Windows 8 Refresh and Reset: Restore the OS without worrying about user data

reset computer

When a computer is terminally cranky, the cure is often reimaging to fix the crufty operating system. This is often followed by replacement of software and retrieval of user files and the discovery that the user hadn’t backed up something critical. Then of course, it’s IT’s fault that the file is lost.

Sigh.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could tidy things up without interfering with the user data?

Guess what? In Windows 8 (and Windows RT), there are new features that not only clean up a grungy system, but restore the OS to pristine, just out of the box condition. These features are called Refresh and Reset.

Both features are accessed from the Change PC Settings screen in the General category, or when you boot into the recovery environment.

When you Refresh a PC, what you’re doing is reinstalling Windows while preserving user files, some settings and any native Windows 8 apps that came with the OS. By default, desktop (ie, Windows 7) software such as Microsoft Office is not preserved. Microsoft creates an HTML file listing of what wasn’t restored and puts it on the desktop. However, you can create a custom recovery image (using the recimg.exe utility) including that software and use it for Refresh and Reset rather than the basic image.

That’s easy to do if you put a corporate image on new PCs, or if you have your supplier do so; just add the custom recovery file to the image.

To refresh a PC, simply click the Refresh button. You will receive a prompt telling you exactly what will and will not be saved, and asking for confirmation. Choose Next, then the machine will reboot, and in a few minutes the user will be back in business, files intact, and the IT crew will be heroes.

Refresh does not preserve settings that might have been causing problems, such as file type associations, display settings and firewall settings, so if there was any customization done to computer you may need to do some tweaking. But this will save user data and replaces the OS and software from the recovery image. Anything not on that image must be reinstalled (you will need the product keys – those registry settings get wiped during Refresh).

Reset

Reset takes things one step farther. It restores the machine to its freshly-configured state, ready to be redeployed to a new user or disposed of. The process is similar to a refresh – you select Reset from the Change PC Settings/General screen and choose Next.

Then you are asked how thoroughly you want to wipe user files – you can select a relatively cursory (but quick) reformat, or a longer process that overwrites the disk with random data, making files virtually impossible to recover without sophisticated equipment. Then walk away. The machine reboots, and half an hour or so later (depending on the wipe selected), the computer will be ready for reuse.

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