So, your Windows  computer is totally hosed. Now what do you do?

With newer versions of Windows, you have plenty of options, some of which will (supposedly) preserve your precious data. (You do have a backup of your important data, don’t you? You don’t? You’re fired!)

It used to be that the only way to fix a badly screwed up Windows installation was a complete reinstall, which of course would erase your personal data and cause you to have to reinstall all your software and customizations all over again. Major headache. Sometimes that’s still the most expedient way to fix the problem, but other, less drastic measures can be tried first.

Let’s start with System restore, the oldest and probably most familiar of the repair options. Dating back to Windows millennium (ME),  this feature backs up critical system files and allows the user to “roll back” to a working condition. It sets restore “points” automatically at intervals, and also when updates and new programs are installed. It (usually) does not affect user files. It also sometimes doesn’t work, and is best for situations where you immediately notice something wrong, because it doesn’t save those system snapshots forever. Wait too long, and you can’t go back far enough to fix the problem.

To access system restore on Windows 7 and later, click the start button (or just type in Windows 8), type “restore,” and select “System Restore.” You’ll be presented with a series of dates and times you can restore your system to. Of course, all this assumes that you can still actually start the computer.

That’s where Startup Repair comes in. If your computer won’t start, and it’s not a hardware problem, Windows 7 and later includes a startup repair tool that examines the files responsible for starting Windows and attempts to repair them. This usually launches automatically when there’s a startup problem.

Windows 8 (Including 8.1) and 10 have a number of new options. There is still System Restore and Startup repair, but there are also these. Ranging from least to most drastic, they are:

  • Refresh: Try this first. This is the equivalent of what used to be called a “Repair Install.” It reinstalls Windows over the existing installation, without harming your personal files. This can cure many ills with Windows; It changes all settings back to the factory defaults, uninstalls any programs you’ve installed, keeps your Windows apps, and puts a list of the uninstalled programs on your desktop, so even though you may have to do some reinstalling, at least you’ve got a to-do list. This will take some time, typically 30 minutes, but could be longer. In some cases, Windows will ask for the installation media. If you don’t have this, we’ll discuss creating it next time.
  • Reset: If Refresh didn’t help. This is a destructive reinstall. It will delete all of your personal files! This option reinstalls Windows and returns it to it’s out – of – the – box state; In other words, it will be completely wiped clean. You’d better have a backup if you choose this route.
  • Go Back to Previous Build: Only applies if you’ve recently upgraded to Windows 10. You have 30 days to decide if you want to keep Windows 10. If not, you can roll back to the Windows 7 or 8.1 install you had before.
  • Recover: This is just like reset, except it reinstalls Windows from a flash drive you previously created. This is the only option if you had to replace the hard drive. We’ll talk about this next time.

Next time: Recovery Media

More Information on refresh and reset:

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