How to Use Windows 10's System Recovery Options

Windows 10's recovery options help you easily reset your PC

Recovery options Windows 10 AU
The recovery options for Windows 10 (Anniversary Update).

Hardcore Windows users often give their PCs a refresh to improve system performance by reinstalling Windows. Before Windows 8, this was always done with recovery media on a DVD or USB drive, or a small recovery partition that the computer manufacturer included on the PC's hard drive.

The process was fairly complicated and time consuming. For that reason it was always left in the domain of the power user even though many PCs would benefit from the occasional reset.

With Windows 8, Microsoft finally embraced the trend of PC refreshes, and introduced a formal, easy-to-use procedure to refresh or reset your PC. Microsoft continues to offer those utilities in Windows 10, but the process and options are slightly different compared to its predecessor.

Here's a look at the reset process for Windows 10 PCs running the Anniversary Update.

Why take such drastic measures?

Giving your PC a fresh start isn't just for when your PC isn't running well. Sometimes a virus can trash your whole system. When that happens your PC is really only recoverable after a complete re-installation of Windows.

An official upgrade to Windows 10 that doesn't play well with your system can also be a problem. Problematic updates in Windows are nothing new; however, since Windows 10 updates are pretty much mandatory there's a potential for small problems to become widespread more quickly since many people are updating around the same time.

Reset this PC

We'll start with the easiest process, which is resetting your PC. In Windows 8, Microsoft offered you two options: refresh and reset. Refresh was what you'd do to reinstall Windows without losing any of our personal files. Reset, meanwhile, was a clean installation where everything on the hard drive would be wiped out with a pristine version of Windows remaining.

In Windows 10, the options have simplified a little bit. In this version of Windows "reset" means reinstalling Windows with or without wiping out everything, while the term "refresh" is no longer used.

To reset your PC click on the Start menu, and then select the settings cog icon to open the Settings app. Next, click on Update & security >Recovery.

At the top of the next screen there's an option labeled "Reset this PC." Under that heading click Get started. A pop-up window will appear with two options: Keep my files or Remove everything. Choose the option that's most appropriate and continue.

Next, Windows will take a few moments to prepare and present one final summary screen explaining what will happen. In the case of Keep my files, for example, the screen will say that all apps and desktop programs that aren't part of the standard installation for Windows 10 will be erased. All settings will also be changed back to their defaults, Windows 10 will be reinstalled, and all personal files will be removed. To continue click Reset and the process will start.

Bad build

When a new build of Windows rolls out (this means a major update) it can sometimes wreak havoc on a small number of systems.

If this happens to you Microsoft has a fall back plan: rolling back to the earlier build of Windows. Microsoft used to give users 30 days to downgrade, but beginning with the Anniversary Update that time limit has been reduced to just 10 days.

That's not a ton of time to downgrade a system, but for a Windows PC that sees daily use it's enough time to discover if something's wrong and roll back. There are many reasons for upgrade problems. Sometimes a specific system configuration (a combination of various computer components) causes a bug that Microsoft didn't catch in its testing phase. There's also a chance that a key system component needs a driver update, or the driver was buggy upon release.

Whatever the reason, rolling back is simple. Once again go to Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery. This time look for the "Go back to an earlier build" sub-heading and then click Get started.

Windows will take a few moments to "get things ready" once again, and then a survey screen will pop-up asking why you are rolling back to the earlier version of Windows. There are several common options to choose from such as your apps and devices aren't working, earlier builds were more reliable, and an "other reason" box--there's also a text entry box to provide Microsoft with a fuller explanation of your problems.

Choose the appropriate option and then click Next.

Now here's the thing. Microsoft really doesn't want anyone to downgrade since the whole point of Windows 10 is to have as many PC users as possible on the same build of Windows. For that reason, Windows 10 will bother you with a few more screens. First, it will ask if you want to check for updates before downgrading since that might fix the problem. It's always worth trying that option unless there are special circumstances such as being on day nine of the rollback window and not wanting to risk losing downgrade rights. If you want to see if any updates are available click Check for updates otherwise click No thanks.

Just as with the reset option, there is one last summary screen detailing what will happen. Basically Windows warns that this is like reinstalling Windows and will take some a while to complete during which time the PC will not be usable.

Rolling back to an earlier build of Windows can also wipe out some Windows Store apps and desktop programs, and any system settings changes will be lost.

Windows will also admonish you to back up your personal files before downgrading. Personal files shouldn't be wiped out during a downgrade, but sometimes things go wrong. Thus it's always a good idea to back-up personal files before any major system software change.

Once you're ready to go click Next. One last screen warns you that any password changes you've made since the upgrade will also be rolled back so be sure to have any previous passwords at the ready or risk getting locked out of your PC. Click Next again, and there will be one last screen where you click Go back to earlier build. The re-installation process will then begin, finally.

It's a lot of clicking, but rolling back to an older version of Windows is still relatively simple (if mildly annoying) and mostly automated.

Uninstall a smaller update

This feature isn't quite the same as the reset options in Windows 10, but it is related. Sometimes problems begin on a system after one of Microsoft's small, regular updates is installed. 

When these updates cause problems you can uninstall them by going to Start > Settings > Update & security > Windows Update. At the top of the window click the blue Update history link, and then on the next screen click another blue link labeled Uninstall updates.

This opens a control panel window with all your recent updates listed. Click on the most recent ones (they usually have a "KB number"), and then click Uninstall at the top of the list.

That will uninstall the update, but unfortunately based on how Windows 10 updates work the problematic update will try to reinstall itself pretty soon thereafter. That's definitely not what you want. To overcome this problem, download Microsoft's troubleshooter for hiding updates to prevent the update from installing automatically.

Advanced moves

There's one final option under Settings > Update & security > Recovery that's worth knowing about called "Advanced startup." This is how you can start the traditional method of re-installing Windows using a DVD or USB drive. Unless you purchased Windows 10 at a retail store, you'll have to create your own installation media using Microsoft's Windows 10 media creation tool.

Once you have installation media ready to go and inserted into your system, click Restart now. You'll then land on the usual Windows installation screens when installing from a DVD or USB drive.

Really, you should only need the advanced option if other methods of resetting or reinstalling Windows 10 fail. It's rare, but there may be situations where the reset option doesn't work or the rollback option is no longer available. That's when reinstalling from a USB can come in handy; however, keep in mind that if you're creating fresh Windows 10 installation media from Microsoft's website it will likely be the same build as the one you've got installed. That said, sometimes reinstalling the same version of Windows from a fresh install disc can fix the problem. 

Final thoughts

Using Windows 10's recovery options are handy when your PC is in a dire situation, but it's also quite a drastic solution. Before trying a reset or rolling back to a previous build, do some basic troubleshooting.

Does rebooting your PC fix the problem, for example? Did you install any new programs or apps recently? Try uninstalling them. It's surprising how often a third-party program can be at the root of your issue. Finally, check to see if all your component drivers are up to date, and check for any new system updates that might fix the problem via Windows Update.

You'd be surprised how many times a simple reboot or an update can fix what seems like a catastrophic issue. If basic troubleshooting doesn't work, however, there's always the Windows 10 reset option ready and waiting.

Updated by Ian Paul.

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