Recover Your Windows 10 Computer

Windows 10 has a recovery option which, if you do it in advance, can save you some time if your computer dies.  It can also be used to bring your old Windows 10 environment forward to a new hard drive.  Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t make it terribly easy so here’s how we navigated putting a Windows 10 licensed OS onto a new SSD (solid state drive) in an old computer.

Even if you aren’t going to attempt to put Windows 10 onto a new disk, there are two things in this post that every lawyer ought to do:

  1. Create a recovery disk so that you’re prepared in the event you have a problem with your PC
  2. Gather and save your product keys for systems like Windows 10 that you may not have CDs or product key stickers for.

Let’s head into Windows RE – the Windows Recovery Environment.

Create a Recovery Disk

The first thing to do is create a Windows 10 recovery disk.  Hit your Windows key and type create a recovery drive.  You will need a large USB drive – I used a 16 GB to be on the safe side.  When you start the process, it will ask you to back up your system files.  If you leave this box checked, it will add to the recovery files the information you will need to reinstall Windows, not just repair a currently installed version.

The second thing you do is figure out what a variety of odd results are that might now occur.  In my case:

  • “Please wait” appeared for a really long time.  It turns out that it can take quite a long time for the recovery process to determine it can proceed.  Or to return an error.  Please, wait.
  • An error.  It doesn’t tell you what the error is, only that it can’t proceed.  The most common advice is to run system file check (sfc) with the switch /scannow.

In the past, you might have returned to Windows in Safe Mode to determine if there were file system errors; some utilities required it.  You can reboot into Windows 10 safe mode by holding your shift key down, clicking your Windows key, and clicking Restart.  It will restart in safe mode.  Don’t do this.  Running the sfc command in Safe Mode won’t work, even though you think it would be the cleanest environment to try it.  Just open a command prompt (Windows key, then type cmd and hit Enter) and type the sfc /scannow command.

Nothing was found for us.  We restarted ran the recovery tool again and it this time it worked.  It takes hours for a terabyte drive, so just leave it to its work.

Harvest Your Product Keys

I stumbled upon this when reading about the problems creating recovery drives.  Nirsoft has a free app called Produkey which can display your Microsoft product product keys:  Internet Explorer, Office, Windows.  Once you’ve installed and run the software, it will display a list.  Highlight all the elements, and then click the floppy-disk-like Save icon.  It will prompt you to save a text file – put it somewhere where you are backing up your files.

Why do you need product keys?  If your recovery process doesn’t work, you may need to use Windows 10’s media creation tool and install Windows 10 from scratch.  In which case, it won’t know that you have a licensed copy.  And if you downloaded your Windows 10 upgrade from Microsoft, you won’t have anything to show for it.

Prepare the New Drive

New SSDs are sold with all the tools that a person would need to transfer an old drive’s content directly to the new.  I bought an SSD that comes with a license for Acronis, a disk imaging tool.  Macrium Reflect is another brand you might find.  This is another thing to consider doing no matter what – make an image of your disk.  It’s not a file-browsable image, it’s a special container.  It allows you to put everything back just as it was – including the files you need to start up your computer – on the day the image was made.  Clone is probably a better term.

But if you don’t want to clone an old disk to your new one, but start fresh, you may need to prepare the hard drive.  I don’t believe this is necessary if you’re doing a Windows 10 recovery but if you want to do it:

  • connect the new drive to your current system, so that it is accessible to the disk management software
  • hit your Windows key and type diskmgmt.msc to open the disk manager
  • initialize the drive as an MBR (master boot record) drive
  • then right click on the drive and apply a simple file system and format it.

Those are the steps you’d need to use if you just want to add a drive and start putting things on it.  You probably don’t need to do it for a Windows 10 recovery.  But when I started the recovery process, almost immediately I had an error:

Unable to recover your computer.  System drive too small.

A lot of people had the same initial reaction I had – if the USB is big enough for the recovery drive, why is the recovery telling me it’s too small?  But it’s not the USB, it’s your new hard drive the system is whining about.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with your hard drive.  You’ll get this error any time the new hard drive is smaller than the old one.  When the recovery disk is made, as this person cleverly found out, it creates some files that set a minimum hard drive size and puts that information in an XML file in a folder called sources on your recovery USB drive.  If you change the minimum size to any number smaller than the size of your current hard drive, the recovery process will continue.

We were updating two PCs.  Both were now able to start the recovery process and one completed it, with a fresh load of Windows 10 on it and fully licensed.

Recovery Failure

But one didn’t.  Surprisingly, there was no error message.  Okay, that was sarcastic.

There was just a statement that recovery had been unsuccessful, no changes had been made, restart.  But when I returned to the main set of recovery options, and opened up a command prompt, I could see that it had gotten as far as creating /Users and /Windows, so it had completed something.  I’m still looking to see if there’s a place that Windows 10 recovery logs its errors.

I tried a couple of things at this point.  The best solution, I think, is to use the Media Creation tool, create a completely clean version of Windows 10, then activate it using your product key.

In my case, I had a recovery that had succeeded and another that had failed.  I re-used the recovery tool that worked on the machine that had failed.  And it worked too, so there may have been a problem with the recovery drive.  Unfortunately, by the time you’re trying to use it, it’s too late to know whether it is going to work or not.

My second recovery disk worked fine and dumped a clean version of Windows 10 on the PC.  If there was any particular benefit to having the system files copied over, it wasn’t obvious that they caused any harm either.  The first prompt was to create a user, so we started with a fresh root administrator.  The operating system found suitable drivers for everything on the system.  We reconfigured it to be part of our Windows workgroup so that we could access network shares and start downloading files and reinstalling software.

One thing that wasn’t clear to me was whether I needed to re-activate Windows or not.  There was no prompt.  In the past, Windows 95 and after seemed to warn you immediately if you had a copy that needed activation.  In any event, hit Windows key and type activation and there’s a nice app for that.  It will show that the software is licensed but also allow you to put in a new product code.  I did that and was all set.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.