One of the big changes ushered in by Apple with OS X Lion was the form of delivery. Since Lion was initially only available as a digital download, users no longer had a physical disc if they wanted to do a reinstall of the OS. Although Lion does automatically create a recovery partition on your hard drive during installation, this isn't much help if the reason you want to do a reinstall in the first place is because the hard drive itself has failed. Apple has now provided a simple solution that lets Lion users create their own recovery disk - or rather, recovery USB drive.
While instructions from third parties on how to create a recovery DVD appeared on the Internet even before Lion's official release, Apple's solution is much simpler. Just head over to the Apple support site and download the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant, which is a download of just over one megabyte. Run the downloaded disk image and, after agreeing to the usual legal terms and conditions, you're presented with a display of currently connected USB drives. If you haven't already plugged in a USB drive with at least 1 GB of free space, you can do it now.
It's a good idea to use a dedicated thumb drive for the recovery drive as all data on the selected partition will be erased. Hit continue and after a couple of minutes you'll have your very own external Lion recovery USB drive. Don't worry when the drive disappears from the Finder as it is now invisible in both the Finder and Disk Utility.
By holding down the Option key after a reboot and selecting the Recovery HD from the Startup Manager you can now reinstall Lion, repair the hard drive using Disk Utility, restore from a Time Machine backup, or browse the web with Safari.
If the system used to create the recovery drive shipped with Lion already installed, the recovery drive will only work on that system. However, if the system was upgraded from Snow Leopard to Lion, the recovery drive can be used on other systems that also upgraded from Snow Leopard to Lion. Either way, with 4 GB USB thumb drives costing peanuts now days there's really no reason not to create your own recovery drive.
The announcement of the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant earlier this week is timely as a couple of days later it was revealed Apple would also start selling OS X Lion Recovery USB drives for US$69 in the near future. Unlike the US$29 Lion download from the App Store, which only works on Macs running Snow Leopard, the USB drives will also work on Macs running an older OS, provided they are compatible with Lion.