (when prompted) select Restore Your Computer Using a System Image That You Created Earlier. You will have to locate the image you created, and then the process will begin in reverse. Your system will be restored to whatever state it was at when you created the system image.

Final thoughts

Hopefully you will never have to use this How Do I, but on the off chance that you do, you will be very glad you took the time to create that system image when you did. Otherwise you could be very much out of luck. Remember, though, once you have created that image (and the System Restore Disc), you will want to keep those safe from harm's way. I would highly recommend you do not store the image on the same external drive you use for backups. Store the image and then store the drive -- and store that system repair disc as well -- in a safe place.

Stay on top of the latest Microsoft Windows tips and tricks with TechRepublic's Windows Desktop newsletter, delivered every Monday and Thursday. Automatically sign up today!


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.


If you're using Win7 Home Premium, you cannot do a networked backup. Your only choices are hard disk or DVD.


errrmmm.. beg to differ.. I have a pure BSD fileserver which has constant uptime since 2001 .. never crashed or been rebooted once in all that time.. Last time it was shutdown was to move to this house 16/7/2001. It's only that microsoft junk that seems to suffer these fatal system failures through shoddy product situations. We all know to keep microsoft systems running at anything like optimal performance (hahahahaha) the best thing to do is a complete wipe and reinstall every 6 months.


Just curious if one can image to double layer dvd, or better yet blu-ray, with this proccess. With XP I could slice things up to managable chunks by putting Windows, Program Files and Docs & Settings on 3 seperate partitions and data on a fourth. each partition image fit on 1-2 discs. I haven't found a similar way to manage Win7 64bit.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

You really should have a System Image or some form of image for each workstation or PC - do you?


Or perhaps to restore an image. For the purist, it's possible to save a basic image with only the service pack(s). This can avoid the drawbacks associated with updated packages, especially security software, which we know tends to leapfrog in response to new attacks.


I've used Win7 backup & restore to create a system image and recovery disk. What I've never seen documented is a way to give yourself some confidence that the system image can be used. Without actually doing a full restore. Does the recovery process give you an ability to at least access the system image without doing the actual restore? --Larry


It facinates me that writers who talk about backup and system images for W7 just ASSUME that everyone out in IT Land is at the same level of expertise as themselves. Hello they are NOT! A very high percentage of non corporate users have no idea of system images , have not ever done them and of course a failure occurs before the need to do an image becomes self evident. At that point its TOO LATE ! Even when an image IS AVAILABLE I bet its a year or more old and practically useless in terms of currency . Indeed its a 50%/50% bet that the image is even capable of being restored because no-one ever tests the ability to restore .. they just rely on the fact they did the image backup therefore it must automatically restore .. wrong ! A far more useful tool was the repair /restore option available in XP now removed from W7. At least that gave a half decent IT Tech the ability to get a system up and running , albeit patches and service packs needed to be re-applied it at least worked at around 99% reliability across almost all hardware. Of course Microsoft makes it so difficult to use images anyway because if your whole PC fails a restore image is useless because it will pickup the hardware changes and fail to boot anyway. There has to be a much simpler and easier way for consumers and we need to start demanding that from Microsoft now. Ken IT Director Melbourne Australia


hmmm, i rather have a sysprepped image, more comatible /w diffrent types of computers, saving diskspace


Go to Disk Management - Action Tab - Attach VHD. Browse to the back up image folder. When you see an icon that looks like a harddisk, you should see 2, 1 is the 100mb partition, the 2nd will be your C:\ partition highlight it and click open and ok. Your back up image will be highlighted as a blue colour in Disk management. You will now be able to right click and explore as you would a normal hard disk. When you have checked it and are happy. Right click the front of the VHD and Detach VHD.


No expertise needed, only a brain, the appropriate software and a destination. Until recently I used Acronis True Image, but had problems using it on 64 bit systems. Thus I investigated a number of options, including Paragon (which trashed a SSD boot drive), Macrium and Drive image XML. Temporarily I'm using the very same Windows backup package featured in this article; before the SSD was trashed I had the sense to back this system to the backup drive using the Windows package, then I backed up using Paragon. I did a test restore using the latter, and the drive was unworkable. From memory the Windows boot DVD had enough tools for me to destroy the partition, create another, format it and then restore the image that I had made. (If it wasn't the windows boot disc I used to do the disc operations it would probably have been Ubuntu.) For the first time in a long time I was impressed. MS have lagged in providing system backup and restore packages. I used Central Point Backup in the very early days of Windows (WFWG perhaps?), and since then have always been uneasy with MS' offerings. The solution they supplied with Windows 9x was risible, leading me to adopt Acronis, but the 64 bit solution is so good that I am left suspicious; because MS did something with evident thoroughness? Yes, but also because the backup is done from Windows. That's right, the very system to be backed up does the job. True it takes a snapshot, thus obviating the problem of locking files, but I still feel uneasy, even though the proof of the pudding is working right now, and pulled my arse out of the fire. I'm going to try Drive XML and a few other packages. I like to have options.


@Zwort What disk image software have you settled on for 64 bit?