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What's the difference between a recovery disk and an installation disk?


My hard drive crashed and I tried to use my recovery disk to recover my system. It didn’t work. Why not?

I’ve heard you say that a recovery disk isn’t enough, that I need an “installation” disk. Why, and what’s the difference?

My recovery disk worked just great to restore my system, I don’t see what you’re going on about?

Those are actually a synthesis of comments and questions I see fairly often.

A recovery disk or CD is most definitely not the same as an installation disk, and the difference becomes quickly apparent when
it comes time to recover from certain types of failures.

Note the phrase “certain types” of failures. For some failures a recovery disk is just peachy, yet for others with only a
recovery disk you might be in deep trouble.

And of course, it also depends on the exact recovery disk as well. Naturally, this couldn’t be simple.


First, the simple part.

In general:

“Here’s the problem: what if your hard drive dies – completely?”
  • A recovery disk contains the tools and additional information that can be used to “recover” your system using information stored on your hard drive. That “information” could be the I386 folder, it could be a hidden recovery partition, or it could be something else entirely. The key is that the recovery disk uses a bunch of information on your hard drive.

  • An installation disk contains the software to be installed. A Windows installation disk contains a copy of Windows which is copied from the disk and installed on your computer’s hard drive. There’s no need for additional tools or information to already exist on the hard drive.

Hopefully, you can already see the problem.

A recovery disk is a fine approach if, for example, you mistakenly delete Windows, or somehow corrupt the system. The recovery disk might be used to reinstall and/or repair the system from the various places that it might have information stored on the hard drive. A common scenario is that it could fire up a complete re-install of Windows using a copy of Windows squirreled away on a hidden partition on the drive.

Here’s the problem: what if your hard drive dies – completely?

That means that the recovery partition, or for that matter anything on your hard drive that your recovery disk might rely on, is gone. The recovery disk cannot recover, because the information or other support files it needs are no longer around.

That’s when the only solution is an installation disk, or image backups.

With an installation disk you can reinstall your operating system from scratch on to an empty replacement hard drive. You’ll then likely need installation disks or copies of downloads for your applications as well, again so as to be able to reinstall them from scratch.

The other option is an image type of backup which is a backup of everything on your hard drive. If taken before the drive fails you can then use it to restore your system as of the time that image was taken onto a replacement drive.

Naturally, there are a few problems.

Many manufacturers don’t include installation CDs, only recovery. Unless you have another (legal) source for installation media, insist on installation from your computer vendor. Yes, it might be an extra cost, but it’s very much worth every penny should you face the disaster scenario above.

All restore disks aren’t created equal. There’s actually no standard for what a restore disk should contain. A restore disk from one vendor may work a certain way, while that from another may do something entirely different. The assumptions of what is or should be on the hard drive for the restoration to actually succeed will vary quite a bit.

Backups are the ultimate safety net, yet too many people don’t do them. It’s something I harp on all the time. As I outlined above, a good image backup taken with the appropriate tools would actually render the whole issue moot.

So, knowing all this, what’s the bottom line?

  • Insist on installation media from your computer vendor

  • Save all installation media (and product keys) for your operating system and applications in a safe place

  • Backup regularly.

Do this

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15 comments on “What's the difference between a recovery disk and an installation disk?”

  1. Well, my computer came with neither, but I was able to make a recovery/installation disk from the recovery partition… Just before a cataclysmic crash. Thankfully, my computer’s manufacturer was nice enough to provide concise instructions on how to make this installation or recovery disk, since the recovery partition no longer exists. I have used this disk to reinstall Windows (from scratch) several times. I also have a backup of this disk.
    I am sure some manufacturers don’t do this. I am glad mine (Acer) did.

  2. I still don’t understand why manufacturers don’t provide a full install disk. Presumably they have all the Windows operating systems available as a “master” because they can install the systems on bunches of machines. If they can create a recovery disk then logic says they can create an OEM full install disk from their “master copy”. So why don’t they? They have to use a blank disk to make the recovery CD/DVD so just make a full install disk instead. Is there some ulterior motive that prevents them from doing so? I’ve gone round and round with Dell and they absolutely refuse to provide a full install disk, even for an added cost.

    I believe it’s a licensing issue. Microsoft charges them more for Windows when they include the installation media. (The logic escapes me, but if I had to guess further I’d say it’s because the CD could then, in turn, by pirated thereby costing Microsoft revenue. In fact many of the “OEM” Windows you see on eBay are exactly this.)


  3. I guess Microsoft is of the opinion that people don’t pirate store bought retail versions. Or try to use peer-to-peer sites to download illegal copies. If someone is willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy a machine with a legitimate Product Key, I don’t think that’s the person Microsoft has to worry about pirating an OEM disk. IMHO.

    I didn’t claim it made sense. Smile As I’ve said before, I’m strongly of the opinion that the installation media should always be provided, even when pre-installed. (Though I think OEM sales outnumber retail sales by some very large margin.)


  4. I’m not an expert so this may be naive, but — what if I buy an external hard disk that has more storage capacity than my computer’s hard disk and then copy the internal hard disk to the external disk. If the internal hard disk crashes presumably I can copy back the contents from the external disk? No?

    Yes and no, mostly no. Some files cannot be copied while Windows is running unless you use a backup program. More here: Can’t I just copy everything instead of using a backup program?


  5. The smaller OEM’s tend to be better about this, probably because they don’t get the massive discounts the larger OEM’s do. My old Time machine had an OEM Win98 CD, but that was 10 years ago and I’m not sure if anything has happpened since. Of course, the best thing a manufacturer could do would be to copy the Windows installation files and use scripts to glue the thing together and re-install their bloatware, but that ain’t happening as it would be too easy to circumvent.

  6. The 5 Windows Versions
    *** only the Retail Full Version allows you to move Windows from one PC to another !!

    Full – also called Retail Full version – most expensive, can be transferred to another machine, so long as it is uninstalled from the old machine. If you lie and do not uninstall it – then the old machine will run, but will act as any other machine running a pirated version (i.e. it will not validate with WGA and will only be allowed to receive critical updates). CAN MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE (just make sure you uninstall then reinstall, and re-activate. You may need to call Microsoft for re-activation)!!

    Upgrade – also called Retail Upgrade version – much less than Full – and usually just a tad more than OEM unbranded. The setup.exe will not run from DOS, but all you have to do is boot from the CD, start installing, and when XP says that it doesn’t detect an operating system and to please insert an OS disk, put in your Win98 disk. CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

    OEM Branded – comes installed with a new PC (branded OEM). Functionally identical to unbranded OEM. Can only be installed on ONE MACHINE. After that, even if you have a fire or a complete system failure and need to get a new machine . . . you will have to but a new copy of Windows XP. OEM = OnE Machine. CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

    OEM UnBranded – bought separately (not with a PC). Functionally identical to branded OEM. Can only be installed on ONE MACHINE. After that, even if you have a fire or a complete system failure and need to get a new machine . . . you will have to but a new copy of Windows XP. OEM = OnE Machine CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

    Recovery CD – ecomes with new PC, and contains an “image” of the hard drive, including Windows XP and all the software drivers and utilities that come with the PC. Very restrictive because you need to wip out the entire drive, then the image is refreshed. Cannot be used when the system asks you to “insert the Windows XP CD”. Cannot be used to refresh certain XP files that are missing or corrupted, unless you blow everything away and start over. A terrible idea and a terrible way to go !!! CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!

  7. The system recovery situation is even a bit more complicated than described in the answer to the question, because Microsoft includes a feature called “Recovery Console” on installation disks which is not usually included on vendor-provided recovery disks. With Recovery Console, which is a command-line interface to Windows, you can recover from many hard disk problems, such as corrupted sectors, a corrupted Registry, a corrupted Master Boot Record (MBR), or corrupted/missing drivers or critical Windows system files. Using the Recovery Console is only available on installation disks, however, and the service pack of Windows installed on the hard disk at the time of the failure must match the service pack that is on the installation disk. You can get around this by “slipstreaming” the correct service pack into a copy of your installation disk (i.e. producing a Windows XP SP3 installation disk from a Windows XP SP1a disk), but that’s not for the faint-of-heart. Recovery Console also requires a pretty fair amount of expertise, so it’s not for most users. The best way for the average user to protect their investment is to do both periodic system imaging AND (much more) periodic data backup. Image your system when you make significant changes to it (e.g. when you install or de-install an application or a service pack, or make major configuration changes). Back up your data files (you do have them logically organized, don’t you?) frequently. If your hard disk completely crashes and is completely unrecoverable, image a new hard disk using your latest image, then apply your latest data backup to completely recover your system with a minimum of effort (at least to the point where you did your last image and your last data backup). This beats the heck out of using a recovery disk every time, and usually beats the heck out of even using an installation disk, because of the time required to install updates, applications, configuration changes, etc. for those two recovery methods. Both imaging and data backup capabilities can be obtained for free (e.g. use Macrium Reflect Free for imaging, and Comodo Free System Backup for data backups), can be configured to run automatically when desired, and are well within the ability of an average user to learn and use effectively. Most users don’t do these types of things because they don’t have very good information about what’s available and how to go about it. By the way, making a copy of a hard disk to another hard disk without using an imaging program will not take care of the situation. Using the Windows “Copy” feature does not copy critical system files, like to Master Boot Record, as a part of the copy process, so installing the new hard drive and trying to boot from it will fail.

  8. These problems are the reason that I switched to Linux (Linux Mint Gloria). When you screw up, you simply put your installation disk in and start all over. No haggles,licenses,validations or other bull. All you have to do is reupdate (unless you have created backups). The whole setup takes less than a hour. There are many other programs that takes more time, but you get what I mean. And I’m not getting off the subject here, but I’m offering a free and simple solution.

  9. I have a copy of Acronis backup. I’ve done a full backup of my system. So if I have a catastrophic crash, will that backup work in that situation? I have a copy of the operating system. Will just reinstalling Acronis and restoring from my backup get me going again after I reinstall Windows?

    Depends on the type of backup you’ve done. If you’ve done a full image backup, then you would simply restore that and nothing more – no Windows install needed since it’s part of the backup.


  10. I just made recovery disks (2 DVD’s) off a dying hard drive, replaced the hard drive, and booted. It formated the hard drive, re-installed XP and all the original drivers off the recovery disks. Computer works fine now, am I missing something here?

    Only that there’s no definition for what a “recovery disk” should be. You’re lucky, in that whatever they are for you worked very well. Other, perhaps most, “recovery disks” simply do not do what you’ve described.


  11. From Sirpaul1

    you will have to but a new copy of Windows XP. OEM = OnE Machine CANNOT MOVE FROM MACHINE TO MACHINE and CANNOT Replace/Update CPU or Motherboard (will fail validation when running Windows update) !!
    From me:
    The PC I am using now is running a legit OEM Windows XP is now on its 3rd motherboard !The 1st & 2nd both failed.
    I still use the orig intel cpu but ram has been upgraded from 512kb to 2 gig and I am using new slightly upgraded video card.

    I have also added external 160G hard drive and a slave 80 Gig hard drive.

    I have also changed the power supply a/c failure issues and new case which they can’t dectect at this stage ? :)
    I have had no validation issues and have reinstalled XP several times and have all MS updates regularly downloaded …no questions asked .
    MS magnanamous attitude would possibly change if the CPU failed and needed replacing ..but who knows?


  12. An unbranded OEM may not be legally moved to another machine, but I have done it successfully and although M$ considers this illegal, I feel perfectly justified as I did pay for it and damn Dr Evil if he feels differently.

  13. All the contents of your newsletters and comments are very useful and also helpful. When I bought a Windows XP Installation package, the installation disk was not provided.

  14. Re your description of a recovery disk and an installation disk, I have a Dell disk that a Dell technician left with me some time ago called a “Reinstallation DVD” Is this another name for one of the names you mantioned above? If it is can please tell me which one it is Leo? Or is it something altogether different from either of the names you mentioned?

    It’s hard to tell. My GUESS is that it’s a complete reinstall copy of Windows, particularly since it takes a DVD to hold it. You can look at the contents of the DVD to find out.


  15. Wow, seems you know exactly whats wrong with my system.

    I cannot boot up in safe mode or repair mode. Getting the BSOD at every attempt.

    I ordered Recovery disks from HP for my system. They don’t work. My system will not boot up from the Recovery Disks or from the Sweeper Disk I created that you mentioned in another article. I also created an Image DVD (ISO) from MyDigitalLife for Windows 7 64bit. It didnt work either.

    I have run every possible diagnostics test through the bios and on the system tests itself. All have passed. So how could my harddrive be damaged? Or is it simply so corrupted that it is unrecoverable and I need to get another Harddrive and installation Disk out of the box?

    I am beyond frustrated here as I have been working on this laptop for 2 months with no success. Cannot afford to take it in and find it cheaper to do the repairs myself. The link here is my current posting on the HP Support Forum. If you have a chance, take a look and let me know what you think.

    Thanks Leo, I am looking forward to a response from you.

    Not being able to boot from CD seems the root problem here. I’d investigate that first. Make sure that the BIOS is properly configured to boot from CD before the HD, and that the CD drive is working. Try downloading a live CD like the Ubuntu or Knoppix CDs and see if they’ll work at all. But if you can’t boot from the CD/DVD that seems like it would explain all your frustration.


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