Beginning with Windows 8, Microsoft dispensed with the Backup and Restore feature that's part of Windows 7 and several previous versions. File History and Refresh Your PC in Windows 8/8.1 replaced Backup and Restore.
File History is straightforward—it automatically saves copies of personal data files located in the Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop folders to an external drive or a network location. You can retrieve those files if anything becomes corrupted or disappears from your disk.
The Refresh Your PC feature is more robust, actually reinstalling the Windows operating system without affecting your data files and personalized settings.
The "gotcha" with Refresh Your PC is that in some situations you need Windows installation or recovery media, or a custom recovery image, to complete the refresh. The built-in Windows RecImg command lets you create a custom image just for the refresh process, bypassing the need for installation media.
An interesting alternative to the command line comes from SlimWare Utilities' RecImg Manager, which creates a custom image (referred to as a backup) and performs a system refresh (referred to as a restore) from a single user-friendly graphical interface.
Using the Refresh Your PC and the Windows RecImg Commands
Refresh Your PC is one of several Windows 8.1 Update and Recovery options. As mentioned, Refresh Your PC is designed to fix system problems by reinstalling Windows while retaining personal files and personalization settings, along with apps you installed from the Windows Store and apps that came on your PC. Desktop applications you installed from various sources, including legitimate boxed applications purchased from a retailer, will need to be reinstalled.
If the PC was purchased with Windows 8.1 preinstalled, you should be able to run through the refresh process without any problems and not be prompted for media. However, if the PC was upgraded to Windows 8.1 (via the Windows Store), you need to create a custom recovery image before starting the refresh process, which essentially makes the installation media available.
A major time-saving benefit of using a custom image is that you won't have to reinstall desktop applications.
Follow these steps to use the Windows RecImg (recimg.exe) command to create a custom recovery image:
- Create a folder to hold the custom recovery image file, either on the current drive or another drive.
- Open a command prompt window with administrative privileges. In Windows 8.1, search for cmd, right-click the Command Prompt result, and select Run as administrator.
- In the command prompt window, enter: recimg /createimage <target_drive>:\<target_folder>.
RecImg writes the image to the target folder as a .wim archive file, setting it as the active recovery image. The image won't include documents, personal settings, or Windows Store apps because Windows retains that information when refreshing the PC.
Depending on the amount of disk space used, the process can take an hour or more, but you can work on the computer in the meantime.
If you create custom recovery images in the future, you can use the /deregister and /setcurrent options with recimg.exe to choose the active recovery image for Windows to use during the next refresh. You can display the path to the folder that contains the current recovery image by using the /showcurrent option.
When running Refresh Your PC, if Windows doesn't find a .wim file in the active recovery image folder, it'll prompt you for installation media.
After creating a custom recovery image (the best option) or with installation media available, you can run the PC refresh.
Follow these steps:
- Display the Windows 8.1 charms bar.
- Select Settings > Change PC Settings > Update and Recovery > Recovery.
- Click the Get started button under the Refresh Your PC option.
- The next screen lists the caveats to be aware of before refreshing a PC. The warning about settings and apps installed from discs or websites doesn't apply if you created a custom recovery image. When you're ready, click Next and follow the prompts to complete the refresh.
Exploring RecImg Manager
RecImg Manager is a free utility from SlimWare Utilities that acts much like a combination of Refresh Your PC and the Windows RecImag command. With RecImg Manager, you have the option to perform a backup or restore from the main screen.
During the backup operation, RecImg Manager backs up only core operating system files and installed software—not personal data files—to primary disks, external disks, or a network location.
If you experience system problems and want to "refresh" your PC, run the restore operation to reinstall the core Windows 8 files without touching user data files. You can also perform a system reset, which restores the PC to its factory defaults.
A handy feature of RecImg Manager is that you can create a schedule for automatic backups (much like the old Backup and Restore feature in previous versions of Windows), and choose the location in which the backups will be stored.
It is a pretty useful tool, which takes the already useful RecImg command and makes it much easier to use, and it is an effective tool for protecting your Windows 8 or 8.1 installation.