How to get a free Windows (or Linux) recovery image for your OEM PC
What's better than a clean install? How about a clean installation that includes all required drivers and utility programs? Here's how to locate a free Windows 10, Windows 11, or even Linux recovery image for your Dell, HP, Lenovo, or Surface PC.
[This article was originally published in early 2019. I've updated it and confirmed that the details are still correct as of April 2022. - 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 Windows 10 or Windows 11 is easy, thanks to the Media Creation Tool and a pretty simple activation process. (For details, see How to install, reinstall, upgrade and activate Windows 10.)
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.
A better solution? Download a recovery image for your device directly from the OEM. That image typically includes all the drivers and utility programs 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 reinstall Windows using 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 typically need a 16GB USB flash drive as well as the 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 11 Professional, 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 11 and Windows 10 THINK systems and selected Ideapad and Desktop systems. For older devices (2014 and later) that were originally sold with Windows 8.1 Pro or Windows 10 Professional, you might be able to order bootable media; if this option is available, Lenovo will ship the replacement media within 4-5 business days (international ground service may take significantly longer). For full details, see The Windows Recovery Media Systems Program.
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.