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Why I Don’t Like System Restore

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When I go into the System Restore application, it doesn’t give me the option to create a restore point; it only allows me to restore to an earlier point and it never creates restore points. Any ideas on what might be wrong or how to fix it?

I’ll be honest and tell you right off that I have no answer for your question.

There are many possibilities, the most likely being that there is not enough room allocated for restore points. But in my experience, increasing that may or may not resolve the issue.

System Restore is so difficult to diagnose and I hear of so many problems and misunderstandings with it that I avoid it completely.

I turn it off. Completely. It’s not worth it to me.

I’ll tell you what I do instead.

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What System Restore is

System Restore is best thought of as a registry backup. Yes, in reality, it backs up more than just the registry, but exactly what else it backs up gets complicated. Suffice it to say that System Restore does not back up everything.

And as a registry backup, it’s actually a pretty reasonable solution. When it works, it’s a fine way to take a snapshot of the registry and restore it after other changes have been made.

What System Restore is not

Ironically, “System Restore” does not actually restore your system.

More specifically, it does not restore everything to the state that it was at the time the restore point was created. It restores some things – like the registry – but not all things – like your files.

System Restore is not a substitute for backup.

System Restore in the wild

Computer FrustrationMuch of my opinion on System Restore is not based on its definition or its intent. In theory, it’s a great concept, poorly named (remember, it doesn’t restore your system, only some of it). I’m not a fan of its user interface, but even that seems to be improving and that doesn’t really factor much into my opinion.

What does is that, in practice, it seems to have problems.

Your inability to manually create a restore point is one example.

Other examples that I hear of frequently are the inability to restore to a listed restore point and the lack of a restore point to restore to.

Yes, sometimes, these are configuration issues. Sometimes, these are issues of mismatched expectations.

But often – too often – even understanding what should and should not be appropriate to expect of System Restore, it lets people down.

I see it in my inbox frequently.

System Restore successes

To be completely fair, I do also hear of successes with System Restore. It’s not that uncommon to hear of problems caused by an installation to be completely repaired by reverting to a recent restore point.

Like I said, it’s a great concept.

When it works.

Don’t rely on System Restore

Given that it can work, but can also fail unpredictably, what course of action does that leave you?

Simple. Don’t rely on System Restore.

Leave it enabled, if you like, but don’t rely on it. Don’t build your way of using your computer such that a System Restore failure would cause you a lot of problems.

Be happy when it works; be prepared when it doesn’t.

Instead of System Restore

What I typically advise people to do is to turn off System Restore completely and rely instead on a good system backup strategy.

By “good backup strategy,” I mean that you regularly take full system backups of your machine, augmented with frequent incremental backups.

If something goes wrong, restore from the most recent backup.

Yes, this can take more time than restoring to a System Restore restore point.

But restoring from a backup does restore your entire system.

It’s what I do.

Choosing to leave System Restore enabled is also a fine approach, but only in addition to having those backups. That way, when System Restore works for you, it’s a shortcut – a time saver.

And when it fails, it’s not a disaster.

65 comments on “Why I Don’t Like System Restore”

  1. I’d advise to leave it on IF you know how to use it, or ask your friend who is going to fix your computer when it totally dies after a rogue exe decides to do some major damage.

    I use UBCD to access the system even if it won’t run, and use the restore tool on there to reset it with success in most cases.

    I find it only works for cases where the damage is one rogue installation or similar and you get to it straight afterwards.

  2. I have, in the past, used System Restore to undo some catastrophic screw-up, or to ‘get around’ a virus infection in order for me to do something about it.
    Things I don’t like:
    If a specific file has changed, it stays changed. SR doesn’t do anything about that.
    If a program ~updated~ itself, it forgets – and has to be updated again, regardless if you have the new files or not.
    The System Restore file system seems to be the hiding place for a lot of viruses – more often than not, if I get a virus alert, it’s in one of the system restore files or directories.

  3. I have used System restore for years. Never had problem.
    Why would MS make it available if it is set to fail?

    Is MS slow to learn?

  4. I used system restore when I got a virus. I restored it back to as far as I could took two times but I think I got rid of it. Did I do wright?

    Hard to say. That’s another reason I dislike it. You could have gotten rid of the malware. Or not. There’s no way to truly know.

    Leo
    06-Jan-2012
  5. Actually, one thing I like about System Restore is that it *doesn’t* affect data. It has saved me from some disasters, especially programs which messed things up totally and the damage could be undone. And I was glad that work since the restore point (data files) were not affected by System Restore.

    How can a backup get the same functionality? For instance, I use Macrium to take a frequent (weekly) image backup, but if I were to use it to restore my system it would revert data files as well. Is there any way to restore the system from a backup without affecting data?

    If that’s important then I’d use a hybrid approach with a full traditional backup, and then perhaps a tool like DropBox which in a sense provides continuous backup for the files you’re working on.

    Leo
    06-Jan-2012
  6. The problem with backups restoring old data can be avoided if you have one disk for programs (system & the rest) and one for your data. I’ve been doing it for several years, and it lets me restore only what I want to.

    BTW, system restore has saved my butt a couple of times. I give it plenty of room on all my disks (1.5Tb disks going for $79 on sale these days) and I make sure to do a random one now & then.

  7. I think it’s very poor advice to suggest people not even turn System Restore on.
    I repair multiple PCs every day and i find it a most valuable tool, and if i found someone with it turned off i would inform them they should turn it on immediately.
    Leo, i think you miss the point of what Sys Restore is for, it is not intended, or stated to be a backup program.
    It is not meant to save everything.
    You seem to misunderstand the reason for Sys Restore.
    It reverts the programs and Registries, but does not alter User data.
    This is fabntastic, and is useful to most people.When doing phone support this is something i get people to do most days, and often with great success.
    Personally, as a repaier that repairs over a thousand PCs a year, i would strongly suggest you rethink what you are suggesting to people.
    I regard your advice as incorrect, borfering on bad advice.

    Macca

    On the contrary, I’m very well aware of the purpose of system restore. I’ve written extensively on it, and it’s even mentioned in this article that System Restore is not backup.

    My opinion and advice comes from hearing from too many people who have either not understood that message and relied on system restore to do more than it was designed to do, or from people for whom system restore simply and plainly failed.

    The presence of a fundamentally unreliable System Restore does people a disservice, as it often incorrectly leads them to not also have a real backup.

    As the article also states, leave it on if you like, I happened to choose to leave it off as not worth it.

    Leo
    06-Jan-2012

  8. It’s very easy to create a manual restore point in Windows 7. Click the Start button, type Create and the first item on the list is “Create a restore point”. Click that and Click the Create button. The restore point create is also available on the System Protection tab of the System Properties dialog.

  9. I do see what you’re getting at, but equally I think you’re response is a bit harsh. I tend to think of it in the following way: you’re computer is you and you’ve just been involved in a small car crash. A first aider (System Restore) tries to bring you back whilst a medical professional (proper back up) is called. If the first aider gets you running again that’s great, but you’ve always got the medical professional there if needed. If you bare in mind that System Restore doesn’t affect files you shouldn’t be disappointed! In fact, it often plays to my advantage. Using System Restore, I could try to restore to any stable state so that I can access/backup any files before safely fixing the system if necessary. Leo is mostly right, especially when he says that it should not be thought of as a “backup” – I still believe that a full back up of your system should be made at least once a week.
    In regards to the original question asked, it’s hard to say with out more information – it could be down to malicious software, insufficient storage or permissions or anything else. Your best bet is to Google it and even ask on a site such as SuperUser.com!

  10. We have “Gateway GoBack” on one of our computers. It has saved my back-side many times. I guess it is not available on all computers. Is anything else available that reverts the computer to the way it was at a time in the past (besides back-up)?

  11. Not being able to create system restore points — Similar anomalous behavior can occur with Windows 7 and possibly Vista due to a full Registry. MS has a registry size limit (RSL) in those OS versions that if filled will cause a myriad of problems. We have found users with ArcGIS have a tendency to need to raise their RSL to resolve specific issues.

  12. I like Systems Restore. Systems Restore is good for me. I generally create a restore point prior to downloading something. And it paid off a couple days ago when i scanned my computer with “PCFix”( or something similar that was on a Microsoft site).
    After scanning it showed a few things that needed to be foxed, of course. After scanning to fix pay to fix the ?problems? found. When I tried to uninstall the program with Revo uninstaller a popup page appeared saying that I should call a listed tel. no. I could not continoue with the Uninstall nor get rid of the popup. I had to restart and tried to uninstall the program again with the same thing happening. I was saved by Systems Restore. I am glad I established a restore point just prior to downloading that mess.

  13. For the reader who needs to make a system restore point there is a little app called sysrestorepoint.exe I do not remember where I got it so just google it and you can make all the restore points you want.

  14. I don’t use or recommend System Restore either because it is half-baked, like many other Microsoft features. It is not finished and fails more than half the time with no explanation as to why. Sometimes it even screws Windows up. I advise my customers to back up if they need to, but to leave System Restore completely alone.

  15. As Leo says, I have often seen System Restore fail; many viruses disable it completely. I was glad to see RollbackRx mentioned here, as I think it deserves to be more widely known. It has saved my bacon several times: particularly helpful is the pre-boot screen which gives the user the opportunity to “roll back” the system even when it is so corrupted that it does not boot at all.

  16. What a copout; to trash a useful feature then recommend “a good system backup strategy” without even describing what “a good system backup strategy” is. The only time I’ve had a problem with system restore was due to a virus.

    .

  17. I turned system restore off 5 years ago after it did nothing to help in my last system crash. I’ve been crash free since and I’ll never turn it back on. I’m using XP Pro

  18. System Restore, like or dislike.

    Been there, tried that, didn’t like that, me too could not create restore points, and all a bit messy too, particularly where my old enemy, “Windows ambiguity”, is concerned, likewise, such ambiguity was around after the local geek advised System Repair for a blue screen error, I wiped my hard drive completely clean, fortunately not so
    when I had dabbled in Restore, but heh, I am a relative newbee, to sharper users the ambiguity would not be a problem.

    Cheers

    DurbsDave

  19. I have had success with System Restore in that if I won’t restore automatically, it will then give backup dates to choose to restore back to. it’s been working for me. I have Vista.

  20. For BU, the new Clickfree C6 is good but while I have used Clickfree for many years the new one did fail Dec. 28. 2011 and a new replacement is on its way from Clickfree. That is one reason, I TRIPLE BU. In relation to the op’s issue, I note that he only has SP2 and many users that have not installed SP3 and thus later updates is due to an illegal o/s installed and thus other issues also tend to occur. As an Admin in PC Tech in Paltalk this is an issue encountered very frequently particularly with Windows XP Pro and W7 Ultimate.

  21. I have only been able to System Restore using safe mode. I agree with Leo that System Restore is unreliable.

    When System Restore fails, like Leo, I first rely on an image restoration. If that fails, I reinstall Windows.

    Don’t forget to backup your drivers with Double Driver; don’t forget to backup your internet bookmarks.

  22. I have tried using backup files and it does not seem to work or I am doing it wrong. System Restore has saved my bacon a few times.

  23. I’ll second paleolith’s comment about Safe Mode. When I first started using System Restore in XP, I wasn’t very successful with it. However, once I learned that the restore feature works much better in Safe Mode, my success rate increased. And as I learned more about System Restore’s limitations, it increased even more.

    I wish Microsoft would make the point about Safe Mode much clearer. In fact, I see no reason why using the restore function should not cause an automatic reboot into Safe Mode (after the appropriate warnings of course).

    And as Leo discussed, the name should be changed. I don’t know if “Registry Restorer” would be any better, since most people don’t know what the registry is, but the current name implies a power that System Restore just doesn’t have.

    Whenever I’m asked to work on someone’s computer, the one point that I really emphasize regarding System Restore is that it works best in the short term. When a Restore Point is created, a snapshot of the computer’s state is recorded. As the user continues to work, folders/files are created, deleted, moved, or altered. At some point, the differences between the current computer state and that recorded in the Restore Point are so large that the restore function just can’t work. And that’s where a true backup is needed. So, like Leo, the other thing that I emphasize is the importance of good backup discipline.

  24. Hello Leo,
    Although I don’t have much experience, I would like to say that “System Restore” has saved me a lot of problems throught the years. My granddaughters often play games on my computer and I don’t know why but often my computer picks up viruses. I have been very lucky with this Accessorie since 1990, when I first learned about it. Recently, mu husband had picked up a terrrible virus which pretended to be an Apple application. It had caused a lot of damage and no matter how hard we tried to clean it up it didn’t work. It had even deleted the System Restore application. I suggested that he goes to “safe mode” and see if the acessorie appeared and it was available. So he restored his system to the previous day and everything returned to normal. I know that a system backup is safer, but my computer is too full to permit me to backup everything. Thank God I have an external drive for my data! I put that data on DVD’s occasionnally. But I still depend on “System Restore” in time of troubles.
    Thank you for your wonderful newsletter.
    Sincerely
    Suzanne (mamiephoto)

  25. Seriously folks….Leo is providing a “learning” environment for me and many others I am sure. He would be negligent if he did not give us the pros and cons.
    System Restore is an intimate friend to me. I have seen my life disappear before my eyes, having to depend on my last bit of energy to hit the System Restore tab….like magic, my life is returned to normal.
    All of my friends are accessible to me again that were not….my pictures come back…my poetry.
    Microsoft would not offer us or enable us to access a program that is faulty.
    If used properly, the program or lifesaver, whatever, is truly a lifesaver to some of us.
    I need to learn more about ‘backing up” stuff.
    My vote is “keep it on”.
    peace,
    Ruby

  26. I agree that using System Restore in safe mode is more reliable. I’ve also had instances where the restore failed message appeared, but it actually did work. Go figure.

  27. Wow ! I’m amazed that anyone would not praise SYSTEM RESTORE.
    As an ardent surfer I often try out a program or app and then unistall it if it isn’t what I expected.

    In many cases, uninstalling those programs also uninstalls an important app that I need. Recently my IE EXPLORER and RECYCLE BIN were missing when I booted up next day.

    Nobody in our computer club knew how to bring those back but I just clicked on SYSTEM RESTORE, clicked on the previous day and voila,
    both important apps were recovered.

    I just can’t imagine a better device that SR and maybe that is why millions of PC’ers still prefer XP to Win 7 and are waiting patiently for Win 8.

    When it works, it’s great. When it works. I’ve simply seen it fail too often and too mysteriously to suggest that anyone rely on it.

    Leo
    04-Feb-2012
  28. System Restore has worked for me in both XP and Win 7. I’ve also restored friends PC’s when an update or their Anti-V programs have deleted files that proved to be needed and were false-positives. But yes, I do incrimental back-ups to an external HD.

  29. I’m with Leo. As a system builder/repairer I’ve seen far too many times when system restore was useless or disabled completely by malware. When it works, it’s great. However, those who have never had system restore fail are in the minority.
    The system backup (we prefer images via Acronis True Image) is our preferred method of backing up our own systems and what we’ve recommended to customers for years.
    Another thing to consider is, that backing up to the same hard drive as the operating system is on – is really no backup at all if that hard drive fails. So there’s no such thing as “my computer is too full to permit me to backup everything”. I’ve got 4x 1 TB hard drives running in RAID 0, with 3 partitions on it. Windows can’t currently see more than 2TB partitions, so any partition backup will fit on an external 2TB drive. 1 and 2 TB hard drives are cheap now, so no excuse not to have several if you have that much to backup.
    Just food for thought. 🙂

  30. You are right, sometimes system restore does not function, It goes through the process and then at the end it tells you system could not be restored to rstore date.
    My question is, Is there a good recovery software that you can use as a recovery partition that will actually clone your drive, mainly the newer computers come with a recovery partition which is good but not completely safe and true. software to backup the drive (clone) and be also bootable? Can you recommend.

  31. I have been a repair technician for several years and I do like system restore but it is not perfect. you should never put all your eggs in one basket, use system restore along with back up’s.
    As a tech I get many calls to fix problems that were easily fixed with system restore, and many that are not. Sometimes system restore is blocked from opening from a virus sometimes the date has been moved ahead a thousand years and locked out from going back to get a proper restore point and sometimes it just fails. fixing other computers almost never involves using a backup to restore stuff since they did not use a back up that leaves you with the hope of system restore or finding the problem manually or a re install.

    in short system restore is great but not perfect

  32. I have HP DV 8000 series with XP SP3

    Restore has always worked for me. But I do notice that it does not remove malware.

    I use security software for that.

  33. I have successfully used Acronis True Image to clone my drive about once per week. Until the recent flooding in Thailand hard drives were so cheap I would just buy two identical drives. One for the system and one for backup. Even a catastrophic failure was easily remedied by swapping in the backup and I was ready to go. I used to use Ghost but floppy drives became less available and the floppy discs is/was clearly not as reliable as data on a hard drive.

  34. I’ve never had much success with system restore. Seems very unreliable. Almost invariably comes up with “Your computer cannot be restored to ………… No changes have been made”, the give-away normally being the sudden jump by the progress bar to the end whilst allegedly “restoring settings”. Seemed to be a bit better running from safe mode but even that fails quite often. Doesn’t seem very robust to me.

  35. Is Norton GoBack similar to System Restore? System Restore on my XP system has NEVER worked correctly from day one. I still have and use Norton GoBack with much success – it has saved my a$$ from bad and incompatible software installations, malware, and who knows what else dozens of times over the past seven years or so.
    Does anyone make a program similar since Norton does not carry this product any longer?

  36. My comment would be in favor of SR.
    I found a weird thing happening to a MS Street and Trips App. If I installed Sony Vegas Movie Studio, it would cripple the registry of the MS app, suggesting I reinstall the app. Of course, I would get the same warning no matter if I uninstalled it and started again, or just did a corrective install. It seemed the ONLY way to recover was to run the SR mode and forget my
    Vegas software. I think there must be some way I can have both apps without this conflict.

  37. I have Norton Go Back on my system and have used it for years. I has multiple choices for going back. it has saved my but many times. I like it.

  38. “…I hear of so many problems and misunderstandings with it that I avoid it completely.”
    Re: Why I don’t like System Restore

    Not surprising, Leo–I and, no doubt , hosts of others have successfully used SR time and again. Successes in using SR would not trigger off a celebratory email to you.

    Just saying…

    I do understand that, but realize that I get a LOT of questions and problem reports. System Restore failures “stick out”, if you will, as a particularly common and annoying problem.

    Leo
    09-Apr-2013

  39. System Restore has come in handy numerous times for fixing client systems. (At a minimum, to get to the point of having a non-booting system booting again, so the rest of the problems can be fixed.) It’s come in handy numerous times to repair a corrupted registry.

    On the other hand, I’ve also seen a perfectly good, newly-fixed system brought to its knees by someone else carelessly using System Restore. (Basically, they restored it to a bad state. We’re considering implementing a policy where we create a restore point after fixing such a system, and deleting all old restore points, to prevent something like that from happening again.)

    In short: I see no problem letting the system make restore points. Just don’t restore to one unless someone who knows what he’s doing says to do so. (And don’t rely on them to magically fix any problem you may have.)

    Agree completely. The key words here are “don’t rely”. If it works, fantastic. But be prepared (usually with a backup) for the case where it doesn’t.

    Leo
    09-Apr-2013
  40. If I wanted to restore the registry, I would use the “Last Known good configuration” option during “Advanced startup options” (which many of us know as F8).

    In addition to the registry, I have noticed that System Restore also backs up internet explorer. One time, I hated Internet Explorer 9 beta so much that I used system restore to uninstall it. I know that I probably should not have done it that way, but it worked completely flawlessly and seamlessly. (but later on, I loved the real IE 9, and now I love the real IE 10.)
    Another example:
    On Microsoft Answers, someone had a problem with “unwanted (asterisks made by website) running at startup of IE” and basically said that after installing freeware, IE didn’t work like he wanted. So I gave him four options with detailed instructions. 1. turn off/remove add-ons 2. add/remove programs in control panel 3. System Restore 4. Malwarebytes’ anti-malware. The next day he replied “I just went with the checkpoint restore and everything I did wrong just vaporized.” So that goes to prove how powerful a tool system restore is if it does what we want it to.

    • I forgot to add in my original comment:

      I don’t get why people think that it will get their files back. The help files in Windows clearly state that “System Restore isn’t intended for backing up personal files, so it cannot help you recover a personal file that has been deleted or damaged. You should regularly back up your personal files and important data using a backup program.” In fact, when rstrui.exe is executed, it produces a differently-worded similar message, yet people complain about it.

      • People don’t read help files, and in fact rarely read the messages that are popped up like that. The name is System Restore, so some folks expect it to restore their system – all of it.

    • I would compare System Restore to a car with a faulty airbag. It’s great when it works, but I’d rather have something more dependable in addition like a safety belt or in the case of a computer, a backup. I know the analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s the best I could come up with.

  41. SR has been all GOlD for me over the years but I agree, it should NOT be called system restore, especially when software exists that can create images and restore systems in every sense of the meaning; maybe registry restore; at least for XP. Microsoft muddied the waters in later versions with shadow copies and the ability to restore SOME files. I’ve backed out of a service pack 3 for XP update using system restore and rather than grind for days on some error or resort to a full system image restore for some trivial registry corruption, system restore can make things right again in 5 minutes.

    Like any tool in the wrong hands with improper expectations it skews perceptions badly (exceptions are taken as gospel instead of proving the point that it works most of the time)…one doesn’t hunt elephants with a six shooter and one doesn’t break peanut shells open with a sledgehammer.

    • I look at System Restore as being like a lost and found at a train station. If you leave something on a train, you go to the lost and found even though you don’t expect to find what you lost. A couple of times I actually was pleasantly surprised to get lost things back. That’s similar to my experiences with System Restore.

  42. Sorry, but “I typically advise people to … turn off System Restore completely” is bad advice. Would you say “turn off your firewall because you have an Anti-virus program running?” (or vice versa?) Or “you don’t need file backups because you have weekly image backups?” (or vice versa?) System Restore is *part* of the Windows reliability system and throwing it away just doesn’t make sense. Another example, this advice is equivalent to saying “Since I have a RAID array I don’t have to do backups.”
    Definitely, as you say, “Don’t rely on System Restore” because there are things that it can’t fix. I typically create a restore point before installing unknown and possibly buggy software. Relying only on one thing to save oneself from disaster is always subject to Murphy.
    And Leo, there another aspect of System Restore you didn’t address, the “Restore Previous Versions” or files or folders function that is part of System Restore. In Windows 7, right-clicking on a file or folder gives an option to recover Previous Versions of that file or folder. (Unfortunately, this feature appears to be cut out of Windows 8.) Again, Previous Versions is not a substitute for good backup practices, but a supplement and added layer of redundancy. Since I’ve got lots of extra disk space, I’ve even increased the maximum disk space that System Restore can use – allows it to “backup” even older versions of files and folders in older system restore points.
    I usually completely agree with your teachings, but this one feels contrary to your normal, “Backup, Backup, Backup” philosophy. Why throw away something that doesn’t hinder and can help?
    -bb

    • My problems with System Restore are not about the functionality that it does or does not provide. It’s about its reliability. By that I mean all too often it simply doesn’t work when it should.

      I advise people to turn it off for two reasons: one, to free up the disk space that this unreliable feature takes up, and two, to drive home the point that they shouldn’t be relying on it.

      Other than that, there’s no great harm from leaving it on. There is great potential harm in expecting it to work and not taking additional measures to protect yourself in other ways.

  43. I have used ERUNt (Emergency Recovery Utility NT) and it has saved me a couple of times. I often run it before installing a program, then if I don’t like it. i uninstall it, but roll the registry back to prior the installation. That way no remnants of the program remain at all.

    Jim

  44. Leo,

    Here’s another reason not to like System Restore.

    I recently had occasion to do some file recovery from an external USB drive that a friend had accidentally formatted.

    I grabbed an older desktop machine that had Vista loaded on it, booted it, and plugged in the the USB drive to start doing some forensics.

    Vista proceeded to write to the USB drive, creating a System Volume Information folder and a Recycle Bin folder.

    Writing to an accidentally formatted disk is exactly what you *don’t* want.

    Is there a way to *completely stop* the System Restore and Recycle Bin services so that they don’t do this?

  45. You wrote this article 7 years ago and System Restore has been around since about the beginning of the Millennium. You’d think after almost 20 years, Microsoft would have figured out how to make it work.

    • One would think. Actually my take is that it’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do. It’s just poorly named (it doesn’t restore your system), and it’s interaction with available space is not made sufficiently visible.

      • And Microsoft is doing what it always does, confusing the hell out of people with their naming system.

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