Three R’s for Troubleshooting a Machine Running Windows 10

By Woody Leonhard

When resuscitating a machine with Windows 10 gone bad, consider the three R’s — Remove, Refresh, and Restore. Two of them are readily available, but they make major changes to your machine. One’s not nearly so destructive, but it’s harder to understand and use.

Here are the three R’s that every Windows medic needs to know, starting with the most destructive:

  • Remove (some people call it, confusingly, Reset) removes everything on your PC and reinstalls Windows. Your programs, data, and settings all get wiped out — they’re irretrievably lost. This is the most drastic thing you can do with your computer, short of shooting it. (Did you see that viral video of the guy shooting his daughter’s laptop?) If you like, you can tell Remove to do a thorough reformatting of the hard drive, in which case, random patterns of data are written to the hard drive to make it almost impossible to retrieve anything you used to store on the disk.

  • Refresh keeps some Windows settings (accounts, passwords, the desktop, Microsoft Edge and IE favorites, wireless network settings, drive letter assignments, and BitLocker settings) and all personal data (in the User folder). It wipes out all programs and then restores the apps available in the Windows Store (primarily the tiled apps). This one’s pretty drastic too, but at least it keeps the data stored in the most common locations — Documents folder, the desktop, Downloads, and the like. And as an added bonus, the Refresh routine keeps a list of the apps it zapped and puts that list on your desktop, so you can look at it when your machine’s back to its chirpy self.

    If you’ve tried to bring back an older Windows machine from purgatory, in previous years, you may have encountered System Restore. In fact, System Restore still exists, but Microsoft really doesn’t want you to use it. Refresh is a combination of System Restore, safe mode, Recovery Console, and all sorts of minor earlier system recovery techniques, wrapped into one neat one-click bundle — with none of the hassles, but none of the old controls.

  • Restore ( “Rollback”) is very hard to find — Microsoft doesn’t want everyday users to find it — but it rolls Windows back to an earlier restore point. Restore/rollback doesn’t touch your data or programs; it simply rolls back the Registry to an earlier point in time. If your problems stem from a bad driver or a problematic program change you made recently, Restore/rollback may do all you need. If you’re familiar with Windows 7 or earlier versions, Windows 10 Restore/rollback is almost identical to Restore in the earlier version; you just access it a little differently.

    Why does Microsoft make it hard to find Restore? The logic goes something like this: If you don’t use Restore/rollback right, you can shoot your machine; in which case, you’ll bother the folks at Microsoft mercilessly and accuse them of all sorts of mean things. Even if you do use Restore right, it fixes only a small percentage of all Windows-breaking problems, so if you try Restore/rollback and it doesn’t work, you’ll also bother the folks at Microsoft mercilessly — a classic lose-lose situation for the company.

    Importantly, there’s nothing analogous to Restore/rollback with any competing operating system, tablet, or phone. The iPad doesn’t have anything that resembles Restore; Android tablets and phones aren’t in any shape to Restore; OS X wouldn’t know a Restore from a hole in the ground. In short, only Windows has a Registry, and Restore/rollback works almost exclusively on the Registry, so only Windows needs a Restore. There’s not much competitive benefit to offering Restore to the average Windows consumer — and lots of downside.

All three of these resuscitation methods play out in the Windows Recovery Environment (WRE), a special proto-Windows system. If you run Reset or Refresh, you won’t even know that WRE is at work behind the scenes, but it’s there.

When there’s trouble and Windows can’t boot normally, Windows instead boots into WRE, not into Windows itself. WRE has the special task of giving you advanced tools and options for fixing things that have gone bump in the night.

Remove, Refresh, and Restore/rollback — and several more (Recycle, Reuse, Reduce?) are available in WRE.