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Windows 10 basics: how to reset your system

When worse comes to worst

Photo by Avery White for The Verge

Windows 10 is, on the whole, more trouble-free than its previous iterations — but sometimes, things just go wrong. A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of not checking to make sure my laptop was securely plugged in while Windows was undergoing a major update. The battery ran out in the middle of the update and voila! I was stuck with what I was sure was now a very expensive brick. I was reminded of this just the other day, when another Windows 10 system decided that it didn’t like the latest update and began misbehaving very badly — so badly, that it would stop reacting to the cursor one minute after it booted.

In both cases, I was able to save an otherwise unusable PC by doing a reset, which removes all (or most) of the files and apps on the hard drive and reinstalls Windows 10.

(By the way, you have backed up your computer, right?)

Resets are also useful if you’ve just bought a spanking new system, have loaded all your data onto it, and now want to sell / trade in / give away / discard your old Windows 10 system. But before you get the no-longer-needed computer out of your house, you’re going to want to wipe all your data off the hard drive first.

There are several ways to initiate a reset in Windows 10, depending on what you need to do. You can do it from the Windows interface or, if you’re in trouble, from the more basic Safe Mode. There is also a different method of reinstalling Windows called “Fresh start” (formerly “Refresh”). Ready? Here we go.

Reset in Windows 10

If Windows 10 is working — or even if it’s mostly working — it’s simple to do a reset.

  • Go to the search field in your task bar and type “reset,” which will bring up “Reset this PC” as the best match. Click on that.
  • Alternatively, click on the Start key (the Windows icon in the lower left corner). Click on the gear (setup) icon, and go to “Update & Security” > “Recovery.”
Windows 10 recovery screen
The Recovery screen lets you easily reset your PC.
  • Select “Get started.”
  • You’ll be able to choose from one of two options. “Keep my files” will remove apps and settings, but let you keep any saved files, while “Remove everything” will reset the computer to its “as new” state. If you’re recovering from an update issue or are trying to remove a bad app, you could try “Keep my files” first. If you’re going to get rid of the computer, select “Remove everything.”
Windows 10 reset screens
You can keep your files when you reset Windows 10, or start from scratch.
  • Depending on what you select, the next window will offer additional settings. If you choose “Keep my files,” the standard setting will be to restore the apps and settings which came with the PC. If you click on “Change settings,” you can toggle “Preinstalled apps” off so that the reset does not restore the apps and settings that came with the PC. Click confirm to proceed.
Windows 10 reset options
You can choose whether to keep preinstalled Windows apps.
  • If you choose “Remove everything” and select “Change settings” on the additional settings windows, you can decide how thoroughly your computer will be wiped. The standard is to just remove files, which is faster. If your computer is misbehaving, this may be the one you want to try. If you’re getting rid of your computer, or want it thoroughly wiped, toggle data erasure on, which will take longer but will be much more thorough. Click confirm to proceed.
Windows reset data erasure settings
If you want to thoroughly clean your hard drive, toggle data erasure on.
  • Once you’ve made your adjustments, click “Next.”
  • You’re nearly there. The next window is “Ready to reset this PC.” If you’ve opted for “Keep my files,” you can click on “List of apps to be removed” to see which apps you may need to replace; that list isn’t available if you’re removing everything. Either way, click on “Reset to start the process.”
Windows 10 reset process
If you opted for “Keep my files,” you can see what apps will be removed.
  • You may need to enter a recovery key to continue. You should be able to find it by signing in to your Microsoft account (or the account of the computer’s owner) at aka.ms/myrecoverykey.

Reset in Safe Mode

Sometimes Windows is so screwed up that you can’t get to the reset feature. In that case, the next thing to try is to reset in Safe Mode.

If you’ve been around Windows systems for a while, you might associate Safe Mode with an easy-to-access way to reboot your machine without loading all the apps and functions that may be causing problems. In Windows 10, Safe Mode isn’t as simple to boot, especially if you’re having serious problems — but it could still save your bacon if you can’t get to the normal Reset window.

There are a variety of ways the Windows 10 variety of Safe Mode can be helpful. For example, it can return you to a previous version of Windows. It can perform a system restore (assuming that you’ve had the foresight to enable the Restore feature, which saves a version of Windows in case of emergencies). And it can help you reset your system.

Microsoft’s support site lists three ways to get to Safe Mode: from your settings, from your sign-in screen, and from a blank screen.

From settings

  • Follow the directions for resetting above. When you arrive at the Recovery screen, click on “Restart now” under the “Advanced startup” heading.
  • Your system will reboot, and you’ll get a blue screen that lets you “Choose an option.” These options may vary; on my system, I could choose to continue to Windows 10, boot from an external device, turn off the PC, or troubleshoot. If you want to reset your PC, click on “Troubleshoot.”
  • The next screen will let you reset the PC, restore it from a factory image, or offer additional “Advanced options.” It may be to your advantage to check out those options; they include a “Startup Repair” feature, one that lets you change your startup settings, an option to uninstall updates (which are often the cause of problems), and others.
  • If you want to reset your PC, then just click on that option; you’ll then be given the choice to either keep your files or remove everything. Click on either and the process will begin; again, you may need to fill in your recovery key first.

From your sign-in screen

If your PC is crapping out after you pass the sign-in screen, then you can try to access the Safe Mode from that same sign-in screen. These are the instructions on the Microsoft site; it didn’t work for me in three tries, but you could give it a shot:

  • Hold down the shift key and click on the power icon in the lower right corner.
  • Still holding down the shift key, click on Restart.

From a blank screen:

This is the most difficult way to access the Safe Mode — but it’s what you want to try if your PC is simply not booting Windows. This is what finally worked for me; however, it took several tries and not a little cursing, so prepare to be patient.

  • Make sure your computer is completely turned off.
  • Press the power button to turn your PC on. As soon as it restarts (for example, if you see the manufacturer’s logo), press the power button again until the system turns off again (usually about 10 seconds).
  • Repeat the process of on / off a second time.
  • The next time you power up, your PC should enter Safe Mode.

Again, I had to attempt this several times before it worked, and even now, I’m not sure what I did right the last time. But if your PC is simply not booting up and you want to try to reset it, it’s worth a try.

Fresh start

Back before Windows 10, there was a clear difference between resetting and refreshing your Windows PC: the former deleted all your files, settings, and apps, while the latter allowed you to keep personal files and settings. Now, the difference is a little more subtle. A reset can allow you to keep your personal files but will wipe your personal settings. Fresh start will let you keep some of your personal settings but will remove most of your apps.

If you think a fresh start works better for you, here’s where you find it:

  • Go to the Recovery window in Settings.
  • Under “More recovery options” click on “Learn how to start fresh with a clean installation of Windows.” You’ll be asked whether you want to switch apps from settings to Windows Security; click on “Yes.”
  • You’ll be taken to the “Fresh start” page; click on “Get started.”
Windows 10 Fresh start
Fresh start is an alternative way to reinstall Windows 10.
  • You’ll be asked if you want to allow the app to make changes to your device; click on “Yes.”
  • A pop-up window will warn you that all apps and programs will be removed, except those that come standard with Windows or that were installed by the manufacturer. Click on “Next.”
  • You’ll get a list of all the apps that will be removed (a far longer list than that offered by the reset). Click on “Next.”
Windows 10 Fresh start
Fresh start will remove many of your apps.
  • The next screen is the final one: click on “Start” and the process will begin. It could take as long as 20 minutes, and your system will probably restart several times.

Fresh start for Windows 10
The final screen before Fresh start begins to reinstall Windows gives you a last chance to opt out.