How to create a repair/recovery partition in Windows 10

Windows can and will crash — and after it does it may not boot normally. To be prepared for worst-case scenarios, learn how to create a bootable recovery partition on your system drive.

From time to time, Windows 10 will go off the rails. A failed update, a problematic program install, a driver problem or what-have-you can cause Windows to crash and then refuse to boot normally thereafter.

The traditional approach to remediation requires arranging an alternate boot mechanism, so that the damaged system partition can be repaired or replaced. That alternate boot mechanism can come from a variety of sources, including a bootable recovery Windows image, a bootable Windows installer on a flash drive or DVD, or even a bootable partition on the very drive that's having problems. In this article, I describe how to create a bootable recovery partition on a system's boot/system drive.

Warning: this approach presents a single point of failure

Adding a bootable repair and recovery partition to a PC's boot/system drive is convenient, and it supports dual-boot access to the primary OS and repair/recovery facilities, but it's subject to a potentially vexing weakness. If the drive upon which the OS and the recovery partition both reside should fail, neither the OS partition nor the recovery partition will be bootable or available. Thus, it's essential to create a bootable USB flash drive (UFD) or DVD for repair or recovery should such a failure occur. Given that this additional effort is required anyway, why bother with a repair/recovery partition at all?

Good question! There are at least two reasons why this exercise is worth conducting, namely:

  • The boot/system drive, if running, will be much faster than either a UFD or a DVD. This means much less time will be required to undertake repair or recovery activities.
  • The repair/recovery partition will be readily available as a boot-time selection when you restart a PC in need of repair. No need to find or build a bootable UFD or DVD, because what you need is already at hand.

For me, the convenience of a potent and usable repair/recovery environment makes the whole exercise worthwhile. On the few occasions where I've found repair or recovery to be necessary, it's been a real time- and life-saver.

Tools for the job

Several good backup and recovery tools include built-in options that add a repair/recovery partition to your boot/system drive more or less automatically. If you're not inclined to futz around with low-level partition management and recovery image tools, the tools I describe in this section provide an excellent shortcut to achieve the same goals.

In particular, two programs are worth investigating in this regard:

  • Through its "Other Tasks" menu, Macrium Reflect Free offers an "Add Recovery Boot Menu" option. One you install this program on your PC for backup and recovery, it creates a repair/recovery partition for you and adds it to your Windows 10 boot menu. It works like a charm and it makes Reflect's recovery facilities immediately available to you should problems occur on your boot/system drive.
  • AOMEI OneKey Recovery, which comes in a basic freeware package and in numerous commercial versions, lacks the general backup and recovery capabilities found in Macrium Reflect. But it does capture a snapshot of a current system image and will create a bootable disk partition (or external media) you can use to restore that image from the Windows 10 boot menu. More expensive and advanced commercial versions add considerable customization capabilities to the mix.

For this article, however, I assume some readers are interested in understanding how to build a bootable repair/recovery partition for themselves and populate it with "the right stuff" to make it work. If you are one of those roll up your sleeves types, please read on.

Creating your own repair/recovery partition for Windows 10

At the 10,000-foot level, the process goes like this:

  1. Create a repair/recovery partition.
  2. Add the necessary software to provide repair/recovery facilities to that partition.
  3. Make the repair/recovery partition bootable.
  4. Add the repair/recovery partition to the boot menu.

Let’s get started.

1. Create a repair/recovery partition

Depending on what kind of repair partition you plan to use, the size requirements for such a partition vary from the (default) low value of 450 MB, which Windows 10 itself uses to build a recovery partition during the Windows install process, to considerably more than that. My current favorite custom-tailored repair/recovery image is called either WinPESE or Kyhi's Recovery Disk, and is available for free through TenForums.com.

The image is 1.2 GB in size. To leave room for it to work properly, I recommend allocating 2.5 GB of space. You can use any good partitioning tool to create the necessary partition on your boot/system disk, but always make a complete image backup of that disk before attempting such maneuvers. I use — and recommend — the MiniTool Partition Wizard (a free version of which is available from MajorGeeks.com). Most experts recommend (and I concur) that you add this partition to the tail end of your boot/system drive, after making sufficient room to drop it in there.

2. Add the software to provide repair/recovery facilities

This step is simple to explain but can be hard to execute. You need to copy the files for your repair/recovery image into the partition you create on your boot/system drive. Of course, that means formatting that partition, assigning a drive letter, and then using File Explorer or some other Windows file utility to select and copy those files from a source to that destination. That source could be a Windows 10 ISO or the Kyhi's WinPESE or any of a number of other readily available Windows 10 repair and recovery images.

The easiest way to add files is just to copy the whole set of files involved (Windows ISO or Windows PE tool stuff). Minimizing the files is trickier, or you can read the references in the afore-linked blog post to learn how to build your own minimal, custom Windows Pre-Installation Environment (PE) instead.

3. Make the repair/recovery partition bootable

If your boot/system disk is GUID Partition Table (GPT) formatted, you can skip this step. If it's master boot record (MBR) formatted, you need to open the Disk Management utility in Windows 10 (diskmgmt.msc), right-click the repair/recovery partition on its home drive therein, and select "Mark Partition as Active" from the resulting pop-up menu. That's it!

4. Add the repair/recovery partition to the boot menu

The Windows BCDEdit command runs in PowerShell or the Command Prompt window (cmd.exe) and lets savvy users manipulate entries in the Boot Configuration Database (the BCD from the command's name). This can be tricky and takes some learning to master. It's well-described in an MSDN article entitled "Adding Boot Entries" (dated 11/22/2016, this article covers Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10).

I use the $30 program from NeoSmart Technologies named EasyBCD to do this instead because it's faster, easier and far less fraught with peril than hacking away with BCDEdit at the command line. Using that tool, all you need to do is click the "Add New Entry" button, select the WinPE tab and provide the path to your WinPE image. You can use "Edit Boot Menu" thereafter to change the partition's name and its position in the boot order as you see fit.

Related video:

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams