Windows Recovery Environment explained

Published Apr 14 2021 05:23 PM 30.4K Views
Microsoft

The Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) is a companion operating system installed alongside Windows 10, typically in a separate partition, that can help with troubleshooting, recovery, or booting from external media, such as a USB stick. WinRE is also used during the Windows update process to apply updates in specific paths or phases. (This process is sometimes referred to as SafeOS.)

In this post, we're going to walk you through the tools in WinRE, offer tips and tricks for using it effectively, and, while we're at it, clear up common misconceptions around WinRE. We’ll also show how WinRE can enable a Windows 10 device that might have issues starting or applying the latest updates, get back to a good state.

An overview of WinRE

When talking to IT pros, enthusiasts, and other Microsoft employees, I like to refer to WinRE as the “blue screen of life.” Some agree with me out of politeness, but I believe the phrase resonates with many people because, at the end of the day, WinRE is typically used to fix something.

WinRE is almost always located in a separate partition that immediately follows the main Windows partition. (For more details on the default partition layout for UEFI-based PCs, see our partition layout documentation.)

If you are familiar with Windows PE (WinPE), this may sound similar. Think of WinPE as the base OS and WinRE as the user interface with some recovery tools added.

When you launch WinRE, you may see these options: Continue (exit WinRE and continue to Windows 10), Use a device (use a USB drive, network connection, or Windows recovery DVD), Troubleshoot (reset your PC or use advanced options), and Turn off your PC.

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Figure 1. Initial WinRE menu options

Accessing WinRE

You can access WinRE via multiple entry points:

  • From the Start menu, select Power then select and hold down the Shift key while selecting Restart.
  • In Windows 10, select Start > Settings > Update & Security > Recovery. Under Advanced startup, select Restart now.
  • By booting to recovery media.
  • hardware recovery button (or button combination) configured by the OEM.

Here are two lesser-known ways to access WinRE:

  • Use REAgentC. From Windows 10, run a command prompt as an administrator, then type reagentc /boottore. Restart the device and it will load WinRE instead of Windows 10.
  • The shutdown command also has an entry point for WinRE. Run command prompt as an administrator and type shutdown /r /o.

Okay, so now that you’re in WinRE, what can you do?

Depending on how you started WinRE, the options may differ. For example, if you boot from a USB stick, the Reset this PC option does not appear. You can continue to Windows 10 or turn off your PC.

If the options presented are not desired, select Continue to start Windows 10. Likewise, the Turn off your PC option will shut down the device. If you have multiple operating systems installed, this would also be where you could select which OS to boot.

Use a device

This option helps you boot from another source such as USB, DVD, or even a network connection. This can be helpful as it is simpler than some BIOS/Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) menus and provides a consistent experience.

Troubleshoot

WinRE has many troubleshooting tools to help you get devices back to a good state quickly and easily. For more information, see Use WinRE to troubleshoot common startup issues.

Now, let’s explore the options available in the Troubleshoot category.

Reset this PC

Resetting a PC reinstalls Windows 10, but lets you choose whether to keep your files or remove them before reinstalling Windows. Reset this PC is the most popular option and offers a few options. (You can also access Reset this PC from the Settings menu if you can successfully start Windows 10.) For more information on Reset this PC, see Recovery options in Windows 10. I'll also dive deeper into Reset this PC in future posts, so stay tuned!

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Figure 2. The Advanced options menu

Startup Repair

If Windows fails to start twice, the third attempt will run Startup Repair automatically. This is also available as an option on the advanced options page of troubleshooting. Startup Repair can help fix a corrupt master boot record (MBR), partition table, or boot sector. Beginning with Windows 10, version 1809, automatic Startup Repair also removes the most recently installed update if that installation immediately preceded the startup failure.

Startup Settings

Another troubleshooting step is to change how Windows starts up. Enabling debugging or boot logging can help identify a specific issue. This is also where you can enable Safe Mode. Check out the support page on Startup Settings for more information.

Command Prompt

While not the most approachable tool for unfamiliar users, the command prompt is the most powerful and dynamic tool in WinRE. It can do everything from registry edits to copying files to running Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) commands. Next, we’ll cover a few notable examples. (Note that while using Command Prompt in WinRE, it automatically runs with elevated administrator permissions.)

Copying files

If you need to copy a few files from your device before reinstalling Windows, using a USB drive or network share can be a quick way to do this using the command prompt within WinRE.

There is also a popular Notepad trick that makes it easier to copy files. I love it and wish I could take credit as it a big timesaver for visual people like me. !

Chkdsk

Running chkdsk is a common first step to help resolve issues. This process checks the file system and file system metadata of a volume for logical and physical errors. (While in WinRE, drive letters may be assigned differently than in Windows 10. You can run BCDEdit to get the correct drive letters.)

SFC

SFC scans and verifies the integrity of all protected system files and replaces incorrect versions with correct versions. If this command discovers that a protected file has been overwritten, it retrieves the correct version of the file, and then replaces the incorrect file.

Repair corrupt components using DISM

Windows system components may become corrupt from hard drive malfunctions or update issues. If you have a wired ethernet connection, you can turn on networking to then scan and repair corrupted content using Windows Update and the /Cleanup-Image switch in DISM.

From the command prompt, type wpeinit and Enter to turn on the networking stack then type the following command:

dism /image:c:\ /cleanup-image /restorehealth

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Figure 3. Using DISM within the command prompt in WinRE

Registry Editor

Yes, you can use regedit within Windows RE, but warning: this is a powerful tool that can really mess things up if not used correctly! Keep in mind the X:\ drive is the WinRE OS and has its own registry. C:\ is likely where the Windows 10 registry is.

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Figure 4. Launching the Registry Editor from the command prompt in WinRE

Uninstall Updates

Removing the latest updates recently installed to Windows 10 can be a good troubleshooting step if you are having trouble starting your PC or if you are having trouble uninstalling something within Windows 10. Simply select Uninstall latest quality update or Uninstall latest feature update to uninstall the desired update from WinRE with just a couple of steps. Please note; however, that you should reapply the latest updates as soon as possible to help keep your devices protected and productive.

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Figure 5. The Uninstall Updates menu

UEFI Firmware Settings

This option makes it easy to boot into the UEFI menu to change firmware settings, especially as the many different devices offered by OEMs use different keyboard or button combinations to access UEFI. For example, some use volume buttons, function keys, the delete key, or a combination therein. WinRE provides a consistent method for accessing UEFI firmware settings across all devices.

System Restore and System Image Recovery

These two options can be useful if you are using legacy system restore features or image-based recovery. The System Restore option can restore your PC to a previous restore point which, for example, could undo the latest win32 application installation if you captured a restore point prior to the installation.

Recovery Drive

Creating a recovery drive is a built-in Windows ability that can easily create a USB drive with WinRE. Optionally, it can also “back up system files to the recovery drive,” a process that takes a while but will fully reinstall Windows onto that same system even if the hard drive is blank. This is often referred to as Bare Metal Recovery (BMR). When starting your system from a Recovery Drive, you will notice that is uses WinRE to perform the recovery. You will need to pick your language first and there will then be an option on the first screen to “Recover from a drive.”

Managing WinRE

WinRE can help devices recover back to Windows, but, if needed, it can be disabled by opening an elevated command prompt and using the reagentc /disable command. By disabling WinRE, however, some Windows 10 features may not work, including many outlined in this blog post. Additionally, WinRE will be re-enabled after a feature update is installed as it is a critical part of the update process.

Permission and authentication

If you are a Windows Insider taking flights, you may have seen a behavior change on Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 19536 and later, where the default authentication requirements for WinRE are different. Previously, most tools and actions required local admin credentials but were not able to use modern credentials like Windows Hello (face, PIN, fingerprint). This became a big problem with passwordless accounts and Azure Active Directory accounts that weren’t backed up with a local admin account. To address this, we changed the default behavior to no longer require local administrator authentication to access WinRE tools.

If you manage devices using mobile device management (MDM) solutions such as Microsoft Endpoint Manager, you can configure the Security/RecoveryEnvironmentAuthentication policy if you would like to require local administrator authentication to use WinRE components.

Other interesting things

Booting into RAM

WinRE can be installed in the same partition as Windows, but it is usually installed in the Recovery or WinRE tools partition. Regardless of where it is installed, it always runs in the RAM (or RAM disk boot) and is assigned the X:\ drive. This is important to note because any changes you make to X:\ will not be saved after a reboot.

BitLocker

Depending on the combination of your entry points to WinRE, how BitLocker is configured (auto-unlock), and what WinRE option you select, you may be prompted for the BitLocker recovery key to unlock your Windows partition. As an example, when launching a command prompt, you will be prompted to unlock BitLocker. If you skip the unlock process, the Windows installation drive will remain locked, but you will have access to the X:\ drive, where WinRE runs in RAM.

BootIM.exe

One potentially confusing thing about WinRE is the implementation of BootIM.exe. Most won’t see a difference, but I want to explain how this works. When using the entry point from the lock/login screen and holding the Shift key or Settings > Advanced Startup, Windows 10 is not rebooting into WinRE. Instead, it is entering pre-shutdown and showing the BootIM screen which looks exactly like WinRE. If you select an option that needs to change the boot flag like Use a device, it saves you one restart because you don't have to start WinRE to then restart the system again using a device.

You can see this functionality by running BootIM.exe from an elevated command prompt, but a quick tip is to open Task Manager beforehand so you can easily use the Alt + Tab combination and end the task when you are done. If you are a Windows Insider taking flights, you will see a behavior change beginning with Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 19577 to enable greater accessibility within this experience. As the pre-shutdown behavior doesn’t support Narrator or other accessibility features, BootIM will only be used if WinRE isn’t available. Otherwise, the system will restart directly to WinRE and skip BootIM.

Partition layout

Prior to Windows 10, the recommended partition layout was to place the recovery partition before the OS partition. Unfortunately, this made it difficult to update WinRE. For Windows 10, we updated the recommendation to always list WinRE immediately after the OS partition. Depending on how Windows was originally installed, your partitions may not have this layout.

Even with the updated recommendation, OEMs have the flexibility to choose a different partition layout for specific solutions. When installing from USB, the legacy layout was still being used by some partners until it was formally updated in Windows 10, version 20H1. For example, in this screenshot from a newer laptop, the OEM put an Recovery Partition where it needs to go, last in line.

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Figure 6. A Disk Management partition layout example

Recovery partition labeling

The WinRE partition can have any volume label or no label, but the most common labels are WinRE tools, WinRE, or Recovery. The label is subject to change upon update. The status could also say OEM Partition or Recovery Partition.

The WinRE partition shouldn’t have a drive letter assigned and any folders or files should not be available for editing. A common misunderstanding is that the recovery partition contains a compressed copy of Windows and that this copy is what is restored during the reset process. This is not the case. This partition only contains WinRE and drivers. The size can vary depending on how it was configured by the OEM (e.g., what languages and drivers were included).

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Figure 7. An example of labels within the Disk Management partition

Conclusion

In closing, I hope this information has been helpful and helps provide greater understanding about WinRE. As we continue to improve, we are always interested in your ideas and feedback, and ask that you please share them in Feedback Hub (<-- this is direct link to the Advanced startup category that includes WinRE).

If you have ideas or requests on other aspects of recovery you’d like us to share, please let us know in the comments section below.

 

25 Comments
Occasional Contributor

Hi @Aaron_Lower!

 

Nice RE overview, must be helpful for those unfamiliar with :) A couple of things caught my attention.

 

legacy system restore features

What do you mean by legacy? Do we perhaps have modern in-box alternatives? System restore is as legacy as File Explorer :) 

 

In Windows 10, we updated the recommendation to always list WinRE immediately after the OS partition

You did and documented this in 2015. But clean installed Windows 10 kept creating the RE partition before the OS partition for years. I think you started following your own docs only in 2020 or 2019. 

 

I also think that simultaneously you started creating a new (second) RE partition after the OS partition during upgrades to new Windows versions.  

 

It's kind of hard to provide proof with exact dates, but one can experiment along the lines above and see. 

 

Can you comment on this behavior? Why didn't you follow your own recommendations in the first place? What made you change the behavior after all?

 

Thanks,

Vadim

 

 

 

 

 

Trusted Contributor

Hello thank you for a helpful article! how exactly I will read your comments! Good luck.

Senior Member

Windows Recovery Environment has a nasty bug that causes most text to be in italic. This bug is visible in the Registry Editor shot.

 

When is Microsoft going to fix it?

Occasional Contributor

Windows Recovery Environment has a nasty bug that causes most text to be in italic. 

I wouldn't call it nasty, just a minor UI thing that doesn't affect the functionality.

But I have a feeling that italics in RE is on purpose :) Perhaps, Aaron can shed some light.

Super Contributor

Hi All Long article, but I like the most system restore to the previous update in 2 steps, this solution is very helpful and I would like a similar action to restore WinRE, so that automatically the tool showed the best solution and that without developing additional options - immediately know what steps are best! System restore often involves a fatal error, and for most users it is a very crisis situation, and then it is easy to make human error!
I really need more automation in this serious topic which for many users is not provided - completion of the task and fraught with a lot of risk due to the many possibilities of restoration, and not everyone can make the right choice of additional options! I am in favour of maxima automating this complex activity requiring experience and the right tools - often prepared and initiated manually which sea lead to error!
Thank you very much

Senior Member

I wouldn't call it nasty, just a minor UI thing that doesn't affect the functionality.

But I have a feeling that italics in RE is on purpose :) Perhaps, Aaron can shed some light.

You remind me of Internet Explorer's team. Every time we pointed out something broken, outmoded, suboptimal, or in general need of attention, they said "it's by design." When we replied that "we don't like your design," they politely pointed out that they were very much in love with their design.

 

On, purpose or not, it is bad.

Valued Contributor

This is very valuable and I saved several devices when they failed to boot up using this feature. However, for non-professional users, it is hard to use this feature especially when there is failure and Startup Repair couldn't fix it and they need to use Command prompt and they are not  familiar with commands and also they don't know how to use Command prompt to recover their files.

I hope there would be more investment on Startup Repair so it would fix issues automatically without the need to run commands manually.

Microsoft

@Vadim Sterkin - You are correct, we had the recommendation documented long ago but never changed the default behavior when doing manual, clean installation. This wasn't a high priority item because the vast majority of machines in the wild do not have Windows installed through this path. They are either configured by the OEM for consumer, or custom image for enterprise.

The reason WinRE is sometimes installed in another, newly created partition is because the first one wasn't big enough to be updated during an upgrade. I'll go into this in a future blog post. These two items are not connected to eachother.

Microsoft

@The_Smart_One - thanks for pointing that out. I hadn't noticed and AFIAK it wasn't reported to us previously. I will do some research and figure out what we can do about it.

Senior Member

@Aaron_LowerHi. Where exactly can users report issues of Windows RE anyway? For several reasons, I assume Feedback Hub is not the correct venue.

 

And by the way, the cause of this issue is a missing Segoe UI font variant. One needs to copy the correct font file into the Windows RE image, then mount the Windows RE Registry and add proper font registration (a single value).

Microsoft

@The_Smart_One we do have an entry in Feedback Hub and I linked it to the bottom of the blog post. Wow, thanks for the information on the font, I'll add that to the bug information.

New Contributor

Hallo, WinRE badly needs built-in wireless networking support for it to stay relevant.

 

Thanks

New Contributor

DaRT is still my go-to. Full WinRE recovery environment, plus graphical tools like Locksmith, Registry Editor, Disk Management, and tons more.

Microsoft

@Bavo Bostoen - Interesting idea, can you please elaborate on how you would expect it to be used? Technically today, the correct Wi-Fi driver can be added by the OEM or IT admin to WinRE and wpeinit will use it. Connecting to a network can be a bit tricky in cmd prompt but hypothetically let's say we had that support built-in and easy to use, what would you use it for?

Visitor

@Aaron_Lower - Microsoft has already merged some of the MDOP tools into other products.(i.e. UEV and MBAM).

 

@ajc196 reminded me of this question I have always had...

Why can't Microsoft merge the DaRT tools into WinRE?

 

It works quite nicely and would be an excellent addition.

I used to add them myself but it became a hassle when they kept getting replace by the standard WinRE.

 

I know there are others that would agree with me.
Or at the very least could it be put it in the Enterprise SKU?

Senior Member

@g4m3c4ck

 

Why can't Microsoft merge the DaRT tools into WinRE?

Because if they did, everyone had to pay extra for their copies of Windows. Not everyone needs DaRT, not everyone knows how to operate DaRT, and DaRT is a security liability. And there are free alternatives to DaRT.

 

I used to add them myself but it became a hassle when they kept getting replace by the standard WinRE.

You mean you kept overwriting your own WinRE by mistake. A normal Windows upgrade doesn't overwrite WinRE.

 

Or at the very least could it be put it in the Enterprise SKU?

That's exactly what they are doing now. Are you sure you've been using Microsoft's DaRT and not a Chinese knockoff? Because it seems you don't know stuff that you should've known if you were a genuine Microsoft VL customer.

 

Edit: The edit button is back. Hurray! :smiling_face_with_smiling_eyes:

Frequent Contributor

Nice article @Aaron_Lower thank you very much.
In this context I stumbled across this dynamic update fixing things in WinRE.

If one does only install CUs or enablement package to get to 20H2 / 21H1 will the issue solved with this DU be also addressed?
KB5000862: Setup Dynamic Update for Windows 10, version 2004 and 20H2: March 25, 2021 (microsoft.com...

Super Contributor

https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/deployment/update/media-dynamic-update

@Aaron_Lower

 

Thank you it was helpful!

But it would be great if WinRE was automatic just like restoring Android!

Good luck   

Frequent Contributor

@Aaron_Lower  as you have asked for feedback

my wishlist (remote-related):

 

  • Windows Inplace Upgrades using setup.exe should save the description into a variable and restore the description on successful upgrades
    • scenario: as Windows Insider, especially when you have a multi-boot system you need to restore the parameters like description and boot menu timeout default every week, for every single installation, every single week

        

  • Windows Server 2019 / 2022 should not use the legacy bootmenu [FEATURE REQUEST] Use bootmenupolicy standard for Windows Server vNext - Microsoft Tech Community
    • scenario: as above using Windows Insider Windows 10 and Server on one machine every upgrade of Windows Server will default the menu to legacy bootmenupolicy. it is not easy to revert this even there is a command

my wishlist (directly related to WinRE)

 

consolidation of options / tiles

 

 

I would like to see all the Advanced Options moved to the troubleshooting.
Why: there are only 2 options in Troubleshoot Reset this PC and again Advanced Options. There is plenty space on the screen.

UX: It would make it much more present to average users to find important steps like UEFI or uninstall updates. The ability to uninstall updates is "new" for sure but greatly unknown as the Advanced Options need 2 dives.
Would this be possible?

Additionally it would be then would then possible to rename the advanced options to "advanced startup options"

Is there a limit of tiles you are able to show on each page? I don't think that any screen resolution today would make this unfeasible, does it?

 

  • WiFi Support + WiFi Selection in WinRE
    • Usecase: make it possible access network locations in case you need to copy / backup files etc. David Segura (#OSDcloud) and also Macrium Reflect have made a great use of WinRE and WiFi
       
  • PowerShell 5.1 / 7 Support 

Usecase: currently we only have access to the cmd console with very limited commands

 


What do you think about the ideas?

WinRE issues: 

Sorry to say but Startup Repair is pretty much never helpful when you need it. It needs serious review, especially with modern GPT.

- especially It is not able to recovery issues with the "MBR" (" " because we have GPT now) while bootrec is able to recover it when doing it manually)
Use Bootrec.exe in the Windows RE to troubleshoot startup issues (microsoft.com)

- a corrupted BCD or missing entries cannot be fixed at all, even when though WinRE works fine. Interestingly 3rd Party Tools like Macrium Reflect fix these in seconds. I wonder why. 
If there are issue that prevent startup of Windows it is least likely something related to NTFS chkdsk (except the physical disk (HDD / SDD) has technical issues, but most of the time in the past 5 years it was something like missing bcd entries / bcd corruption or bootrec corruption.


On the article:
- another way to get into WinRE is to soft reset or turn off the PC / VM 2-3 times during boot. Not feasible is one can avoid it, can cause NTFS corruptions on drive C:. This also happens when auto restart for BSOD is configured (default)

K_Wester-Ebbinghaus_0-1621792124936.png

 

Super Contributor

@K_Wester-Ebbinghaus

 

Yes I agree with you you have to write the truth it is needed!

Frequent Contributor

Thank you for your praise @AndrzejX yet does this imply anyone post something untruth? I don't think so (I trust).

Super Contributor

There is simply an outdated approach to WinRE, and the system repair tool is often not effective worth mentioning to be sure in applying to critical actions that may fail!

Super Contributor

https://www.microsoft.com/store/productId/9N26S50LN705

 

I have installed this product on several computers and I wonder if it is worth installing on others?

Please describe your experience I'm curious! Zrzut ekranu 2021-05-26 172829.jpg

Senior Member

Thank you for your praise AndrzejX yet does this imply anyone post something untruth? I don't think so (I trust).

Hello, @K_Wester-Ebbinghaus. That is not what I inferred from AndrzejX's message. When somebody praises you for something, it doesn't mean you are the only one doing it. It just means what you did was praiseworthy.

Super Contributor

The_Smart_One

 

Thank you for the correct explanation!

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