Windows has a number of recovery features to get up and running again quickly after a problem occurs.  These simple tools are easy for anyone to use, and are a good first step to try before taking your computer in for professional service.Some of these recovery features are more advanced than others, so be sure to read the impacts carefully.

If your computer is just sluggish and slow, but doesn’t have serious problems, start with my earlier post Fix a Slow PC first.  These steps outlined here are for more difficult errors that are caused by bad installations, faulty drivers, or other failures.

Option One: System Restore (safest, try this first)

If the problem just began recently, you can restore Windows back to an earlier time, called a restore point. This restores backups of your registry and system settings, but doesn’t touch any of your files. It only takes a couple of minutes, and you can undo the process or try another date if it doesn’t fix the problem on the first try. When you aren’t sure where to go, this is by far the safest, fastest, and easiest option to try first.  This works best if you use it immediately after a problem shows up.  Waiting more than a week or two means the good backups can be too outdated to use.

  1. Press +R to show the Run box, type RSTRUI and click OK.
  2. Choose a date when the computer was working correctly, and click Next to restore the system files from that date.
  3. Check to see if the problem is fixed. If not, you can go back to step 1 to either undo the restore process, or try another date.
Image of System Restore
System Restore can undo recent changes to the system, without affecting your personal files.

If you can’t login, or can’t use the Restore app, you can reach it from Safe Mode instead. However, restores performed in safe mode can’t be undone and I recommend against it if possible, because this strays from the “easy to undo” appeal of this simple option.


Option 2: Create a new profile

Because profiles are separated from each other and the system, creating a new profile on your computer can help troubleshoot and resolve issues. Many times an issue in a profile can be resolved by creating a new one. It takes a little time to set up your preferences and drag your files to the new profile, but it can save many hours of headache. As with the System Restore, this is a “safe option”, because no files will be lost if you try this.

  1. Open the Control Panel or Settings app, go to Accounts and under Other Accounts you can add an account.
    • If you’re using Windows 8, choose “Sign in without a Microsoft Account” and create a Local Account.
    • If you’re using Windows 10, choose “this person doesn’t have an email” and then “Sign in without a Microsoft Account”.
  2. Login to the new account and see if the issue is fixed. If so, you can open the C:\Users folder and drag your files into the new profile. Although there’s no rush to do it, later you can delete the broken account.


Option 3: PC Refresh (keeps your files, but reinstall Windows)

Windows 8+ only.  If your PC isn’t performing as well as it once did, and you don’t know why, you can refresh your PC without deleting any of your personal files or changing your settings. All your personal files and settings will be kept, but any programs you installed yourself from CD’s or websites (like Firefox, Office, games, etc.) will be removed and you’ll have to download them again on your own.

  • Open the PC Settings app, go to Update and Recovery, then choose “Get Started” for the refresh.


Option 4: PC Reset (a full factory reset — everything will be removed)

Windows 8+ only.  If you want to recycle your PC, give it away, or start over with it, you can reset it completely.

  • Open the PC Settings app, go to Update and Recovery, then choose “Get Started” for the reset.

If you cannot login, or can’t open the PC Settings app to use these last two options, you can reach these options from Safe Mode instead. On the login screen, click the Power icon, then hold down SHIFT on the keyboard while you click Restart. Keep holding shift until the next screen appears.

These last two options require that the factory installation files are available on your computer.  Most computers don’t come with a recovery CD anymore, it’s just built in to the computer on the hard drive.  Every computer manufacturer has different ways of accessing it (usually it’s pressing a special key when you start the computer, but my Sony computer has a special pin-hole to press with a paperclip to start the recovery process). If it’s not built in, and you can’t use the Refresh/Reset options above because you don’t have the media, you’ll have to call your computer manufacturer to request a recovery CD/drive be sent to you.  Some companies charge for this, but I had great luck with Dell, who shipped me a recovery CD by FedEx overnight delivery.

Before resorting to these steps, it’s always a good idea to try general troubleshooting (including a simple reboot), or search the web for your problem. The steps outlined here should not be taken as the only methods to recover from issues that arise, but are great when all other troubleshooting has not been fruitful or when you don’t have the patience for days (weeks) of painstakingly researching problems.