Windows 8 includes a Control Panel widget called “Create a recovery drive,” that you can use to create a USB flash drive to boot up and repair your system should anything go wrong with the boot or system partitions. And if your PC includes a custom-built recovery partition (something you’ll have at your disposal when the machine comes from an OEM, or the system builder has taken the trouble to build a recovery partition as part of the initial system install), you can even move it from its present location on the system/boot drive to the flash drive to free up space. This can be especially helpful on tablet, notebook, or other PCs with smaller (less than 256 GB) system/boot drives, where every GB of storage space really counts. A typical recovery partition might be as big as 10-15 GB: on a 64 or 128 GB SSD, that’s a significant amount of storage space.
Building such a recovery drive is very easy. Type “Create a recovery drive” in the Windows Start screen (Modern UI method) or into the search box in a Start menu replacement such as Start8 or Classic Shell, then follow the prompts as they appear. Depending on whether or not you have a recovery partition to transfer, the process takes as little time as under a minute (no recovery partition) to as long as 10 minutes (15 GB recovery partition) to complete. You’ll know what you’re up against depending on whether or not the checkbox and text that reads “Copy the recovery partition from the PC to the recovery drive” is available and in dark text, or unavailable in greyed-out text on the initial Recovery Drive screen as shown here:
I built one of my Windows 8 test machines from scratch, and installed Windows 8 over Windows 7 on the Lenovo X220 Tablet, so neither of those machines had a recovery partition for me to copy. However, after setting up a recovery drive for my desktop Windows 8 machine, I then turned to RecImgManager to create a refresh image for that machine on the same 32 GB flash drive where the initial recovery drive materials were deposited. Since the base level files consume only 223 MB of disk space (this proved to be the same for both desktop and notebook PCs, so I must believe that this holds true for all 64-bit Windows 8 PCs). The refresh image for my X220 Tablet is 8.5 GB, while the one for my i7 2600K desktop is 7.5 GB so you could easily use a 16 GB flash drive, instead of the 32 GB unit I employed for this maneuver.
The combination of the recovery drive functionality and a refresh image means you can start up Windows 8 from the USB flash drive, but some additional work is required to re-create a usable environment on a target PC. You must basically convert the .wim into an install image, so that you can then install that image to rebuild your machine. The good news is this custom install will include your drivers and applications; the bad news is, you must jump through a few hoops to make this happen. Fortunately, it is all nicely explained in a forum thread over on the Windows Eight Forums entitled “recover Windows 8 from a .wim file.” I’ll be fooling around with this in my spare time over the next week or two, and will report further as I learn more.
[Note: Although the recimg utility itself didn't help me troubleshoot this problem, I was able to Google my way into understanding that you cannot capture a refresh image onto an SD Card or a USB Flash drive. The utility insists on writing to a full-fledged disk of some kind (works with both SATA or other direct-attached SSDs or conventional drives, and with USB attached SSDs or conventional drives). I don't have any USB3 high-speed/high-capacity UFDs around right now, but I plan to try some out as soon as I can lay hands on one that's big enough -- 32 GB or better -- and affordable. This means you can still build the kind of Recovery UFD I'm talking about in this blog post, but you can't use that UFD as the target when recording the .wim image you'll convert to another form as described in the utilities mentioned in the Win8 Forums blog posts above. Again: more on this as I keep digging deeper.]