How to create recovery media for your Windows 10 PC

Computers and their operating systems are incredibly complex pieces of technology, and they may just last you a good number of years from the day you buy it. Because of that, at some point, there's a very good chance you'll run into some problems or performance may just not be as good as it used to be, so you might just need a fresh start for your OS.

There are many ways to go about restoring your system to a blank slate, as most computer manufacturers offer some sort of recovery tool, but in this guide, we'll show you how to get started by creating recovery media, so you can always get back to a functional state later. This guide should work on any computer running Windows 10 and while it specifically refers to Windows 10 version 20H2, these features should be available in most of the recent versions of the OS.

Backing up your drivers

Performing a clean installation of Windows means you'll probably be installing the OS without the appropriate drivers for your PC. In some cases, you may be alright with the generic drivers in Windows, and from there, you can connect to the internet to download the drivers that are missing from Windows Update. However, you'll be dependent on whether drivers are available on Windows Update if you even manage to connect to the internet with the built-in generic drivers.

Most of the bigger OEMs will likely provide driver downloads from their support website, but that may not always be the case. Thankfully, you can backup the drivers you're using right now, and you can just install them later. You'll want an external drive, be it a flash drive or an external HDD/SSD. You may want to create a new folder in the drive you're using to back up the drivers, so you can find them more easily.

To backup your current drivers, you'll need to use Command Prompt or PowerShell. You can right-click the Start icon or press the Windows key + X, then choose either Command Prompt (Admin) or Windows PowerShell (Admin) from the context menu.

To backup your drivers, you need to enter the following command: dism /online /export-driver /destination:"{Path}", where {Path} is the location of the folder you want to use on your external drive. You can copy the path from the address bar in File Explorer when the folder is open. In our example, we're using a Drivers folder on the root of drive E:, so the command is dism /online /export-driver /destination:"E:\Drivers". It should look like this:

If all goes well, the folder you chose will look something like this once the process is done (you will see more folders depending on how many drivers are backed up):

Creating installation media

Finally, you'll want to create installation media for Windows 10. For this, you'll need another external USB drive, and it can't be the same you used to backup your drivers and data. Creating installation media will delete all other data on the drive, so you need a drive with no important data. The drive also needs at least 8GB of capacity for the latest version of Windows 10.

Option 1 - Using the Media Creation Tool

The easiest way to create Windows 10 installation media is to use Microsoft's Media Creation Tool. You can download it by going to this page and using the Download tool now button (not the Update now button).

Open the file you downloaded and accept the license terms that show up. You'll then be asked whether you want to upgrade now or create installation media, and in this case, we want to do the latter. You can then choose which language, architecture, and edition of Windows 10 you want to install. The program will automatically apply the settings that match your current system, but you can always change them if you want to.

Then, you get the option to either create an ISO file or use a USB flash drive as installation media. An ISO file can be used to create installation media later, which we'll get to in a bit. For now, we want to use a USB drive, which needs to have at least 8GB of space for the latest version of Windows 10. Then, choose the flash drive you want to use. Remember that this will erase all the data on the drive, and that it can't be the same drive you used to backup your drivers.

At this point, the tool will begin downloading the latest version of Windows 10 and flashing it onto the drive you chose. This will take a while, but you can just leave the program open and wait for it to finish, and you'll be good to go.

Option 2 - Using Rufus

Using the Media Creation Tool is the most straightforward way to create installation media, but it's not ideal for everyone. It may happen that you don't have an internet connection available at the same time you have the flash drive, so you use the Media Creation Tool to download an ISO file first, and then flash it later. Or you may already have an ISO file for a specific version of Windows, or even a different operating system.

If that applies to you, a tool like Rufus can help you flash an ISO file to a USB flash drive, though the most recent versions also give you the option to download some operating systems from the internet. We'll be focusing on using an ISO file you already have, whether you created it with the Media Creation Tool or got it elsewhere.

First, download the latest version of Rufus from this page (it should be the first file on the list). Install it and run it, and you'll see this interface:

There are plenty of options here, but for most people, you should be fine focusing on a couple of items. At the top, you can choose the USB flash drive. Just like with the Media Creation Tool, remember this process will delete all data on the drive, so you'll need to make sure you don't need it for anything else. For the Boot selection option, you'll want to choose Disk or ISO image (Please select) then click the SELECT button to find the ISO file you want to use. The arrow next to the button allows you to switch to download mode, so you can download the operating system you want instead. In our example, this isn't what we want.

Once you have selected an ISO (image) file, some of the default options in the app will change to match. You shouldn't need to worry about any of this, and you can simply click START at the bottom to begin flashing the image to the flash drive. Once the process is fully completed, you should be able to use the drive to install the operating system you chose.

Option 3 - Create a recovery drive

If the PC you want to recover is still fully functional, you can create a recovery drive through existing methods in Windows 10. Some manufacturers, such as Dell and (naturally) Microsoft, actually recommend this as the method to create a recovery drive for their PCs. This will create a drive containing not only the operating system but programs bundled with the original installation, so if you have a brand-new PC, you can use this as a failsafe in case the computer fails later.

The easiest way to access this is by opening the Start menu or Windows search and typing "create a recovery drive". Otherwise, you can open the legacy Control Panel, choose System and Security, then Security and Maintenance, Recovery, and finally, Create a recovery drive. Click Next in the first window and you'll be able to choose a drive to store the backup.

As usual, this process will delete all the content in the drive. Choose the flash drive you want to use as a recovery drive, which will need to be at least 16GB in size, though the requirements vary depending on your laptop brand. Dell, for example, recommends a minimum of 32GB. If you meet the requirements, start the process and wait for it to finish.

OEM-specific solutions

Many PC manufacturers offer tools that let you create recovery images for your specific device. If you'd rather go that route, here are some options for the biggest PC manufacturers out there.

For Microsoft's Surface devices, you can download a recovery image from here. You need to select your Surface model and provide your serial number to be able to download it, then you can unzip the file to a flash drive. This requires a flash drive with at least 16GB of storage, or 8GB if you're using a Surface RT or Surface 2.

HP offers the Cloud Recovery Tool, which can be used to create a recovery image for your specific PC. You can download the app from the Microsoft Store and follow the instructions in the app. HP also provides instructions on how to use the tool here. Bear in mind you'll need a flash drive with at least 32GB of storage, since these recovery images include more than just a Windows installation, but also all the drivers and software that would come in an HP PC out of the box.

Lenovo has a similar tool, called Digital Download Recovery Service. First, you need to go to Lenovo's recovery website to request a digital download for your PC. You'll need your serial number and Machine Type Model (MTM). Then, you'll need Lenovo's USB Recovery Creator tool, which you can download here for Windows 7 and here for Windows 8 or later (including Windows 10). Download the appropriate version and follow the instructions in the app to download the image and create recovery media for it.

Finally, Dell also has a similar tool, the Dell OS Recovery Tool. You can download it here, and then follow the instructions to create the recovery media. You'll have to provide the service tag for the device you want to recover, and you need a flash drive with at least 16GB of data.

That should cover every option you could want for creating recovery media for your PC. These are the things you need in order to have an operational computer after the recovery process. We'll have a separate guide focused on the actual process of restoring a PC later, but you'll want to follow these steps first.

Did you try any of the methods listed above? Did you find them helpful? Is there another method you prefer? Let us know in the comments!

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