Windows 10 Recovery Drive

This article will give you some tips on recovering from a disaster with Windows 10

It will also show you how to access ‘Safe Mode’ which Microsoft has hidden away and made hard to get to.

If you need any assistance fixing your computer call Robert on 0418 530 133 or drop me an email


Learn to use the Windows 10 Recovery Drive

Lincoln Spector

Sooner or later, nearly every Windows user powers up the machine — and Windows simply refuses to start.

Every current version of Windows lets you create and run a self-booting rescue disc, but Win10 takes that tool to a new level.

The Windows 10 Recovery Drive comes with multiple tools for repairing and reinstalling Windows. You can, for example, use a system restore point to restore an image backup, run an automated Startup Repair tool, refresh Windows (either keeping or removing your data), or completely reinstall the operating system.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never need your Win10 recovery drive. But when things go serious wrong with Windows 10, you’ll be extremely relieved to have it. Here’s how to create and use a recovery drive.

Preparing the Recovery Drive — on a flash drive

The changes to the self-booting, Windows-recovery system start with the name. Bowing to changes in PC technology, it’s no longer a rescue disc, it’s now a rescue drive. In fact, creating a bootable CD or DVD is no longer an option; you must use a spare USB flash drive with a capacity of at least 512MB. But for a recovery drive with a complete set of tools, you’ll need an 8GB or larger drive.

If your internal drive crashes, and you need to install Windows on a replacement drive, you’ll be glad you splurged on teh 8GB drive.

Note that everything currently on the flash drive will be lost when you turn it into a Win10 recovery drive.

Most important, you’ll want to create your new recovery drive now, while your Win10 setup is healthy. (Note: A recovery drive created on one PC might not work perfectly on another machine.)

Once you have a suitable flash drive plugged into your system, it’s time to run Win10’s Create a recovery drive option. There are two ways to do it:

  • In the Win10 search box, enter “recovery” and select the option under Settings.
  • Open Control Panel/Recovery (in the icon view).

Click Create a recovery drive (Figure 1) and follow the prompts. If your flash drive has a capacity of less than 8GB, uncheck the Back up system files to the recovery drive option. Otherwise, the drive-creation process will fail, possibly with a generic error message.

Create recovery drive

Figure 1. Setting up a Win10 recovery drive starts with a click of the Create a recovery drive link.

Keep in mind that the actual drive creation can take considerable time — especially if you’re backing up system files.

When the process is done, label the flash drive with something like “Recovery” plus the make and model of the PC. Store it securely, so it doesn’t get used for some other purpose and you’ll be able to find it in an emergency.

But before you do that, I strongly suggest testing that the rescue drive boots — you can also check out its various tools, preferably while reading the rest of this article.

Booting Windows from the recovery drive

Starting your system from the recovery flash drive should be easy — simply plug in the USB drive and power up your system. But if that doesn’t work on an older system, you’ll need to check the preferred boot order in the BIOS.

On newer PCs, the disaster of an unbootable PC can be compounded by the UEFI startup system. If you’re left with “How the bleep do I get this thing to boot from a flash drive?” you’ll probably find the answer in Fred Langa’s Dec. 11, 2014, Top Story “How to solve UEFI boot and startup problems.”

When the recovery drive boots, you’ll first be asked to choose a keyboard layout — which is really a choice of languages and nationalities. (I chose US.)

The next screen, Choose an option (Figure 2), offers three choices. Obviously, you can ignore Exit and continue to Windows 10 and Turn off your PC. Click (or tap) Troubleshoot.

Choose an option

Figure 2. To access Win10’s repair tools, select Troubleshoot.

Next, you get three more choices: Reset this PC, Recover from a drive, and Advanced options (Figure 3). I’ll start with the more flexible Advanced tools.

Troubleshoot options

Figure 3. The Advanced options offers a variety of tools for fixing Win10 issues.

One more thing: After selecting one of these tools, you might be asked to select an operating system — even though the only option is Windows 10. Don’t worry about it; simply select Windows 10.

Advanced options: When you don’t need to reinstall

Despite the heading, most of the offerings under “Advanced options” (Figure 4) aren’t more advanced than anything else on the Troubleshoot menu. They are simply tools that might fix Windows without reinstalling the operating sytem. In other words, these are the tools you should look at first.

Advanced options

Figure 4. The recovery disk’s Advanced options includes various levels of repair.

I’ll start with the easiest. (Note that all these tools are available within the default Win10 setup. Click Settings/Update & security/Recovery/Advanced startup. Next click Restart now/Troubleshoot/Advanced options. But, of course, you can’t access those tools if you can boot your PC.)

  • Startup Repair: This simple tool examines all system files and settings that play a role in the Windows boot process. It then tries to determine what’s at fault and attempts to fix it.

    Because it’s relatively quick, this tool is a good place to start your troubleshooting. If it doesn’t work, you can then move on to more extensive solutions.

  • Go back to the previous build: If you’ve upgraded from Win7 or Win8.1 within the last 30 days, and you haven’t removed your Windows.old folder, this option will take you back to the previous OS.
  • System Restore: Most likely, you’re already familiar with Windows restore points — records of previous operating-system settings and configurations that you can access and restore via Control Panel/Recovery. The option in the recovery drive works that same way (Figure 5).
    System restore

    Figure 5. The Win10 recovery drive includes the basic Restore system files tool.

  • System Image Recovery: You also access backup images of your system hard drive or SSD, stored on another drive. (I’ll assume you have a recent image backup; if not, click Control Panel/File History tool. You’ll find the link, System Image Backup, in the lower-left corner of the File History window.)

    To restore an image from an external drive, you’ll need to plug in both the recovery drive and the backup drive into separate USB ports.

    I succeeded in restoring a backup only after some struggles. On the first try, the image-restore system didn’t see the backup drive. But rebooting the PC with the backup drive already plugged in solved the problem.

    Then the tool failed to restore the backup, stating: “Windows cannot restore a system image to a computer that has different firmware. The system image was created on a computer using BIOS and this computer is using UEFI.” This, as it turned out, was a cockpit error: my computer had displayed two listing for the same flash drive (Figure 6), and I’d mistakenly chosen the one prefaced with “UEFI.”

    Boot menu

    Figure 6. Picking the correct flash drive

    The third try was the charm.

  • Command Prompt: Feeling nostalgic about DOS? Me neither. But there are times when the command-prompt environment is useful — for example, when booting to Safe Mode from the recovery drive.

    Unfortunately, recovery drive doesn’t include a simple safe mode–restart option. In my opinion, that’s a significant omission. (For more on booting in safe mode — including from a command prompt — see the Field Notes article in this issue and a Windows TenForums page.)

    The command prompt has other recovery uses. For example, use XCOPY (more info) to move your personal files to an external drive, or use DISKPART (info) to delete or create drive partitions (if you’re careful and patient).

    Of course, you’ll also want to remember the “exit” command, which gets you out of Command Prompt.

Reset and Recover: Reinstalling Windows 10

Now back to those first two Troubleshoot options, Reset this PC and Recover from a drive. Both reinstall Windows and offer essentially the same options.

Where the two options differ is that Reset uses the installation files on the internal drive and Recover uses files on the recovery drive. That’s why you’ll see the Recover option only if you used an 8GB or larger flash drive and chose the Back up system files to the recovery drive option when you created the recovery drive.

When would you use Recover instead of the Reset option? Typically when the special recovery partition on the main system drive has been destroyed or corrupted. You might also use Recover when replacing or upgrading the main drive and you’re creating a clean installation.

Neither of these options will require a product key — assuming you’re running the recovery drive on the original PC.

When selecting Reset the PC, you’ll be asked whether you want to Keep my files or Remove everything (Figure 7). The first option reinstalls Windows but leaves your personal documents, photos, and other data files where you left them — at least if you left them in folders (Documents, Music, and so on) recognized by Windows as part of your libraries. Personal files in other locations might get deleted. (Obviously, you should have all your data files backed up before you do anything involving significant changes to Windows. In fact, your data files should be regularly backed up, period.) Reset the PC also remembers who you are; you won’t have to set up your account all over again.

Reset this PC

Figure 7. When resetting a PC, you can either keep personal files or start from scratch.

If you select Recover from a drive or if you go with Reset this PC and Remove everything, the installation process will delete all files. Once it’s finished, you (or perhaps a new owner) will have to start from scratch, including setting up user accounts.

Remove everything has two more options: Just remove my files and Fully clean the drive. That last one, which can take hours, securely wipes everything off of the drive.

A secure wipe will make it impossible to recover any data from your hard drive. But the technique is problematic with SSDs, as reported in a PCWorld article. Microsoft hasn’t answered my questions about this issue. For now, I’d skip this option on an SSD.

Final thoughts: The Win10 recovery drive could use some more tools — the lack of a “Boot to Safe Mode” option is particularly vexing. If you can’t get to your usual sign-in screen, you can’t get to the various Safe Mode settings via the standard Win10 Troubleshoot/Advanced/Startup Settings screen.

That said, Win10’s flash drive-based repair system is still a must. Create a recovery drive and store it someplace where you won’t forget where it is. One of these days, it may save, if not your life, then at least your sanity.

Field Notes

Lost and found: Windows 10’s safe mode

Tracey Capen

Windows 10 might be a significant improvement over Windows 8, but it still possesses some of its predecessor’s dual personality.

That’s most evident in Windows system settings, but it’s also true of some built-in troubleshooting tools.

A workaround for accessing Windows safe mode

During the writing and editing of this week’s Top Story, it became evident that Microsoft is de-emphasizing one of Windows’ longstanding troubleshooting tools: booting to safe mode. That’s not entirely surprising: most average Windows users have forgotten about that option. But many advanced users and system admins still use it, according to our own Susan Bradley.

In brief, safe mode boots Windows with a limited set of essential drivers and startup files. Safe mode loads just enough to get Windows running. As noted in a Microsoft help page:

“Safe mode is useful for troubleshooting problems with programs and drivers that might not start correctly or that might prevent Windows from starting correctly.

“If a problem doesn’t reappear when you start in safe mode, you can eliminate the default settings and basic device drivers as possible causes. If a recently installed program, device, or driver prevents Windows from running correctly, you can start your computer in safe mode and then remove the program that’s causing the problem.”

Microsoft doesn’t make it easy to access safe mode either in Windows 8 or 10. As Lincoln Spector discovered while researching Win10’s recovery drive option, it’s especially difficult to launch safe mode if Windows won’t boot — which sorta defeats the purpose of the tool.

Here are three ways to start Windows 10 in safe mode.

A quick launch of Win10 Troubleshoot

As described in the Top Story, Win10 has a set of troubleshooting tools for fixing operating-system problems. The easiest way to access them is to open the start menu and click the Power icon. Next, hold down the Shift key and click Restart. That will pop up the “Choose an option” window; select Troubleshoot and then Advanced. (An alternate route is to click Settings/Update & Security/Recovery/Advanced startup.)

In the Advanced options window, select Startup Settings; you’ll end up with the window shown in Figure 1. It merely describes what options you’ll have. Click Restart.

Start Settings

Figure 1. The Start Settings window lists alternate startup settings — including safe mode.

At this point, your system will do a full restart. A second Startup Settings window then appears — with actual choices. As shown in Figure 2, pressing the F4 key enables safe mode. If you press it, Windows restarts again and opens with the classic minimalist look. (Interestingly, the safe mode window lists your current Windows build.)

Win10 Startup Settings

Figure 2. Default Startup Settings screen in Windows 10

Rebooting out of safe mode returns your system to its standard startup format.

Launching the classic startup options

Surprisingly (or not), the traditional startup-troubleshooting options are still in Windows 10. On some systems, through a trick of the command prompt, you can have the OS boot to the DOS-like “Advanced Boot Options” window. Here’s how:

  • Launch Windows 10 using a standard installation/recovery/rescue disc or flash drive.
  • Select your language. If “Repair my computer” appears on the next screen, click it. Otherwise, click Troubleshoot/Advanced options/Command Prompt.
  • Enter the following commands, as shown, on separate lines.


  • Back in the Troubleshoot menu, click Turn off your computer.
  • Power up the system again, and (as the boot process starts) repeatedly press the F8 key until the Advanced Boot Options menu appears, shown in Figure 3.
    Advanced Boot Options

    Figure 3. The classic window for launching safe mode

Again, after you’re finished with safe mode, rebooting should return your Windows installation to its normal startup process. (A tip of the hat to Fred Langa for bringing up this tip.)

A few notes about this technique. On my system, I had to turn off Fast Boot in my system BIOS. Otherwise, Win10 would never see the F8 key command. So, as is usual with Windows, much depends on your particular system setup. You might have to experiment.

And has been previously discussed in Windows Secrets, on newer systems, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) boot system can be problematic for self-booting media. For a refresher on that, see the Dec. 11, 2014, Top Story, “How to solve UEFI boot and startup problems.”

Windows 10 updating is still a mystery

For advanced Windows users, it’s bad enough that Win10 automatically installs all updates. But often there’s very little information on what the updates contain — other than a long list of modified files.

That means features can change in Win10 without any real notice. For example, the format of the Win10 Settings screen recently changed shape on my test machine. Admittedly that’s an extremely minor thing, but it points up the problem with poorly documented updates. I don’t know whether the change was due to a feature update or something else. And can we expect our Win10 experience to change without any sort of forewarning?

The answer appears to be: yes! — at least for now. For the average Win10 user, the silent evolution of this OS might be both a blessing and an annoyance. But for businesses, it can be a real problem. That point was nicely discussed in a recent The Register article, which mentions the efforts by our very own Susan Bradley to convince Microsoft to change its policy. Check it out.

Editor in chief Tracey Capen was the executive editor of reviews at PC World magazine for 10 years, from 1995 to 2005. He was InfoWorld’s managing editor of reviews from 1993 to 1995 and worked in the magazine’s test center and as networking editor from 1989 to 1992. Between his stints at InfoWorld, he was senior labs editor at Corporate Computing magazine.

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