This is actually a synthesized question that reflects an extremely common line of thinking I see in questions and comments I receive.
I can kind of understand the thinking; it might make sense to rely on something called “System Restore” to restore your system.
Unfortunately, that’s not even close to what it does. Add a couple of additional pitfalls, and relying on System Restore without completely understanding what it is – and more importantly what it is not – could lead you down a very dangerous path.
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Let me be clear about something right away: System Restore is not a substitute for backing up.
So, why is that?
Because it doesn’t back most things up. In fact, System Restore actually operates only on a very few system files and settings.
I’m going to oversimplify, but in a nutshell: System Restore backs up your registry. It actually backs up some more things, I’m sure, but for purposes of this discussion we’ll think of it as just backing up the registry. In fact, it’s a very good registry backup – when we say “back up your registry” these days that often means “set a system restore point”.
What’s more important is what System Restore does not do:
- System Restore does not backup your data. If you delete or damage a file, System Restore will not recover it.
- System Restore does not really “uninstall” software. If you set a restore point, install software, and then revert to that restore point, the software will appear uninstalled (it will no longer appear on menus and the Add/Remove list), but files and folders created by that software installation may still remain.
- System Restore does not keep old copies of your files or settings. If you’re looking for an “old version” of a file or program that you used to have on your machine, System Restore will not have it.
- System Restore will not restore your system. By that I mean that if your system crashes and Windows needs to be repaired or reinstalled, System Restore will not aid in this process.
The Intent of System Restore
System restore is intended for recovery from recent changes to your system. For example, if you do install a new driver or software package that somehow causes your system to misbehave, you can use System restore to “undo” most of the changes and return to a prior state. That’s actually why most setup programs now cause a restore point to be taken prior to starting: so that in the case of failure or some other unexpected event, you’ll always have that restore point to go back to.
I want to emphasize the recent nature of restore points. The intent is that they be used to recover from something that happened recently – as in within a day or two. Yes, restore points are often kept for longer periods of time, but the problem is that so much is constantly changing on your system that rolling back to a significantly older restore point can also have unexpected side effects as more changes are undone that you might expect.
Restore Points Disappear Over Time
Windows only keeps a limited number of restore points based on the amount of disk space you have available for it. Once that space fills up, each time a new restore point is taken, older restore points are deleted to make room.
I need to say that again: older restore points are deleted to make room.
A very common variation on the System Restore question is “why are there no restore points where I want to go back to?” The answer is that they were probably deleted to make room for newer ones. Restore points are taken at various times, so older restore points are constantly being swapped out to make room for new. As I keep saying, they’re not meant to be a long term restoration strategy.
Is System Restore Even On?
System Restore may or may not be turned on. If not, you’ll free up some disk space, but you’ll have no restore points to go back to … ever. This is, in fact how I run my machines. Because System Restore only backs up a limited set of what I actually care about, I turn it off completely and rely instead on a nightly full backup. That way I know that everything – files, settings, applications, whatever – are all backed up and accessible on a momen’s notice, and I can keep those backups for as long as I might choose to.