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What’s the Difference among Restore, System Repair, Recovery Mode, Refresh, and Restart?

Windows 8.1 has three very different technologies for pulling you out of a tough spot. You can liken them to the Wayback Machine, a brain transplant, and global thermonuclear war.

  • Like Rocky and Bullwinkle’s WABAC Machine (thank you, Mr. Peabody), setting and using restore points provide a relatively simple way to switch your PC’s internal settings to an earlier, and presumably happier state, should something go awry.

    Restore points aren’t intended to restore earlier versions of files that you work with — that’s the function of File History (sometimes called “the Windows version of the Mac’s Time Machine).

  • Sometimes, the problem doesn’t lie with the settings. Sometimes Windows system files get messed up (the technical term is “borked”). In those cases, Microsoft has a program called Refresh that scans and fixes all the system files, without changing your settings, removing any installed programs, or blasting your data.

    In previous versions of Windows, you may’ve used a System Repair disk, or booted into Safe Mode and hacked away at a cmd.exe command line, or used Recovery Mode from an installation DVD, or tried a dozen different incantations to bring Windows back from the dead. Those methods still work, by and large, but Microsoft has made it difficult to get them going and doesn’t recommend using them.

    Windows 8.1 Refresh works almost all the time. It’s light years ahead of System Repair, Safe Mode, and Recovery Mode, and should be your fixit method of first resort. If Refresh doesn’t work, you’re in a world of hurt. Search online for instructions on manually booting into Safe Mode and running a recovery. Good luck.

  • If a Refresh doesn’t work and you don’t mind losing all your data and installed programs, or if you want to wipe your computer clean before you sell it or give it away, the program you want to run is Reset.

Most of the time, you run a Restore when your computer starts acting flakey. You run a Reset to wipe the whole system when you’re going to sell your PC. But either or both — or using restore points — may be offered as options when your computer won’t boot right.

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