How to create a Windows 8.1 full backup (step-by-step)

Stack of hard drives

Sadly Microsoft in Windows 8.1 is removing the Windows 7 backup tool that for years allowed users to create a full backup (or system image) of their PCs. This actually was a pretty handy tool among savvy users to backup Windows installation files, documents, device driver, desktop applications and even the new modern apps in Windows 8, to recover in case of hard drive failure, malware, and many other problems.

It was pretty obvious that Microsoft was eventually going to retire this tool, because when Windows 8 was released, the “Backup and Restore” feature was simply renamed to “Windows 7 File Recovery”, almost telling you to use this tool only for recovery purposes and nothing more.

The software giant may have many reasons for this decision, a few of those reasons could be that creating a system image can potentially carryover bad program installation, malware, and many other issues — or perhaps Microsoft understands that starting from scratch is the best solution –. But it seems that the main reason is because Windows 8 includes new recovery tools, such as Refresh your PC, Reinstall everything, File History, and SkyDrive which not only allows to store documents in the cloud, but also can store PC settings and roam them between all your Windows 8 devices.

Also let’s not forget the biggest problems around creating a full backup, it can fail for many reasons (e.g., file corruption, operation did not complete successfully and user won’t notice, etc.), and files won’t be up to date unless you perform a full backup hourly. But the biggest problem is that if the backup doesn’t work (which happen pretty often), it could become impossible to recover important personal files.

Even though you won’t find anymore the “Windows 7 File Recovery” option in Windows 8.1, the ability to create a full backup of your PC still possible with a combination of different tools and services. Now instead of having an easy to use dashboard to create a system image, you’ll have to perform this task using the Recimg command line tool, File History to backup files separately, and SkyDrive to backup PC settings (and even documents, if you choose so).

Yes, I know it seems rather a more time consuming operation and it is, but at least in many scenarios where recovery is necessary, you won’t need extra software and you’ll be able to restore everything with the latest version of all your important personal files.

In the step by step instructions below, we’ll go through how to create a Windows 8.1 system image, how to configure the image as a custom refresh point. We’ll also learn to use File History to backup your files, and finally you’ll learn to configure SkyDrive to sync PC settings to the cloud. Let’s start:

SEE ALSO: How to create a Windows 8.1 system image backup (Step by Step)


1 Go to the Start screen, type cmd, from the results, right-click and select Run as administrator.

2 Next type the following command and press Enter:

recimg /createimage C:\Custom_Image_Refresh

Recimg createimage command line Windows 8.1

Quick Tip: If you don’t have enough space in your hard drive, use an external USB drive to store the custom system image. If you proceed with this option, in the command mentioned above, change “C” with the drive letter of the external storage.

This far you created a custom system image of Windows 8.1 on the drive where Windows is installed (C:\Custom_Image_Refresh), also using the above command will register the image for recovery when using the refresh feature. To verify if this is true, type the following command on the Command Prompt:

recimg /showcurrent

Recimg setcurrent command line Windows 8.1

If after entering the command you get the message “There is no active custom recovery image. Error Code – 0x80070490”, you’ll need to register the recovery image manually with the following command:

recimg /setcurrent C:\Custom_Image_Refresh

Where “C” is the drive where the image is stored.

Keep in mind that if the operating system does not find the the custom system image, it will fall back to the default image or installation media when a refresh is perform.

Important: You cannot use a custom recovery image to reset your PC, you can only use it to refresh.

Restoring your PC with a custom recovery image

In Windows 8.1 the “Refresh your PC without affecting your files” still works the same as it did before. The only change is the location, now to get to the recovery options in Windows 8.1, you need to go to the PC settings by using the win +i keyboard shortcut, clicking Change PC settings, navigate Update & recovery, Recovery, and clicking the Get Started button.

Finally, click Next, Refresh and wait until Windows 8.1 finishes the process.

Although using Recimg to create a custom recovery image, it doesn’t backup Windows 8 apps, documents, personal settings, or user profiles, because that information is preserved when you refresh your PC.

Quick Tip: If the PC isn’t starting, insert the Windows installation media, restart the computer, hit Next, and click Repair your computer. In the Advanced startup menu choose Troubleshoot, then Refresh your PC, choose the operating system, and follow the onscreen instructions.

File History

Thus far you created a backup of the operating system and desktop applications, now the second part on creating a full backup of Windows 8.1 is to configure File History. This is a new tool in Windows 8 that basically allows you to backup all your files on the daily basis. To learn how to configure and use Time Machine like feature read the following guide: How to set up Windows 8 File History to backup your data (Step-by-Step).

Backing up PC settings with SkyDrive

Even though, refresh takes care of keeping moderns apps, user profiles, personal settings, you can also make sure these settings are safe off your PC. Thanks to the new deep integration of SkyDrive in Windows 8.1, you can sync personalization, modern apps, and other important settings in the cloud. To backup your settings, go to PC settings, SkyDrive, Sync settings, and make sure Sync settings on this PC is turned-on, and finally choose the settings you want to save in the cloud. (Remember that settings could take some time to sync, if you are enabling them for the first time.)

Wrapping up

Although, this process of full backup in Windows 8.1 does not create a bit-by-bit copy of your hard drive like it was possible in Windows 7, it does accomplish keeping your important files safe on the daily basis, it preserves desktop applications and modern apps, PC settings — basically everything.

If you think about it, this process actually makes more sense (in theory), because unless you do a full backup at least every week, the files to recover will always be out of date and many others files because of the time gap will not even get backed up making the recovery inconsistent.

The only problem I see with this process is that it will not protect your PC from hardware failure. But as it turns out there is a workaround, you can install a fresh copy of Windows 8.1 in a new hard drive, and then you can perform a refresh which will restore your previous installation with your desktop applications (e.g., Photoshop, iTunes, Google Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Office, Spotify, etc.) that you took so much time configuring.

Important Note: Microsoft brought back the full backup functionally in Windows 8.1, so creating a system image works in the same way as it did in Windows 8.

Featured image Flickr (Jaymis Loveday)

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Technology writer at and Recognized as a Microsoft MVP, tech enthusiast and enjoys writing about Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Got a hat tip? Send him an email with your rants, rumors, tattles.

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