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HTG Explains: How System Restore Works in Windows

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System Restore is a Windows feature that can help fix some crashes and other computer problems. To know when to use it, you’ll have to understand just how System Restore works.

System Restore can’t solve every problem – for example, you can’t use it to restore your personal files if they’re accidentally deleted or modified. However, it’s another tool you can use when your computer isn’t working properly.

Restore Points

Windows automatically creates restore points once per week. System restore points are also created before major system events such as installing a program or device driver, installing a system update, or uninstalling some software. Windows also creates a restore point just before you restore from a restore point – this allows you to undo the restore operation.

Restore points contain a snapshot of Windows system files, program files, and registry settings. System Restore won’t restore your personal files, whether they’re documents, images, music, or anything else. Don’t count on System Restore to restore your personal files in case of emergency – it will only restore system files.

How System Restore Can Help

When you restore from a restore point, System Restore restores the system files, program files, and registry settings from the restore point to your computer. This effectively resets your system settings, installed programs, and system files to a previous state.

This is useful when an unexpected problem occurs. For example, if you install a device driver that makes your computer unstable, you’ll want to uninstall that driver. However, in some cases, the driver may not uninstall properly, or it may damage system files when you uninstall it. If you use System Restore and select a restore point that was created before you installed the driver, this can restore your system files to the previous state before any problem occurred.

For help using System Restore, check out our full walkthrough: Using System Restore to Recover your Windows 7 Computer

Potential Problems

A number of potential problems can occur with System Restore:

  • System Restore Can’t Replace Files – System Restore operates on critical system files, and they can’t always be replaced while the system is running – for example, an antivirus program may be interfering. If System Restore doesn’t work, you should try running it in Safe Mode – restart your computer, press F8 during the startup process, and select Safe Mode. Note that youcan’t undo the restore process if you use System Restore in Safe Mode.
  • Restore Points Contain Damaged Files — When you use System Restore, you should try to select a System Restore point that was created before the problem started occurring. Restore points created after the problem started will contain the corrupted files and won’t fix your problem. However, you can try another restore point if one doesn’t fix your problem
  • No Restore Points Help – If no restore point fixes your problem, you’ll need to find another solution. You can try booting from a Windows 7 disc and using the system repair options, restoring from a full backup, or doing a complete reinstall of Windows (or recovery from your computer’s repair partition) if nothing else helps.

Tweaking System Restore

While System Restore normally operates automatically in the background, you can create your own restore points whenever you like. You can also make System Restore use less drive space or delete old restore points to free up space.


System Restore isn’t a cure-all, but it can fix some problems. While you can disable it entirely, we don’t recommend this. If hard disk space is a concern for you, System Restore can be configured to use very little space on your drives.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 10/4/12

Comments (29)

  1. John

    All I could think after that…
    http://imgur.com/Q0Vmt

  2. Rosa

    I need to know how to creat a different earlier date than the system restore date. The date I want it to restore.

  3. raman

    Is there any limit to create restore points?

  4. Bruce

    And please folks, if you’re not already doing it, use a good disk imaging program too.
    Such as Acronis, or (free) Macrium Reflect.
    If System Restore doesn’t work, you can fix your computer in less than 2 hours no matter what is wrong, if you have a disk image that was made before the problem occurred.

  5. Bob

    Rosa, you can only restore to a system restore that already exists and you cannot create an older system restore than now. If you want to restore to a time before the oldest existing system restore then you are out of luck.

  6. Bob

    Bruce has very good advice there. Acronis has saved my rrrrrrss a few times and as he says it takes no time at all.

  7. r

    @ raman : in general, you are limited only in terms of drive space

    @Rosa : you can’t create earlier points than the present one, cuz we haven’t figured out time travel yet

  8. lifeinthemix

    you are all very naughty.

  9. soL

    @r

    LoL

  10. john senchak

    You certainly can’t do a system restore if your OS ends up getting a nasty malware and or
    scareware.

  11. sky

    Also, if there are too many restore points, take a look at CCleaner . . . in that app, there is an opportunity to selectively delete restore points.

  12. kenkimg

    System restore seems to exact a bit of an overhead in terms of disk space AND computer resources. Remember it has to work in the background, and therefore uses some of the system that would otherwise all be available for your computing.

    A much better solution (though it takes some personal discipline) is a periodic backup with a totally external utility (preferably based on a Linux kernal). As mentioned in a comment by “Bruce”, Acronis TruImage, or some other free alternatives, do very well. To help eliminate the potential roadblock of not being able to boot into Windows due to some catastrophe, i boot off of a CD (or thumbdrive) with a runtime version of TruImage, so i can avoid Windows entirely when restoring an image.

    But even with these precautions things can go south if u get complacent. Recently i discovered my most recent Acronis backup was “corrupt” (according to a message when trying to restore)–dead in the water. I had to go back 6 months to find a version that would restore. I got TOO confident in Acronis, and turned off the “Validate backup” feature because of the extra time it took. Believe me after that experience i turned Validate back on, and haven’t had a problem since.

    No backup methodology is foolproof, but i don’t have much confidence in Windows System Restore and contrary to the advice in this article have had it turned off for years (my computers seem “happier” without it). Validated external backups that don’t need Windows to restore seem about as safe as u can get, and help ensure maximum performance from your Windows computer.

  13. Fiddle

    @kenkimg Whilst nothing compares to a good backup, I think you are being too harsh on system Restore. Firstly, I don’t believe that System Restore doesn’t use much computer resources to be an annoyance. Secondly, on older computers the disk space may be an issue but on modern machines I don’t believe it is an issue. Lastly, despite the fact you have no confidence in System Restore, I can tell you that it does what it says on the tin. It has saved my ass so many times, and on certain occasions saved me from reinstalling Windows.

  14. Erwin

    Sounds like he doesn’t have much confidence in anything.

  15. pohsibkcir

    In all the years System Restore has been around, it has never worked once correctly an ANY computer I ever repaired and/or serviced. 95% of the time, needed software can be downloaded, if the user doesn’t get a disk of the application at time of purchase (I don’t but their disk. Rather, I just burn the download with all the purchase receipts and registration info to a CDR or DVDR for later use if necessary). For day-to-day file backup, you can use a CDR or DVDR as they are cheap (typically less than .25 cents each), or back them up to cloud storage. Both Google and Hotmail offers sizeable storage for free with SKYDRIVE and GOOGLE DRIVE.

    It is doubtful that Microsoft will make improvements with System Restore, possibly phasing it out altogether. I use imaging software and keep redundant backups of everything. The backup solution in Windows 7 Professional is great for that.

  16. kenkimg

    The one time i relied on System Restore to get my me back on track, was presented a message something like “…Windows is unable to restore your computer…” Tough to maintain confidence under those circumstances, sorry…

  17. paleolith

    I have found system restore to be unreliable. More often than not I get the message that system restore could not restore my files (even in safe mode).

    I always keep four or five image backups using two imaging software packages–Easeus and Paragon. Both of them have worked well for me; and they are both free. I also copy my first backup disk to my second backup disk using Freefilesync, I do this because all hard drives fail and I want a backup of my backup.

    If that fails I have to rely upon my recovery DVDs. Yes, I burned an extra copy in case the plastic fails on one set. Maybe I should burn a third copy?

  18. Don

    I know that a lot of people will tell you that System Restore is a waste of space and doesn’t help you. Don’t listen to them. This feature (yes, it is a WORKING feature) has saved the day approximately 80% of the time that I’ve had to use it. 4/5th’s of the time is a pretty good record if you ask me for a situation where someone doesn’t make regular backups of their system data.
    Now, of course, a true backup of your system is the best policy. But if that isn’t a viable option, make a system restore point every once in a while when everything seems to be working just right. It just may save your computing life.

  19. Kevalin

    I actually created a “basic” version of whatever computer I’ve just loaded–that is, I create an image of the OS with all the programs I basically use, less antivirus. Then I do weekly backups of all my files. That way, if I somehow trash my computer, I can restore it to its basic state, then restore the current set of files. So happens I’m using a free version of EaseUs ToDo Backup.

    It’s saved my tail (and a heck of a lot of time) a couple of times, now.

  20. Kevalin

    I actually create a “basic” version of whatever computer I’ve just loaded–that is, I create an image of the OS with all the programs I always load (Keyscrambler Premium, Office, Glary, etc.,) and the whatever latest drivers are out. The only thing I don’t add is antivirus; I do that manually.

    Then I do weekly backups of all my files using a free version of EaseUs ToDo Backup. That way, if I somehow trash my computer, I can restore it to its basic state, then restore the current set of files. I may have to update some drivers or versions of programs, but all in all, it saves me a lot of time.

    It’s also saved my tail a couple of times, now.

  21. gc

    Always great pc user info here!
    I’m glad this column exists, I should read it evry day, not twice a weeek- there’s so much to learn. The topics are always relevant, but the jwels are the responses..there’s a vast world of practical knowledge available here, an it’s always more directly applicable that anywhere else I go.
    I have a question: (I’m probably on a bus to Jersey while the tour group is on a private jet to Vegas by asking this, but here goes- why do we back up the registry? (I know that’s the nerve center of the machine) but why can’t we restore a pc from a registry backup file?

    thanks for writing, all

    gc

  22. Jaybee

    @gc — the system registry does not contain the files that it references. If you don’t back it up, however, it would have to be recreated by reinstalling all of those files.

    Restoring the registry without restoring the correct files would result in errors whenever there was a ‘disagreement’ between the registry information and the actual files on the system. It would be like restoring the card catalog of a library without checking that the books remained the same and in the same locations.

  23. caduser

    On 09/30/12, I re-formatted the HDD and re-installed Win XP Home Edition on a Compaq Presario SR12320M w/ 1GB RAM. Beginning yesterday, when I invoke System Restore, an empty box pops up with “System Restore” as the title.

    I have tried turning SR off and then back on to no avail. Any suggestions will be appreciated,

    TIA

  24. Shane Blignaut

    To all the System Restore Bashers here, I think you are missing a couple of things:

    1. System Restore is not a Migical wand that will fix any errors. Like the article stated – its more for a quick restore in case of sudden issues (like corrupt/incorrect drivers)

    2. Yes, very nice, use fancy pants cloning apps, but the problem is 99% of users DONT prepare for the worst – so in most cases you have to work with what you have. I was one of those idiots that usually diasbled system restore on all my clients’ machines. I soon realised my fault and to this day I still cringe at the thought of a disabled system restore.

    3. System restore works 90% of the time, provided you dont try and restore to 700BC. System restore works perfectly if you only restore to a couple of weeks or a month ago.

    System Restore FTW!

  25. Mark Hlady

    For earlier MS XP operating systems, you can download Lars Hederer’s, ERUNT, under Registry, at
    http://www.majorgeeks.com

    Then you can delete all but the last restore point, of those GB’s of old restore points, if you can find the “Options” tab when you DiscClean (Open My Computer, Right click on, Local Disk (ABCD:)?, Properties).
    It’s the first thing I install, after a new OS installation, and it let’s you set your own chosen, or daily restore points. Welcome to the time/space continuum. No, it won’t go back farther.
    To use: Open Run, type in C:/WINDOWS\ (scroll to ERDNT), add another \ , and scroll to desired restore point, OK!

  26. barry

    I create a system image using Windows tools have had no problem

  27. Dan

    Can I restore back to 1985 ?

  28. ron

    system restore has saved my computers viability at least 30 times..i am a comparative novice and was not wary of dodgy downloads..my browser was even reduced to the size of a postage ssonce……BEWARE OF WAJAM AND JONTOO…..ALWAYS READ THE SMALL PRINT WHEN DOWNLOADING don’t be mislead system restore is invalueable

  29. MILESCFA

    SR is a wonderful tool to save you if a just installed software/hardware/etc screws settings up or creates conflicts. And everyone should do regular backups and I strongly recommend creating AT LEAST one system image backup when you setup a new computer.

    BUT here’s my problem…. Windows SUCKS when you need to restore from backup, and here’s what I mean. I have 2 network drives, a Buffalo Linkstation and a Seagate Black Armor. The Buffalo Linkstation has gotten old and no longer has drivers using Buffalo’s backup software that work with Windows 7, so it only functions as a backup using Windows 7 internal backup feature…. but Windows 7 internal backup won’t save the network drivers so it can’t see the Linkstation to restore from backups saved to the Linkstation. Windows asks for a dvd with drivers be placed in the DVD drive. I am a “home geek” and never realized I’d need just those drivers, don’t have a DVD with them, and wouldn’t know all the proper files to have on the DVD in the first place. So Win7 backup is crap with my LinkStation.

    Seagate’s Black Armor at least has a bootable disk that can “see itself” on the network and do the restore from there, but managing the BA network drive is crap. And even though I swear I knew the password, I can’t unlock a lot of my backups.

    Ultimately you don’t know how good a backup is until you need it, so I ask, what s/w does everyone like for backing up – is EaseUs ToDo the choice? And does it handle (“see”) network locations OK (including other computers because I often store system images from one computer on another’s HDD)?

    I’ve just spent a “relatively” lot of money on solid state drives (SSD) only to discover they degrade with usage. They are wonderful for speedy backups (and presumably restores) as well as fast boot-ups, but now I’m thinking the best solution is to “throw” a regular HDD in the new PC for backups and old data that I don’t use often. This would mean Windows backup would always see the drive.

    Does anyone know if Windows ALWAYS sees USB3 EXTERNAL drives with “the driver problem” (this would be a “mobile backup” solution, which is what the network drives were “suppose to be”?

    Thoughts?

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