My machine wasn’t completely broken, but it wasn’t well. Months of turning things on and off, installing and uninstalling, and just generally “fiddling” while researching and documenting Ask Leo! articles left this particular Windows 10 installation a couple of features short of a full package.
This presented a great opportunity to experiment with the “nuclear option” built into Windows 10: “Reset This PC”.
Surprisingly, there’s now what I’ll call a “light” nuclear option, in addition to the traditional “delete everything and start over” approach.
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When to reset
In the past, it was common to consider reinstalling Windows from scratch “every so often,” depending on how you used your machine. More recent version of Windows have become more stable, and that’s less of a rule of thumb than it once was.
But still, stuff happens. Sometimes the most pragmatic solution is to start fresh, rather than spending an excessive amount of time looking for and trying random fixes.
When that might be called for is difficult to say, as it really depends on your specific situation. If your system is just generally unstable, has slowed down excessively, or you’re banging your head against a wall trying to resolve a problem, a reset might be the most expeditious approach.
Step one, no matter what
Take a complete image backup of your system as it is today. What we’re about to do is a massive reset, and there are many things that could go wrong. It’s also possible to encounter unexpected side effects after a reset that may make you regret having done so.
Be it a complete restore to the way things are before the reset, or the ability to recover specific files, an image backup is your ultimate safety net. I strongly recommend you not skip this step.
Keep files or remove everything
In the Windows 10 Settings app, search for “Recovery”. On the resulting page, underneath “Reset this PC”, click on Get started.
The first choice to make is whether to “Keep my files” or “Remove everything”.
It’s unclear exactly how much “Keep my files” keeps, but we can make an educated guess. My belief is that it simply preserves the files in your login account folder – meaning everything within “C:\Users\<your login name>”, including My Documents, Pictures, Music, and the like. It’s what I was referring to as the “light” nuclear option.
If you keep data anywhere else on your system drive, it will be deleted.
It’s my distrust of knowing exactly what is preserved, as well as my tendency to keep files outside the account folder, that has me recommending — again — that you always start with a complete image backup so as to not lose anything, no matter what.
In this example, I’ll click Keep my files, but ultimately the decision is yours.
You’ll receive a warning that your applications will be removed.
This is expected, and is exactly what a “Reset” is all about. We’re reinstalling Windows from scratch, and afterwards we’ll need to reinstall the applications we need.
This is actually one of the reasons for the reset. Removal of the applications forces us to cleanly reinstall only the apps we need, which typically results is a more stable system. Click Next.
One final warning, and we’re ready to go.
This will take some time. The process is reinstalling Windows from scratch, after all.
Your machine will reboot at least once during this process. Eventually, the Windows log-in screen will reappear.
On initial login, Windows will likely perform some updates prior to displaying the desktop.
Those updates weren’t enough.
The very first thing to do after resetting your PC is run Settings, navigate to Windows Update, and click on Check for updates.
Let Windows update itself completely.
After the update has completed (which may involve rebooting), be sure to return to Windows Update and confirm that no more updates are available, or download any more that are.
Only when there are no more updates available should you proceed.
Reinstall everything else
Next you’ll want to reinstall the applications you use.
I strongly recommend you install only those applications you actually use. My approach is to start using the computer, and only install those applications I find I need. That way, only the software I really use is installed.
Similarly, restore any data files lost in the process. If you selected “Keep data files” at the beginning of the process, you’ll want to confirm that the files you expect to be there remain. Restore any that are missing from your backup or other convenient location.
Throughout this process, you’ll find yourself resetting the various options and customizations you had before the reset. Honestly, the more frequently I do this, the fewer customizations I carry forward, simply because of the time involved. Much like the programs I install, I only apply the customizations that are truly important to me.
Back up again
Yes: I recommend you back up once more, another full-system image backup.
With that backup, should you ever need to reset your PC again in the future, you can restore the image backup instead. The reason is simple: the image backup represents a clean install of your system, with your installed programs, customizations, and data files …
… essentially everything the Reset might not have preserved.
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