A backup of your entire system is your best strategy against hardware failure, software issues, and malware that can not only damage your installation but more importantly, corrupt your files. If you don't proactively create regular backups, you could end up losing relevant documents, irreplaceable photos, and custom configurations that you may have spent hours setting up.

On Windows 10, there are a lot of ways to create a backup, which can range from manually copying your files to external storage, to storing files securely in the cloud, to using third-party backup solutions. However, if you don't want to use third-party tools or messy manual methods, you can also create a full backup using the built-in legacy System Image Backup tool.

A system image is a copy of everything stored on your device, including the Windows 10 installation, settings, apps, and your files. The primary benefit of this method is that you can use it to restore your entire system from hardware or software problems quickly using the same or different drive.

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In this Windows 10 guide, we'll walk you through the steps to create a full backup that includes all your custom settings, apps, and files using the built-in system image tool.

Windows 10 System Image Backup feature notice

Starting with Windows 10 version 1709, Microsoft is no longer maintaining the System Image Backup feature. You can still use the tool to create backups, but in the future, it may stop working. Also, as a deprecated feature, the company can decide to remove this tool in future releases completely.

This guide aims to help you create a full backup while the feature still available to create temporary backups, or to backup older releases of Windows 10 or older versions, such as Windows 8.1 or Windows 7.

If the time comes when you're no longer able to use this feature, it's recommended to switch to a third-party solution. If you need additional assistance, you can check this guide with six effective ways to back up your PC.

How to create a System Image Backup on Windows 10

Although you can save a backup to a network location or a secondary drive, the best option is still to use removable storage, which you can disconnect and store in a safe place quickly.

To create a full backup of your computer using the system image tool, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Backup.
  4. Under the "Looking for an older backup?" section, click the Go to Backup and Restore (Windows 7) option.

  5. On the left pane, click the Create a system image link.

  6. Under "Where do you want to save the backup?" select the On a hard disk option.
  7. Using the "On a hard disk" drop-down menu, select the location to save the backup.

  8. Select any additional drives that you may want to include in the backup.

  9. Click the Next button.
  10. Click the Start backup button.

Once you complete the steps, the tool will create a backup of your device, including everything on the main hard drive as well as system reserved partitions, and the other drives that you may have selected.

The tool uses the "Shadow Copy" technology that allows the creation of backups while files are open and applications are running, which means that you can continue to work on your computer during this process.

As the process finishes, you'll get a notification prompting to create a system repair disc, which you can use to restore a backup in case that your device isn't able to start correctly. However, because most computers no longer include an optical disk drive, you can skip this option, because you can use a bootable USB flash drive to access the recovery options.

The last thing left to do is to disconnect the external drive with the backup and store it in a safe place.

How to restore a System Image Backup on Windows 10

If the unexpected happens and you can't start your computer, or you're in the process of replacing the main hard drive, you can use a previous backup to restore your system.

To restore an image backup on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Connect the backup drive to your computer.
  2. Insert the Windows 10 USB bootable drive (or the disc containing the system repair files) to your device.
  3. Restart your computer.

    Quick tip: If your device isn't booting into the Windows Setup wizard, you'll need to change your system's BIOS settings. This process typically requires hitting one of the function keys (F1, F2, F3, F10, or F12), the ESC, or Delete key as you boot your computer. However, these settings will vary by manufacturer, and even by model. So make sure to check your computer manufacturer support website for more specific details.

  4. On the "Windows Setup" page, click the Next button.

  5. Click the Repair your computer link at the bottom-left corner.

  6. Click the Troubleshoot option.

  7. Click on Advanced options.

  8. Click the System Image Recovery option.

  9. Click on Windows 10 as the target operating system.

  10. On the "Re-image your computer" page, select the Use the latest available system image option.

    Quick tip: You can use the "Select a system image" option, if you have multiple backups, and you're trying to restore an older copy.

  11. Click the Next button.

  12. If you're restoring a full backup to a new hard drive, you can also carefully select the Format and repartition disks option before restoring the backup.

  13. Click the Next button.
  14. Click the Finish button.

  15. Click the Yes button.

After you complete the steps, the recovery process will begin. The time to finish the restoration will depend upon the amount of data and your hardware configuration. Also, any interruptions or failure may prevent the recovery from completing successfully making your computer unbootable, as such avoid disruption of any kind and make sure your computer is connected to a battery backup. Or in the case of a laptop, make sure the device is plugged into a power outlet before proceeding.

If it's been a while since the last time you created a full backup, it's recommended to go to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update, and click the Check for Updates button to download the latest security patches.

Wrapping things up

A System Image Backup can come in handy in many scenarios. For example, if you're about to upgrade to a new release of Windows 10, creating a copy of your entire system can help you to roll back to a previous version, and even recover your files if something goes wrong. Also, it's recommended to create backups regularly in case you need to quickly recover from system or hardware failure, malware, or other problems.

However, there are a few caveats to consider using this particular tool. For instance, you have to be proactive in making new backups, as you can only restore your system and files since the last full backup you created. Any data, settings, and apps created, changed, or installed after the previous backup won't be recoverable through this process.

Also, this is a feature designed to recover your entire system, not to restore files, settings, and applications individually. If you want to keep an up-to-date copy of your files, you should be using the system image tool in combination with File History or OneDrive.

Also, System Image Backup is now a deprecated experience on Windows 10, which means that while you can still create backups, the feature may suddenly stop working or it can be removed from future releases.

More Windows 10 resources

For more helpful articles, coverage, and answers to common questions about Windows 10, visit the following resources: