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Returning to happier times with System Restore

Ever dragged yourself into bed after a particularly disastrous day, wishing you could wake up the next morning and find everything back to normal?

Although things usually remain the same when we wake up, that doesn’t have to be the case with Windows and its built-in System Restore feature.

System Restore (built into Windows Me, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7) provides you with an easy way to bring peace back into a troubled computer. Every so often, the System Restore program takes a “snapshot” of Windows’ key internal settings and saves them by date, known as a “Restore Point”. When Windows is behaving badly on your system, call up System Restore, and tell it to return to a Restore Point when everything was working correctly.

Windows quickly loads the settings it used on that Restore Point’s date, and when Windows restarts, it works just as well as it did on that day in the past.

If you choose a Restore Point that somehow makes things even worse than they were, head back to System Restore and chose Undo my last restoration. System Restore promptly discards those settings, restarts, and lets you choose a different Restore Point.

Since everything System Restore does is reversible, there’s rarely much to lose in giving it a try. At this article’s end, I describe how to use System Restore for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8. But first, here are a few tips for using System Restore to its full potential.

Making your own Restore Points

System Restore normally takes a snapshot of your computer’s settings on a daily or weekly basis. It often usually takes another automatic snapshot when you install a new computer part – just in case the newcomer causes problems. But Windows simply slaps the date onto these Restore Points. How can you remember which Restore Point to use? For better control over your Restore Points, feel free to create your own Restore Points when everything’s running smoothly: Just call up System Restore and choose Create a restore point.

Windows will ask you to describe your new Restore Point. The description is just something to help you remember why you made the Restore Point. Type something like, “Created just before installing the Eggplant Toss game.” That way, if the Eggplant Toss game messes up your computer, you know which Restore Point will bring the computer back to sanity. (The Restore Points that Windows creates automatically have the boring, non-descript name “System Checkpoint.”)

You don’t need to include the date in your description, as Windows automatically gives each one a date stamp. But when you create your own Restore Point with a descriptive name, you’ll know immediately which one to try first should things go bad.

Tip: Be sure to create a new Restore Point every few weeks when things are going well. That ensures you’ll find a recent working Restore Point in times of need.

Understanding what System Restore does and doesn’t do

System Restore won’t delete any of your letters, e-mails, or other data files, thank goodness. The files you created yesterday will still be there, even if you use a Restore Point from last month.

Since System Restore only deals with Windows’ settings, it only helps with Windows itself. It can’t help you locate deleted e-mails or recover deleted files that are no longer in the Recycle Bin.

Using System Restore to “go back in time” won’t disinfect your computer of a newly acquired virus, unfortunately.

If you use a Restore Point from two weeks ago, then any programs installed since then might not work. Programs often alter Windows’ settings as a way of introducing themselves to your computer. When Windows “wakes up” with settings from two weeks ago, it won’t remember that those programs have been installed. You’ll probably have to reinstall them.

System Restore normally takes a “snapshot” of your computer’s most treasured settings every day. However, storing all these settings consumes considerable amounts of space. If the available hard disk space on your C drive runs lower than 200MB, System Restore stops working until you clear off more space for it to store its settings.

Also, since System Restore has a limited amount of storage space, it deletes its oldest Restore Points to make room for the newest. That means your “window” of available Restore Points might be as little as two weeks into the past.

System Restore Tips

When you find yourself humming a happy tune while computing, don’t hesitate to create a Restore Point. Just think how happy you’ll be down the road if you can return your sick computer to that happy state.

  • Make it a habit to create your own Restore Points before you do anything that will change your computer’s settings: Installing a new computer part, like a scanner, or adding new software. The important thing is to create the Restore Point before you make the changes. That gives Windows something to return to if the changes mess things up.
  • When Windows is first installed onto your computer, it reserves about 12 percent of your available disk space for System Restore to use. That’s usually enough to extend about one month into the past. (Your mileage may vary, depending on the size of your hard disk and how much computing you do.
  • If your anti-virus program just disinfected your computer of a nasty virus, then quickly use System Restore to create a Restore Point called “Disinfected Computer.” Then, never use any Restore Points dated earlier than your newly created “Disinfected Computer” Restore Point. Those older Restore Points might return your computer back to a time when it was infected. (Also, if your anti-virus program discovers an infected Restore Point, you’ll need to delete that Restore Point manually; the anti-virus program usually can’t do it. You’ll find detailed instructions at the end of this page.)

The moral? If everything’s going along smoothly as you’re reading this, perhaps it’s time to create a Restore Point.

Here’s how to manually remove Restore Points that might contain a virus; follow the steps that apply to your operating system:

Windows XP

  1. Click Start, and then right-click My Computer.
  2. Click Properties.
  3. Click the System Restore tab.
  4. Check Turn off System Restore.
  5. Click Apply, and then click OK.
  6. Restart the computer.
  7. Download the latest virus definitions from your AntiVirus program’s Web site.
  8. Make sure to scan all files and all drives on your computer, then do a full scan.
  9. After cleaning the infected files, repeat steps 1 through 6, except in step 4, uncheck Turn Off System Restore.

Windows Vista

  1. Click Start, and then right-click Computer and choose Properties.
  2. From the left pane, choose System Protection.
  3. Remove the checkmark from your C: drive.
  4. Click Apply, and then click OK.
  5. Restart the computer.
  6. Download the latest virus definitions from your Antivirus program’s Web site.
  7. Make sure to scan all files and all drives on your computer, then do a full scan.
  8. After cleaning the infected files, repeat Steps 1 through 3, but click to add the checkmark next to your C: drive.
  9. Click the OK button.

Windows 7

  1. Click Start, right-click Computer, and choose Properties.
  2. Choose System Protection from the task pane along the left.
  3. In the Protection Settings area, click the drive called (C:) (System), and click Configure.
  4. Click the Delete button, then click Continue.
  5. Click OK to close the window.
  6. After updating your antivirus program with the latest virus definitions, scan and disinfect your entire computer.

Windows 8

  1. Swipe in from the right edge of the screen, and then tap Search. (If you’re using a mouse, point to the upper-right corner of the screen, move the mouse pointer down, and then click Search.)
  2. Type the word Recovery into the search box, tap or click Settings, and then tap or click Recovery.
  3. Tap or click Open System Restore, and follow the prompts.

Windows RT

Windows RT doesn’t include the System Restore program. Instead, Windows RT owners are limited to the Refresh Your PC” and “Remove Everything.”

No antivirus program? Microsoft offers a free antivirus program called Microsoft Security Essentials.


Comment from Dave
Time June 3, 2010 at 10:19 am

Thank goodness you exist and thank goodness I happened, by chance, to read this article this morning!

Trying to find my clipboard executable file, I Googled it and found your blog which answered that particular question. Either this article, System Restore, was listed in the right column of that “clipboard article” or I visited your home page after reading the “clipboard article” and saw it listed there. Regardless, I read this article about System Restore and decided, for grins-n-giggles, to create one of my own as an experiment–I’ve never explored the System Restore feature before. Well! As luck would have it …

I’ve been having problems with my AVG 8.5.437 Web Shield (driver not found) and Firewall (driver not found) for about a year, now, and decided to fix it this morning. Visiting AVG’s site and FOLLOWING THEIR INSTRUCTIONS, I ran “netsh winsock reset catalog” in my Start-Run window to repair AVG. Holy ca-ca, Batman! My system was nearly destroyed! Due to AVG’s “repair”, my system would take 2-to-5 minutes before acting on each and every mouse click! I became frantic! I have an excellent computer and a broadband Internet connection; I’m not used to any response exceeding more than a few milliseconds. The process I experienced was agonizing, to say the least. It felt like an eternity between each mouse click and, being impatient (or unaccustomed to lengthy response times), clicked several choices during the wait periods which only nullified the “first” click and slowed me down that much more. I was forced to wait MINUTES before each, successive mouse click.

Remembering that I had, within the last 90 minutes or so, read your article and created a current Restore Point, I browsed to System Restore to attempt a come back with my Restore Point; it only took me 8:37 minutes (I timed it with the second hand of my pocket watch) to reach that executable file from the Start button of my Windows XP–normally, it would have taken ummmm about 1.2 seconds. That 8:37 minutes was a lo-o-o-o-o-ong time to wait. I followed the directions in the System Restore window, crossed the index and middle fingers of both hands, and marched off to the kitchen to drown my worries in a bowl of cereal and milk.

When I came back, my computer had rebooted and my screen reflected the password entry window; I followed my usual routine in split-second fashion. Everything works great! Sunshine, rainbows, pretty flowers in the field, and butterflies abound. Whew! Thank you so-o-o-o much!

Now, I’m gonna’ write AVG! And it ain’t gonna’ be “purty”!

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time June 4, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Glad to hear everything worked out okay for you, Dave! If you’re fed up with AVG, you might try Microsoft’s free Security Essentials program, instead.

Comment from Dave
Time June 5, 2010 at 11:23 am

Thanks, Andy. I just opened up the link you provided into another window and will go there now to read up on WFSEP.

Again, thanks a million!

Comment from Debbie
Time June 22, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I need to do a system restore back to June 18, 2010, but I do not have those system restore dates. Only todays date. I used it and now my PC thinks it is brand new and I have lost everything. HELP!!! How can I go back to June 18, 2010, even if that date is grayed out on the System Restore calendar? Is there a way to fake it?

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time June 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Debbie, you can only choose from listed Restore Points. There’s no way to choose any other dates. If your PC now thinks that it’s brand new, and you’ve lost everything, it sounds like you used a System Recovery disk, instead. Once you use a System Recovery disk, you’ve lost everything. I hope you backed up your files. If not, your only option is to take your computer to a data recovery service.

Comment from Ross
Time June 30, 2010 at 10:21 am

trying system restore to enable my accelerator which decided not to regognize my logon. Have picked 2 highlighted restore points separately and both times a message came back that no changes were made. suggestions? thank you.

Comment from Andy Rathbone
Time June 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

Ross, sometimes an antivirus program like Norton can cause this. Here’s how to temporarily disable Norton’s antivirus so System Restore can work.

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