Time For The Windows RESET Button?

Category: Windows

A desperate AskBob reader says, “I’ve managed to mess up my Windows system to the point of no return. It seems hopeless, so now I just want to reset it to its factory-fresh condition and start all over. How do I do that?” Read on and I'll tell you how, and why you might NOT want to use the Nuclear Option...

How To Reset Your PC To Factory Defaults

Most Windows PCs can be restored to their fresh-out-of-the-box condition. The very rare exceptions are systems cobbled together in the basement of someone who takes shortcuts without regard for the long-term welfare of his customers. If you didn’t buy your system out of a car trunk in a Walmart parking lot, it’s safe to say you can restore it to factory defaults.

A properly configured Windows system contains a hidden, protected drive partition that holds an image of the factory-fresh system settings and Windows software. Restoring that image to the main drive partition resets your system to its factory-fresh condition. Windows includes a special software routine that does system resets automatically, eliminating human error. It’s that simple, in theory.

But think about what’s missing from a factory-fresh system: software you added, subscriptions or digital products you've paid for, files you've downloaded, irreplaceable documents, photos, videos, and more that you created or stored on that drive; all the settings that have been tweaked and tuned over the years to make your system “just right” for you.

Windows Factory Reset - Recovery Disk

In practice, you probably don’t want to lose everything that you have added to your hard drive since you acquired that system. That's why I call it the Nuclear Option. Before resetting to factory defaults, be sure to copy documents, photos, and anything else you want to keep to another location. That could be an external hard drive, a USB flash drive, or cloud storage. Popular cloud storage options are Google Drive, Microsoft's OneDrive, Apple iCloud, and Dropbox.

Another consideration, which looms larger the older your system is, is that of Windows Updates. The factory-default image file contains the version of Windows that was the latest as of the date Windows was installed on the hardware. That date may be months or years before the system was sold to you. You will need to spend many hours downloading and installing perhaps hundreds of Windows updates after resetting to factory defaults. You'll have an even harder task if you've upgraded from Windows 7 or 8 to Windows 10 or 11 since you purchase your computer.

But Wait, There's More... (a lot more)

A factory reset of your Windows computer is a drastic last resort. A better option in almost every case is to repair or optimize. See my articles Hacker Defense: Your SEVEN Point Tuneup and Free Hard Drive Tuneup Tools for some tips.

All of the third-party application software (paid or free) you now use will vanish when the system is reset. Be sure you have the CD or installation files for any apps that you want to re-install, and the license or registration keys if necessary. If the installation files you have are old, plan on spending time downloading and installing critical updates specific to that app. Don't forget that your printer and other peripherals will need to be reinstalled as well.

Once that's all done, you can restore your documents, photos and other personal files from the backup you made. Finally, redo all of the system settings to your liking. This includes your Windows theme, mouse settings, display settings, and any customizations or extensions you've applied to Windows Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Firefox, Chrome, Office and other software.

Hit The RESET Button?

If none of these caveats deter you, here is how to reset your Windows system to its factory defaults:

Windows 10 and 11 have a straightforward “reset” button.
On Windows 10 go to Start > Settings > Update & Security > Recovery > Reset this PC > Get Started. On Windows 11 go to Start > Settings > System > Recovery. Next to Reset this PC , select Reset PC. (You can also type "Reset this PC” in the Windows search box to get there.)

A new window will appear, offering options to “Keep my files” or “Remove everything.” The first option keeps your documents, images, etc. The second option removes them. Both options remove all installed software except Windows itself. The "Keep files" option, which gives you a fresh copy of the Windows operating system, minus the software (or malware) that was causing problems may be just the ticket.

If you're still using Windows 7, it does not have a “reset” button. Instead, you must re-install Windows manually. Typically, your Windows installation or recovery files will be on a CD that was supplied with your computer at the time of purchase, or you may have purchased a Windows installation CD. Insert the CD, restart your computer, and follow the instructions to begin the process.

On the Windows 10/11 Recovery screen (see above) there are some other options you may wish to explore. Among them are running a troubleshooter, restoring from a backup, going back to an earlier version of Windows, or starting fresh with a clean Windows installation.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, restoring your computer to "factory fresh" condition can involve a lot of work after the fact to get back to good, because all of your software, personal files and settings must be restored. I recommend it only as a last resort.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Time For The Windows RESET Button?"

Posted by:

Annamarie Bent
15 Dec 2023

Enough with all the !advertisement, I'm unable to see your normal site. I realize you need to make some money, but enough is enough!

Posted by:

15 Dec 2023

@Annamarie Bent - I'd suggest enabling the you-know-whats. And then disable 1 at a time to see how good or bad the experience is.

So, Bob, the reader says "the point of no return." If the reader has truly messed up that much, can the reader actually even access the system? I guess it comes down to how much of 'no return' is exaggeration versus just having some big problems. Your advice, though, is correct. It would be a real pain-in-the-blank to have to redo all the restores and configurations and updates.
Another option, though costly, would be to remove the hard drive and use the appropriate hardware so that you could mount it as an external usb hard drive on a newly-purchased system and copy said data files to the new system (yeah, that's the expensive part). Or restore from an local backup assuming the reader has such a backup or then from an online backup account (again, does the reader have one?). My assumption is that the operating system is all messed up, not that the actual C drive is kaput. If C is kaput, well, that's a horse of another color.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2023

You didn't mention the other alternative, to download the Media Creation Tool and have it download Windows to a flash drive. Then, boot from the flash drive and install the latest version of Windows, not the old factory version. This also doesn't install the bloatware from the factory. Of course, all of Bob's comments about saving personal files and re-installing added apps apply.

Posted by:

Veronica Kirk
16 Dec 2023

You can't overstate the hassles of restoring a computer to "factory fresh" condition. Hours and hours, too much cussing, and a few weeks later I'm still finding something not yet restored or not restored to my liking--I'm looking at you Adobe. On the plus side, my Carbonite subscription paid for itself and made it simple to restore files and such. Fortunately I run the free Belarc every month and that helped me identify what was on my desktop before the OS died.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
16 Dec 2023

Bob, you failed to mention that after pressing the "Reset" button, you get the choice of restoring from the local disk or the Internet. I always choose the Internet option because there is less of an uphill battle with updates, etc. that way.

My use-case is probably different from that of the average user. I use LibreOffice and a few other free applications, all of which I can download from the Internet. There are two programs I pay for (Macrium Reflect and Wi-Fi_Guard), and I have their activation keys stored in a note on my password manager's vault as well as in an encrypted, password protected 7-zip archive on an external local SSD drive. I do a lot of experimentation with my computers, both on Windows and my GNU/Linux OSes, so there have been times when I clobbered one or the other of my OSes and had to "restore" them. I also store all my files on OneDrive (for both OSes), one of which contains a list of the installed software on my system. This way I don't have to worry about losing anything if a drive crashes, or a system restore is required.

When it's Windows that needs restoration, I use the reset button, selecting the option to get the files from the Internet, and keeping nothing. Once I have my restored Windows system up and running, I run Windows Update, then I download Patch My PC (a software updater/installer I like). Patch My PC has an extensive list of free software from which I can choose, then have it quietly install everything I've selected (there are currently about eight apps in my installed software list for Windows) while I do other things. While I'm running Windows Update, then Patch My PC, I let Windows restore the custom settings it keeps in my Microsoft account, and I restore any apps I got from the Microsoft Store in the store app.

On my GNU/Linux OS, the process is even easier. I have a partition for my GNU/Linux system, and another for my user space (where my data and configuration files live). When I need to 'restore Linux', all I have to do is download the most current installation image and copy its contents to a USB stick, then reboot my computer from it and 'install' the OS again. When I reboot into the re-installed system, I run the update utility, then install any software that's not installed out of the box (usually only one or two programs). Because the configuration files for all the installed software I use lives in my user's space, everything is automatically configured the way I want it after I reinstall the system. If you ask me, Windows could learn a few lessons from GNU/Linux by getting rid of the registry and moving to a system space and a user space (each on its own partition), then maybe restoring Windows could be as straight forward and easy as it is on GNU/Linux.

I'm not saying a full, clean system restore is fast or painless, because I do spend a few hours getting everything back to how I want it, but it no longer takes me days or weeks to accomplish this task like it did with earlier Windows versions, and I no longer have to restore all my files from the most recent backup image I have on hand as I did back then. When I do something 'stupid' during an experiment that requires me to restore my system, I take notes to see if there is anything new I can do or change to make the process more organized and easier to accomplish.

The most important lessons I've learned over the years while puttering with my computers is that things break, usually without warning, and we all make mistakes or become inattentive, so things go wrong. Taking steps to prepare for disasters and mitigate their impact lessens the pain they can cause. If you don't already have a recovery plan in place, I suggest you develop one and get all the information you'll need gathered together in one place so you can find it when things go awry, because, sooner or later, they will.


Ernie (Oldster)

Posted by:

Harold A Chodnoff
16 Dec 2023

I have created a bootable restore thumb drive. If a system restore is ever required, should I use that only in the case when my system is unbootable? And would it be better to use Windows restore if I have access to it?


Posted by:

Ron Atkinson
18 Dec 2023

I did a system restore about 1 year ago to a 6 year old laptop. No problem reloading my saved bits and my anti virus etc. However, I completely forgot to save my Windows Office programme so that vanished. The speed of start up is now not far from that of a solid state drive so I'm well pleased at the outcome and there are several free alternatives to Windows Office so no problems. I know a professional IT bloke who restores his laptop once per month to keep it in good shape.

Posted by:

25 Dec 2023

Is this a good reason to just switch to Linux, get it over with, and stop all this windows nonsense?

Posted by:

26 Jan 2024

@ruth, yes! Try ZorinOS, just upgraded to 17 and looks and feels like what you are used to.
Ubuntu is liked by many.
Try dual booting or a Live cd/usb stick to see if you like it before installing anything. James

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