[This article was originally published in early 2019. I've updated it and confirmed that the details are still correct as of November 2020. - Ed Bott]
For some Windows problems, a clean install is the quickest solution. If your hard drive fails completely and you don't have a current backup image, it's the only solution. Accomplishing that task with the latest version of How to install, reinstall, upgrade and activate Windows 10.)is easy, thanks to the Media Creation Tool and a pretty simple activation process. (For details, see
But after you've finished that clean install, you're left with the work of finding and updating any drivers and utility programs specific to that device.
The solution? Download a recovery image for your device directly from the OEM. That image is typically up to date and includes everything that you would otherwise need to track down and install manually.
You're most likely to find a recovery image when you're working with a business PC (or high-end consumer device) from one of the top OEMs. Older devices, as well as low-priced consumer PCs, are less likely to qualify. That emphasis on business PCs also means the factory images are far more likely to be clean and free of annoying third-party software.
The best time to download a recovery image is when your PC is working properly. Create a bootable device from that image, stash it in a safe place, and you can get back to work quickly in the event of a serious hardware issue.
To use a recovery image, boot from the installation media, choose Troubleshoot from the Windows Recovery Environment, and then choose Recover From A Drive. After a few initial prompts, the process is completely automatic.
Here's where to find the image you need from four major PC vendors. You'll need an 8GB (or larger) USB flash drive and a serial number for the device you're working with:
Start at this page: How to Download and Use the Dell OS Recovery Image in Microsoft Windows. After reading the instructions, download the Dell OS Recovery Tool (Windows only) and run it from an account with administrative rights. Note that the Dell tool will also create a recovery image for devices originally sold with older Windows versions or with Linux preinstalled.
For HP business PCs sold with Windows 10 Professional (64-bit) or Windows 7 Professional, you'll use a Windows desktop utility called the HP Cloud Recovery Download Tool. Check the list of supported devices first; if your model is supported, download and run the Cloud Recovery Client, enter the serial number and model number, and follow the instructions to create a bootable flash drive containing the recovery image.
For HP consumer PCs (2018 or later only), use the HP Cloud Recovery Tool. This app is available from the Microsoft Store (the listing is here) and is capable of detecting the serial number automatically. If you're creating a recovery image for a device other than the one you're working with, you can enter that information manually.
Lenovo offers digital downloads for Windows 10 THINK systems and elected Ideapad and Desktop systems. For older devices (2014 and later) that were originally sold with Windows 8.1 Pro or Windows 10 Professional, Lenovo will ship bootable media within 4-5 business days (international ground service may take significantly longer). For full details, see The Windows Recovery Media Systems Program.
If your system includes a Lenovo OneKey Recovery partition, you might be able to create a recovery image manually. For instructions, see How can I create Recovery Media, or order from Lenovo.
Recovery images for all Microsoft Surface devices are available here: Download a recovery image for your Surface. Sign in with a Microsoft account, if your device is registered with that account, or follow the links at the bottom of that page to enter a model number and serial number.