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Windows 10 basics: how to use System Restore to go back in time

Send your system back to a safer place

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A few years back, I was working as a freelancer for a company that was trying to develop a US market for its rather obscure hardware products and needed a native English speaker to tweak the text on its site. Everything was going swimmingly until my second week on the job, when I went to the site — and found that I was suddenly getting weird ads flashing across my screen and had lost the ability to access my security software.

I needed to get rid of whatever had invaded my system. Hopefully, without the need to reset my PC (and lose more time reinstalling all of my apps and files). But I had an alternative: use System Restore.

System Restore is a handy feature that takes a sort of snapshot of your PC’s software, registry, and driver configuration at a specific point in time called a restore point. You can then, if necessary, return your PC to that point in time. You might lose some of the work you’ve done since you created that restore point, but you’d also lose any unwanted changes that might have been made without your permission.

In past versions of Windows, I didn’t have a lot of success with restore points, but as with many aspects of the OS, System Restore has been improved over the years. And it could be very handy in an emergency.

Set up System Restore

In order to use System Restore, you first have to enable it and create a restore point.

  • Go to the search field in your taskbar and type “system restore,” which will bring up “Create a restore point” as the best match. Click on that.
restore point windows 10
Search for and select “Create a restore point.”
  • This will bring up the System Properties window (which will look rather old-fashioned compared to most of Windows 10’s current interface). You’ll be within the System Protection tab. If you’ve never used System Restore before, all of the buttons will be grayed out except “Configure.” Make sure your available drive (usually the C: drive) is highlighted, and then click on “Configure.”
system restore windows 10
Click on “Configure...” to set up System Restore.
  • Under “Restore Settings,” select “Turn on system protection.” If you want, you can select the maximum disk space that will be used for your restore points; after that, older ones will be deleted to make space. Usually, 1GB to 5GB is sufficient, depending on the size of your hard drive. Click “OK.”
system restore windows 10
Choose how much space to dedicate to System Restore.
  • You’ll be back at the System Properties windows. It’s a good idea to create a new restore point immediately, so click on the “Create...” button.
  • Name your restore point in the pop-up window, and click “Create.” After a minute or two, you should get another pop-up that says “The restore point was created successfully.” Click on “Close.”
restore point windows 10
You can name your restore point.

And you’re done! Keep in mind that new restore points are only created when, according to Microsoft, “you install a new app, driver, or Windows update.” You can also follow the above directions each time you want to create a restore point manually. For example, if you’re about to do something experimental with your system. (There are ways to have your PC automatically create a restore point each time it boots up, but that involves working with the PC’s registry; this article will only cover the basics.)

Use a restore point

So let’s say that you’ve just uploaded a new game that then proceeded to spread ads and other obnoxious things throughout your system. It’s time to use your restore point to go back to a time before you made that mistake.

  • Go to the search field in your taskbar and type “system restore,” which will bring up “Create a restore point” as the best match. Click on that.
  • Again, you’ll find yourself in the System Properties window and the System Protection tab. This time, click on “System Restore...”
  • You’ll get a pop-up window entitled “Restore system files and settings.” Click on Next.
  • You’ll get a list of all the various restore points that have been created, including the date and time they were created, what they were named, and whether they were created manually. Choose which one you want to go back to.
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Highlight the restore point you want to return to.
  • If you want to (and it’s a good idea), click on “Scan for affected programs.” This will give you a list of which programs will be deleted and which might be automatically restored. Close the windows and then click on Next.
restore point windows 10
You can see which programs will be deleted.
  • The final confirmation window will list the restore point you’ve chosen, the drive it will affect, and a warning that if you’ve changed your Windows password recently, you might want to create a password reset disk using a USB drive. You will also get one more chance to scan for affected programs. Click on “Finish” to begin the process.
restore point windows 10
Confirm your store point, and start the process.