Windows computers are rarely quicker and easier to use than the day they ship from the factory. Over time, the accumulation of files, mis-configured settings, and other factors slows down performance, and impact programs. This may eventually leave you wishing you could turn back the clock. Fortunately, you can – and here’s how.
Back up your stuff!
Before you restore your system, you’ll want to backup important information that you don’t want to lose. This obviously includes documents, photos, music and movies. While you can backup these files manually, you may be better served by backup software that automates the process, reducing the room for error and saving you time.
There are other items to back up as well. Make sure that you know all of your saved passwords, have exported all of your browser bookmarks, and have installation files for all the software you’ll want to reinstall (or know where to get them). Also, make sure you back up app-specific data, like custom filters saved in a photo utility, or save files from your favorite games.
While you might be able to use the cloud for this, there’s a great chance that the volume of data will exceed the capacity of a free Google Drive (15GB) or DropBox (2GB) account. Budget for an external hard drive if you don’t have one. You can also use a non-OS internal drive if enough space is available. However, make sure you disconnect your backup drive before you actually perform the factory reset. The process shouldn’t delete data on a secondary drive, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Resetting Windows 10
Windows 10’s reset feature is found in the primary Settings menu. Click the Notifications icon on the taskbar or press the Win button + A. Click “All settings.” From this screen, click “Update & Security,” then click “Recovery.” “Reset this PC is what we’re looking for — “Advanced startup” is for modifying your computer on a deeper level or installing a completely different operating system, so leave it alone. Click “Get started.”
A new window will appear with two options, “Keep my files” and “Remove everything.” The descriptions are pretty self-explanatory: “Keep my files” will keep things like your saved documents, photos, and music files intact, while “Remove everything” will completely wipe everything except Windows 10 itself. Both options will delete any installed programs and reset all settings. Make your selection, then wait for your PC to get ready. If you chose “Keep my files,” skip the next paragraph.
If you chose “Remove everything,” you now have the option to “Just remove my files” or “Remove files and clean the drive.” The second option formats the drive itself, and it’s better if you’re planning on selling or giving away your computer. It takes much longer, so if you’re just resetting the PC for yourself, choose the first option. If your computer has multiple internal drives, you’ll also have the option to wipe only the primary drive (the one with Windows) or all the connected drives.
If you chose “Keep my files,” on the next screen the system will display a list of conventional programs installed on your computer (ones not installed from the Windows Store). This list will be saved to your desktop when you finish the recovery process. Click “Next.”
Click “Reset.” Your PC will reboot automatically and begin the reset process. This might take an hour or more, so if you’re using a laptop it’s a good idea to plug in the power cord. It may reboot itself several times. Wait for Windows to restart and begin the setup process, then enter your personal information, log in, and begin setting up your refreshed PC.
Resetting Windows 8 / 8.1
Windows 8 has two built-in reset options that can be accessed by opening the Charms bar, hitting “Change PC Settings,” and then visiting the Update and Recovery tab.
The first option is a refresh. Unlike a full restore or reinstall, a refresh keeps your personalized settings, and also any apps downloaded from the Windows Store. Everything else gets deleted and/or restored to its default setting. While this is not a full reset to factory settings, it’s pretty close, and may solve performance problems with less inconvenience.
Performing the refresh is very simple. Just click the Get Started button under the Refresh heading in the Update and Recovery tab, and you’ll enter a wizard that guides you through the process, which is surprisingly quick. You do need an active Windows Recovery Partition for a refresh to work, but most systems come with one enabled from the factory. If you don’t have a recovery partition, you will need installation media (a disc or USB with a Windows installer on it).
Your second option is the reset, which is also under the Update and Recovery tab, and is listed under “Remove everything and reinstall Windows.” A reset gets rid of all your settings, files and apps, restoring Windows 8 to its out-of-the-box defaults. Once again, you’ll either need a recovery partition, or installation media to complete the process.
If you don’t have a recovery partition or installation media, you can create an installation drive as long as you have a valid product key, and a USB drive. Go to Microsoft’s “upgrade with only a product key” support page, and follow the instructions to grab a Windows 8 or 8.1 installer. Then, use the installer to “install by creating media” when the wizard finishes downloading Windows, and provides you with installation options. Select your USB drive as the install location.
Now you have a drive that can be used to install Windows 8 or 8.1. Note, however, that resorting to this measure won’t allow for the re-installation of apps that came bundled on your system. Those will only be available if you reinstall from a recovery partition, or use install media provided by the system’s manufacturer.
Check out our Windows 8 re-install guide for more information on how to install the operating system.
Windows Vista / Windows 7
Windows Vista and its successor, Windows 7, do not have the built-in refresh and reset options found in Windows 8 / 8.1. Users with these operating systems have two choices when looking to perform a factory reset.
The first is to re-install Windows from scratch, which isn’t a factory reset at all, unless you have all the original, factory-provided install media available. Still, if you want to wipe your computer completely clean and start from scratch, this is probably your best option. You can reinstall by opening Recovery (do a Windows search for it), selecting Advanced Recovery Options, and then selecting Reinstall Windows. Check out our Windows 7 reinstall guide for more (the steps within it are largely applicable to Vista, as well).
Your second option is to use a manufacturer-provided recovery tool and factory provided recovery partition. Here are common names for recovery software from each major PC manufacturer. Entering these terms into Windows’ desktop search tool can help you find them.
- Acer: Acer eRecovery or Acer Recovery Management
- ASUS: ASUS Recovery Partition or AI Recovery
- Dell: Dell Factory Image Restore, DataSafe, Dell Backup & Recovery, and a variety of other names
- Gateway: Gateway Recovery Management
- HP: HP System Recovery or Recovery Manager
- Lenovo: Rescue and Recovery ,or ThinkVantage Recovery (on ThinkPads)
- Sony: Sony Vaio Recovery Wizard
You can also access recovery from outside Windows, which is useful if you can’t find the software, or if Windows won’t load. To do this, reboot your computer, and pay close attention to the boot screen that appears before Windows loads. Keep an eye out for a shortcut key that brings you to the recovery interface. In most cases, the key will be F11.
Note, though, that you do need a recovery partition for these methods to work. If you don’t have one, your only option will be to perform a full reinstall of Windows.
You may think that you’re done after you perform your factory reset, and in a general sense that’s true. Your computer may work very well in its factory state. However, most systems are improved over time by new hardware drivers, which you may have had installed on your system. They’ll now be gone and, in some cases, certain hardware may not work at all until the appropriate driver is installed.
You can often download these drivers by visiting the system manufacturer’s support page, and searching for your specific system. This is where you’re most likely to find motherboard and adapter drivers, as well as drivers relating to specific system functions (controlling display brightness via keyboard shortcut on a laptop, for example).
If you have a discrete graphics card, you’ll also want to visit AMD or Nvidia’s website (depending on who made your GPU) and download new drivers. These usually aren’t posted on manufacturer support pages.
Finally, install the drivers for any peripherals you use with your system. These will not be installed, since they didn’t ship from the factory with your PC.
This is everything you need to know about restoring Windows to its factory settings. Hopefully, the process has improved performance and de-cluttered your drive. If you’re still having problems, it may be because of faulty hardware or, if you system is getting on in years, you may need to upgrade or replace it entirely.