Turn back time on your PC

Undo system changes with System Restore

By Andy Sweet

A lot of folks who use computers aren’t experts and don’t want to be. Does this sound like you? You don’t adjust the timing belt or change the spark plugs in your car—you take it to a mechanic. Why should your PC be any different, you wonder? You think you’ll spend five minutes on a computer problem, and three hours later, you still aren’t any closer to fixing the problem. You might not even know what the problem is yet!

Rather than trying to become a PC mechanic overnight, there’s a simpler way to fix the engine and get back on the road—one that can save both your time and your sanity. Better yet, it’s one of the easiest tools to use and is already included in Windows Vista—it’s called System Restore.

Picture of the Start menu showing the System Tools folder and System Restore
You can find System Restore in the Accessories folder under System Tools

Get back

System Restore is like a big “Undo” button for Windows. It lets you undo changes to your computer’s operating system and programs without affecting personal files such as documents or photos. It’s a great solution if a program you downloaded or installed doesn’t work right, and you can’t seem to uninstall it or get back to where you were before.

It’s saved my hide on numerous occasions, quickly and without fuss. I’ve used it most after installing something—a driver that I thought would work for an old monitor; a game from 1998 that I found in the bottom of a drawer; or a shareware program that looked interesting but wreaked havoc on my system and didn't want to uninstall.

I’ve also gotten into trouble when playing around with a configuration setting that I unintentionally saved. Boom—all of a sudden my icons are huge, or missing, or the screen starts acting funny, and I’m not sure what I did or how to undo it. Uh-oh. Time to run System Restore.

Bending the laws of space and time

Well, you’re not really going back through time—it’s much simpler than that. System Restore routinely creates restore points that contain information about the state of Windows Vista at a given time. System Restore is set up to create a restore point every day, and it also creates them when you are doing other system-related tasks that System Restore looks for, such as installing new programs.

Restore points give you a point in time to return to if a problem occurs. As part of a restore, System Restore removes programs and system files, and undoes other system changes that were made between now and the date you’re rolling back to.

You can even create restore points yourself (for example, before changing a configuration setting), so you can get back to normal if necessary.

Picture of the System Protection tab of System in Control Panel
You can create a restore point at any time by using System in Control Panel

Easy to use

Using System Restore is painless—just click the Start button Picture of the Start button, type System Restore in the Search box, and then click System Restore (type your password or provide confirmation if prompted). Then follow the steps in the wizard.

System Restore might suggest a recent restore point—the idea is to not go back in time any more than necessary.

Picture of System Restore showing a recommended restore point
System Restore suggests a recent restore point, but you can also choose your own

If you don’t like the suggested restore point, you can choose from a list of available restore points.

Picture of System Restore showing a list of restore points
System Restore saves multiple restore points that you can choose from

After you select a restore point, System Restore will chug a bit and then restart your computer to finish the job. Don’t unplug your computer during the restore or attempt to cancel it after you start the restore—that could cause even more problems. After your computer restarts, you’ll see a notification stating that System Restore has restored your computer to the date and time you chose. Log on with your user name and password (the one from the time you restored back to, if you changed it recently), and you’re back in business.

It won't make me a sandwich?

System Restore can fix many problems, but it’s not designed to do everything. It won’t fix a slow download speed, for example. But it’s a great tool to turn to when everything else you’ve tried hasn’t worked. Here are a few important things to know about System Restore:

  • It can’t fix hardware problems. If your CD player is stuck, or a sound card has a loose connection, you’ll have to try something else.

  • It doesn’t recover deleted personal files. If you deleted a file and now want it back, check the Recycle Bin or recover the file from a backup that you previously made.

  • System Restore uses a percentage of your hard disk storage space for restore points, and periodically deletes old ones to make room for new ones, so the number of available restore points will vary.

  • If you have a multiboot configuration with, for example, Windows Vista and Windows XP, you will lose all of your existing Windows Vista restore points when you start Windows XP. Windows Vista uses a new implementation of System Restore and earlier versions of Windows don’t recognize the new restore points. When you start Windows Vista again, new restore points will resume being created automatically.

  • If you write your own code, know that scripts, batch files, and .exe files are all system files to System Restore, and could be deleted during a restore (even if you store them in your Documents folder). Always back up these types of files to an external location.

Um, I'd like to return this, please

A great thing about System Restore is that there is a return policy of sorts. If you don’t like the restore—say it didn’t fix the problem or you didn’t go back in time far enough—you can undo the restore procedure itself. System Restore is smart enough to create a restore point right before it performs a restore (unless you are in safe mode or deep inside the System Recovery Options menu). That way, you’ll have a place to return to if it doesn’t fix the problem. It’s like a rope to guide you out of the cave and back to your starting point. You can choose another point, or try another recovery option if things are really serious.

Picture of System Restore with the option to undo the previous restore operation
You can undo the restore procedure if it doesn't fix the problem

On the superhighway again

The next time you’re fretting about a setting you botched, the next time a program you downloaded slows your computer to a crawl and you can’t seem to fix it, or the next time you “didn’t do anything,” don’t panic—give System Restore a try. It’s solved problems that I and many others have faced, and can get you back on the road to productivity. Or back on that bumpy gravel road of technology called the Internet (or back to the TV, or to your family, or outside, or wherever you want to be).

About the author

Picture of columnist Andy Sweet

Andy Sweet es escritor en el equipo Windows en Microsoft. Recientemente, ha desarrollado el texto de la interfaz de usuario para varias funciones de Windows Vista. Anteriormente, colaboró en la creación de la capacitación dirigida por instructores para profesionales de TI de Windows y fue editor en las áreas de ciencia y tecnología de la enciclopedia Encarta.

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