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I'm one of today's best-selling computer book writers, with more than 15 million books in print.

This website keeps you up-to-date on my books, and your computers. Each week, I answer a reader's question on-line.

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What’s the difference between a Windows 7 System Image and a System Recovery disc, and in what order should I use them?

A System Recovery discQ: What is the difference between the Windows 7 System Recovery disc that came with my computer, and the System Image you describe how to make in Windows 7 For Dummies?

And in what order do I use those if something goes wrong? Do I have to use them all?

A: Earlier, I explained how to create a System Image – a complete backup of your C: drive, which includes Windows, your programs, and the files in your libraries.

I also explained how a System Recovery disc differs from a Windows 7 System Repair disc. Here’s some more information to help you use them each in the right way:

System Recovery Disc: Tossed in with many new computers, the System Recovery disc is designed to handle only the most dire of emergencies: when your computer crashes, and you’re left with no other option. A System Recovery disc completely erases everything on your computer – Windows, your programs, and all of your files. Simply put, it returns your computer to its “as originally sold” condition: It will only have Windows and the computer’s bundled programs. All of your self-installed programs, settings, and your own files will be wiped away.

System Image: A System Image, by contrast, lets you create a complete copy of your current C: drive: Windows 7, your programs, and all your data. A System Image contains everything on your C: drive up to the moment you create it. If your computer crashes, you can use the System Image to reinstall Windows, your programs, and all of your files. It’s much better than the System Recovery Disk because it preserves all the information you’ve placed on your computer since you bought it. A System Image only contains your C: drive, though; it doesn’t contain information on any other drives you may have. Those should be backed up separately.

System Repair Disc: To recreate your computer’s files from a System Image, you need a System Repair Disc. This disc, separate from your System Image, can be stored on a single CD or DVD. In fact, Windows 7 automatically asks if you’d like to create a System Repair Disc whenever you create a System Image. Down the road, if your computer crashes, insert the System Repair Disc into your computer. Your computer loads from the System Repair Disc rather than your computer’s hard drive. When it begins running, the System Repair disc offers you many repair options, including restoring your computer from your System Image.

Driver and Utility Disc: Commonly tossed in with new computers, this contains drivers and utility programs bundled with your computer when sold. If you ever reinstall Windows using a “stock” version of Windows, probably from a DVD borrowed from a friend, Windows won’t have all the drivers it needs to make all parts of your computer work correctly. So, by inserting the Driver and Utility disc, Windows can grab the drivers from there, letting your computer work like normal.

You’ll never have to use any of these discs unless your hard drive dies or Windows 7 is somehow messed up beyond repair. If something goes terribly wrong, here’s the order you should use these discs:

  1. Always use a System Image first. That returns your computer to the state it was in when you created the System Image. And, if you created a System Image from your computer when it was working fine, you should be in good shape, with Windows, your programs, and your files intact. You won’t need the System Recovery disc or the Drivers and Utility disc.
  2. No System Image? Then your second choice is the System Recovery Disc that came with your computer. That wipes out everything, unfortunately, leaving you with a “new” computer that has Windows and your computer’s originally installed programs, but nothing else. You won’t need to use the Drivers and Utility disc, but you’ll have to reinstall any programs you’ve purchased or downloaded.
  3. No System Recovery Disc or a System Image? Then borrow a copy of Windows 7 from a friend, install it onto your computer, entering the Windows 7 Product Key from the sticker on your own computer. Then, after installing Windows, insert your Driver & Utility disc so Windows can install the right drivers for your computer.

In short, a System Image is the way to go. If you haven’t done so, be sure to create a System Image now, when your computer is still working well.


Comment from Bill
Time February 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Hope your site is still working . Just received new laptop Win7 for the first time . Trying to ensure I have my system backed up properly .. You are the first one to explain it so clearly. Thanks so much for that .. One more question : I have heard that Win7 Backup & Restore has some issues if one has to replace the hard drive. Problems restoring .. Have you heard that ?? Solution ?
Thanks again Andy .. (wish you lived next door)


Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time February 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Bill, what issues have you heard about with backup/restore not working with new hard drives?

As for my Web site, it was invisible to Internet Explorer for a few weeks; I never noticed because the site still worked fine on Firefox, Chrome, and my cell phone. Somebody finally told me, and I found the coding error that caused the problem.

Comment from Bill
Time March 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm

On a Dell Forum someone mentioned that after creating a System Image with Win7 then having a hard drive crash, then replacing teh drive – they were unable to restore the system . I just want to make sure I am protected .. Have you ever actually restored a Win7 System Image file on to a new hard drive ?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time March 1, 2011 at 7:19 pm

I restored System Images quite frequently without problem when writing Upgrading and Fixing PCs For Dummies Do-It-Yourself.

The only problem I can imagine is if somebody tries to restore an image to a drive that isn’t large enough for the incoming image.

As for the forum post, well, people tend to share their horror stories on the Internet more frequently than they share success stores. After all, if the restore succeeds, why bother to post?

If System Image had serious failings, the Internet would really be buzzing about it!

Comment from Bill
Time March 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Your right of course .. I will not worry about it .. I now have a System Repair disk, System Images scheduled for once per week. I am physically dragging and dropping all of my Data File folders on to teh expansion drive . So I believe I am as protected as can be ..
Thanks so much for keeping this site going and helping folks like me Andy ..

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time March 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

You can never have too many backups. I make a system image and regular backup each night, but I still copy my main work folder to a USB thumb drive each night, just to make sure.

Comment from Bill
Time March 2, 2011 at 6:58 pm

I also am an author and obviously the computer plays a big part in this .. I have all my “book stuff” backed up in 4 or 5 (lost count) different places even went so far as to have a copy on my sons computer who lives 100 miles from me .. A little paranoia perhaps ..
BTW The more I work with Win7 the better I like it .. Have resisted for a long time, kept XP all through the Vista phase but now …….

Comment from Jim
Time May 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Thanks Andy. This is good information. I still have a question, however, so let me get this straight:

A System Image backs up absolutely everything. A System Recovery disc backs up only Windows (on a single DVD as I found out). But both can be used to restore Windows to a new blank harddrive after an old harddrive has died?

Is there an in-between option? Say I wanted to save Windows and all the other programs, but didn’t want to back up all my data (because there’s just too much of it, it’s well organized, so I can back it up in other ways).

Is there a way to make an image of just programs and Windows with what Windows 7 offers?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time May 12, 2011 at 11:19 pm


Yes, a System Image backs up absolutely everything. A System Recovery disc (or discs) are provided by the PC’s manufacturer, and they only return your PC to its original state: Windows 7, and any programs that came installed on your PC.

As for the in-between option you’re asking about, I don’t know of any way to backup just your programs and Windows, but not your data. I’d just make a System Image and call the job done.

You can keep your largest data files — movies, music, and photos — on a separate hard drive. Then your System Image will contain mostly Windows and your programs, reducing its size. That’s probably the closest solution you’ll find.

Comment from Jim
Time May 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Thanks Andy, that clears it up.

I’ll plan on making a System Image — after I move all my data.

Another thought:

Does this make a case for partitioning a single hard drive into two drives? That way, data could be on one part of the drive, and Windows and programs would be on the other. Then could a System Image be directed to only make a copy of the part of the drive that Windows and programs are on? Or does it target the whole physical device?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time May 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Jim, the System Image creates a copy of the partition where you’ve installed Windows. So, you could create two partitions, using one partition for Windows and your programs, and using the other partition for your data.

But it’s simpler to create one system image that contains everything. Then, when your hard drive eventually dies, the system image brings you back on your feet quickly by restoring everything.

If you keep your data on a separate partition, you’ll need a second backup system for your data, as well. When a hard drive dies, it takes all of its partitions down with it.

Comment from vipin kauts
Time June 11, 2011 at 7:53 am

Thanks Andy–the info was really helpful

Comment from Vinay
Time September 22, 2011 at 9:32 am

The information is exactly the same I was looking for. Very satisfied, Subscribe me to your blog… Thanks

Comment from Justin
Time January 15, 2012 at 8:45 am

Andy, thanks for the article. I would like to offer a slight correction regarding your statement that the System Image option only backs up files on C:. This is untrue, as I have personally seen the System Image option select another physical hard drive from the list of available devices. This is because I have installed programs (Office, Visual Studio) to a larger drive. I suppose Windows sees these as necessary files for the System Image, and will then include that separate drive in the System Image. Note that this will include THE ENTIRE drive and not just the programs that were installed.

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time January 15, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Justin: Thanks for the clarifier.

Comment from debashish
Time January 30, 2012 at 9:33 am

thank you so much mr. andy , i had a doubt and your thorough explanation cleared that!!!!
IT industry is so vast and is developing everyday. so we need assistance and support in all forms keep up the good work.

Comment from Mohammed Shafi
Time April 27, 2012 at 5:58 am

Woh, How nicely you have clarified all my doubts. I was searching many blogs and I my search stops hear. Thank you Andy. Definitly many other bloaggers have to learn many thing from your blog.

Comment from Alexander
Time July 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm

If I buy a new computer can I transfer all my data and programs using a system image instead of using the transfer cable method ?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time July 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Alexander, you’ll often have problems using a System Image on a different computer. Your best bet is to use the Easy Transfer Cable and reinstall your programs.

Comment from Alexander
Time July 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Thanks Andy,that sorted me out, was looking for an easier option. Forgot U would know them all.

Comment from Governor
Time August 22, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Hie Andy, this blog has been of utmost help, i have a question however- Lets say i have 3 partitions on my laptop, the C drive of course and 2 other partitions and then i create a system image of my C drive ONLY . Now in the event that i want to restore my computer using that system image, are the other 2 partitions wiped away as well and only the C drive recovered according to the system image OR the system image will restore my C drive as was when i did the backup together with my 2 partitions intact with any current data in them?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time August 23, 2012 at 11:30 am

Governor – When you restore your computer with the System Image, it will only replace the Windows partition. The other partitions should be unaffected.

Comment from Surfayoob
Time July 26, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Thanks for your clear information….

Comment from Guy
Time December 24, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Like most articles written about these terms, this one contradicts itself. After explaining what the “system repair disc” is, the 3 step order at the bottom doesn’t even mention it. It states to use the “system image” first… however the paragraph about the “system repair disc” opens with the fact that you need it to use the “system image”… so you *don’t* use the system image first? You use the repair disc?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time December 24, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Guy: Different computers require different repair steps for different conditions. I wish I could give a step-by-step that worked for every computer under every condition!

However, if Windows loads on your computer, you don’t need the System Repair Disc. You can head for the Control Panel’s Backup area and restore the System Image from there.

If Windows *doesn’t* load on your PC, then you need to boot your computer from the System Repair disc. As I explained above, once the System Repair disc loads, it gives you an option to restore from a System Image.

Comment from brian
Time June 8, 2015 at 11:09 am

Thanks for the information. It is frustrating that “geeks” think we should “know it all”. Now I know the difference between backup, system restore, installation disc, and system image.

Comment from LAO
Time July 9, 2015 at 3:36 am

Clear stuff Andy!
Agree with brian’s comment…

Keep the good work, a lot of us out there will appreciate it in the moments of help…

Comment from Darshan
Time March 4, 2016 at 9:39 pm

Hello Andy,
I am very much thankful the details and all responses to the readers’ questions. I found one question by “Guy” very useful, since it was also in my mind and was not able to understand until read the question and your reply. Thank you very much once again. Keep good work on.

Comment from Baxter
Time October 25, 2017 at 7:57 am

Hi Andy! I’m missing something from your explanation obviously as everyone else seems to get it but don’t completely.

You say: To recreate your computer’s files from a System Image, you need a System Repair Disc. …if your computer crashes, insert the System Repair Disc into your computer. When it begins running, the System Repair disc offers you many repair options, including restoring your computer from your System Image.

But then later you say: Always use a System Image first. That returns your computer to the state it was in when you created the System Image. And, if you created a System Image from your computer when it was working fine, you should be in good shape, with Windows, your programs, and your files intact. You won’t need the System Recovery disc.

These two statement seem contradictory to me. What am I missing? Thanks a lot!

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time October 25, 2017 at 9:18 am

Baxter: The System Image and System Repair Disc always work as a team; you first insert the System Repair Disc so the computer boots from it. Then, when prompted, you point the System Repair Disc’s menu toward the System Image.

So, when I say to use the System Image first, I mean to use that combo of discs first. That brings your computer back to the state it was in when the System Image was created. And that will bring your computer back to a more recent state than the last resort option, which is the System Recovery disc. (The System Recovery disc wipes out all of your work and leaves you with a “just purchased” PC.)

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