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How to backup a Windows 10 or 11 image

When things go wrong with Windows, as they sometimes do, nothing guarantees a quicker or easier return to normal than restoring a recent image backup.

To this end, I back up my computers at 9 am every day. This means that I will never lose more than a working day if something goes wrong enough to force a photo backup for that day.

In the following sections, I explain what this all means, how it works, and why you shouldn’t use a built-in backup in Windows 10 or 11. Finally, I’ll show you how to use my favorite free photo backup tool while recommending other acceptable alternatives.

What is photo backup, anyway?

Simply put, an image backup is a snapshot of the full contents of all partitions on your computer’s C: drive. In other words, it’s an exact copy (“image”) of the drive—the operating system, data files, settings, and all—not just the files stored on it. Image backups are sometimes called system image backups, whole system backups, full system backups, or other variations on this topic.

If you look at the disk layout of a typical C: drive, you’ll see that it typically has four or more partitions, as shown in Figure 1.

Windows Image Backup 01 Partitions IDG

Figure 1: The default disk layout for Windows 10 and 11 consists of 4 partitions: (1) EFI, (2) MSR, (3) Windows OS, and (4) Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE). (Click on the image to enlarge it).

(Please note: I’m using the free, no-cost MiniTool Partition Wizard instead of the built-in Windows Disk Management tool because the Partition Wizard shows the Microsoft Reserved Partition or MSR along with the other partitions on the C: drive in Figure 1 occupies 16MB in position 2.)

When you make an image backup, all the bits and bytes for each partition are captured. When you restore an image backup, the drive’s previous contents are overwritten, and the image of each partition on the target drive is written all over again.

How does photo backup work?

Making an image backup involves making a snapshot of the contents of each partition on one drive and storing those contents within an image copy of each partition on another drive. TechTerms.com describes a disk image as a “software copy of a physical disk” that “saves the entire data from the disk, including the file and folder structure of the disk, into a single file.”

Thus, each partition is captured in its own image file. Given the appropriate program, in fact (I’ll give an explanation later in this story) you can explore an image as if it were an independent file system.

To create an image, a special program is used to build a single file (or group of files) representing the entire disk or its component partitions. Disk image files are often stored using special binary formats. Thus, for example, the .ISO image format (a CD- or DVD-oriented disc image format based on the ISO-9660 standard, which Microsoft uses to distribute images of the Windows installation environment) contains an exact copy of a disc image, including the saved data In the files on this disk, as well as file system information and related metadata.

Do not use the built-in Windows Backup tool

In Windows 7, Microsoft built a backup and restore utility into the operating system. It still exists in Windows 10 and 11 (shown in Figure 2 at the top of the Control Panel window), but is currently called Backup and Restore (Windows 7), which provides an important clue about its status.

Windows Image Backup 02 Built-in Backup IDG

Figure 2: While the Backup and Restore tool (Windows 7) is still there, there are much better options.

Obviously, Microsoft has backed away from the tool. The company’s current Windows Backup and Restore support article mentions Backup and Restore (Windows 7) only in the context of restoring from system image backups created “in previous versions of Windows.”

After following the ongoing backup and restore discussions on the Windows Ten forums since October 2014, and on the Windows Eleven forum since June 2021, I can say that none of the participants speak in favor of using the tool anymore. In fact, most Windows gurus recommend using something else due to occasional (but credible) reports of problems when restoring photos made using the Backup and Restore tool (Windows 7). Fortunately, there are better options available.

Backup and restore Windows using third-party backup tools

There are at least three practical, respectable, and highly respected free Windows backup tools that work with both Windows 10 and Windows 11:

All three tools make compressed, fast, and reliable backups for Windows 10 and Windows 11 PCs. I’ve been a loyal user of Macrium Reflect Free for a decade now, and I introduce it to Windows 11 in the following screenshots as an illustration of how these programs work. (The mileage may vary depending on the tool you choose.)

Create (and schedule) photo backups

Macrium provides a menu entry in the left column under the Create Backups tab that reads “Create an image of the partition(s) required to backup and restore Windows.” Although there are many other options and possibilities in the software, this is exactly what we need here, so I will walk you through working with this facility.

When you click the entry, a map of your Windows drive (C 🙂 appears with two of the four partitions selected, as shown in Figure 3. I recommend checking all four partitions before continuing.

Windows 03 Macrium Image Backup Mirror Backup 1 IDG

Figure 3: By default, only EFI (#1) and Windows (#3) partitions are selected. I recommend checking out all four. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

The destination folder displays where the backups are located. On my Windows 11 test machine, this is E:\MRBack\. The first time you use this program, you should target a drive other than C: and specify your “home directory” for your backups. A better target for backups, in fact, is an external drive (usually a USB); If the system is really going south, you can use the external drive to restore things to a different computer more easily. click Next> (bottom right) to go to the next screen.

This calls up the “Backup Plan” window, where you can select a type of backup plan (called “Template” in the program), as shown in the choices shown in the drop-down menu in Figure 4.

Windows 04 Image Backup Mirroring Backup 2 IDG

Figure 4: Macrium Reflect provides a well-documented set of six different backup plans. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

The most comprehensive backup plan appears at the top of the list and features a full backup every month, as well as daily differential backups (everything changed since the previous day) and incremental backups (anything new or changed) every 15 minutes all the time. This provides the best overall protection but requires at least 100-200 GB of disk space (more is better) for best results.

Figure 5 shows the plan settings if you choose daily backup set as your plan, recommended for those looking to get maximum data protection, with a large (and relatively empty) drive on which to back up. Macrium Reflect allows you to edit the default backup schedule and the number of backups saved for the plan. (Note: The backup drive on this computer has a nominal capacity of 5TB that File Explorer says is 4.54TB of actual capacity.)

Windows 05 Image Backup Mirror Backup 3 IDG

Figure 5: Daily Backup Collection correctly describes incremental backups as “incognito”, because they are missing from the retention rules (actually too many to track and log). (Click on the image to enlarge it).

when you click Next> At the bottom of the Backup Plan window, Reflect displays a disk image screen showing you the options you selected (see Figure 6). Note that the “total selected” size of each image is 69.29 GB; Since the software uses advanced and capable compression, each resulting full backup snapshot is actually 35GB in size. (Differential and incremental backups rarely reach 10% of this number, although this will vary based on file activity and changes.)

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Figure 6: The Disk Image pane stores details describing the backup schedule and types. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

click finish To complete the backup description process. Then, you will be presented with a pane that provides the “Run this backup now” and “Save as XML backup profile” options you just selected. (Both options are selected by default, as shown in Figure 7.) To launch the first backup, click yes.

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Figure 7: I named this XML file “IntraDaily.xml” and left the boxes checked. You can do the same.

Once you click the OK button, the first full backup is launched. On my test system, this took about 6 minutes. Also note that the disk backup size is 31.85 GB (more than 50% compression). Figure 8 shows the results from the first full backup run.

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Figure 8: The results of the first full backup took 6:14 and consumed 31.85 GB of disk space. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

One reason to stick with Reflect is its speed: To my knowledge, none of the other two programs I mentioned earlier were quite as fast. Since it runs in the background on reasonably fast computers, I rarely notice that it works, which is exactly what you want in a backup program.

Restore an image backup

If you ever need to restore an image backup, it’s easy to do. Typical causes range from the characteristic (such as operating system corruption, driver failure, boot manager problems, and malware attacks) to the silly (erroneously deleted key operating system files to make the system unusable).

Although Macrium Reflect (and the other programs mentioned earlier) offer easy-to-use list-based recovery functions, when a restore is needed, I often find myself turning to Rescue Media. It is bootable and smart enough to allow you to quickly and easily indicate which backup image you wish to restore. To me, that usually means the last backup before things start heading south.

The built-in recovery menu works almost the same as the restore function available from the Reflect’s Rescue Media boot. A popup menu item that appears when you click Restores In the program’s menu, it reads “Browse for a backup image or file to restore,” as shown in Figure 9. This is the file you want.

Windows 09 Image Backup Mirror 1 . Restore IDG

Figure 9: Click on the top menu item displayed to browse a list of available backups. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

It is important to know the drive letter for the image backups and the name of the folder where they are stored. On my test computer, I know this is drive E: in the MRBack (short for Macrium Reflect Backup) folder, where these backups take a .mrimg (Macrium Reflect image file) extension. There is the most recent backup that is easily identifiable by its timestamp, as shown in Figure 10. This is the type I want to restore.

Windows 10 Image Backup Mirror Restore 2 IDG

Figure 10: Select the backup you want, then click Opens Button at the bottom right to start the restore process. (Click on the image to enlarge it).

Simply click Opens The button to start this process: Macrium Reflect does the rest.

Macrium Reflect (and other programs) also provide file or folder-based recovery capabilities. To use it, you can click on the “Explore Image” item shown at position #2 in Figure 9. This opens a File Explorer-like interface that allows you to select the image you wish to explore, and then select files and/or folders within that image to restore the current Windows image running. It’s just like copying files and folders, which I suppose readers can handle without step-by-step instructions, so I’ll skip those details here. For the very curious, see the MR Knowledge Base article “Restoring a File and Folder Backup” for more information.

Choose your backup and use it to the fullest!

My choice is Macrium Reflect. You may choose any of the options I have provided here as you see fit. For speed, you may want to consider targeting a fast drive (ideally an NVMe PCIe-x4 SSD) where your backup images are located.

But the important thing is to back up regularly and frequently. This is your best guarantee to reduce data loss if it’s time to restore a backup. It’s better to not need it with a backup than to need one and not have any backup.

Read this then: For more Windows repair techniques, see “How to Repair Windows 10 and 11 in 4 Steps.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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