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Maintaining Your System

Windows is a computer program, not a Cracker Jack toy, and it will have problems. The trick lies in making sure that you don't have problems too.

Windows is notorious for crashing and freezing, making it impossible to start the computer or garbling things so badly that you'd think the screen went through a garbage disposal. Microsoft has poured lots of time, effort, and money into teaching Windows how to heal itself. You can take advantage of all that work - if you know where to find it.

In this tutorial, I introduce you to the basic ideas and get you started with some of the parts of Windows that you can use in many different ways. If you log in to Windows with a local account (as opposed to a Microsoft account, which is always an email address), also want to cajole you into creating a password reset disk, which may well save your tail someday.

Rolling Back with the Three Rs

Rollback, restore, reset. System repair. Start fresh. The terminology stinks.

  • Rollback:
    If you figure you just got hit with a bad update to Win10, it's now easy to roll back to the previous version, or build, of Win10. The most recent build, which may include bad device drivers or other tweaks that make things go bump in the night, return to their previous incarnation. That's a hiccup, in the grand scheme of themes.
  • Restore:
    Like Rocky and Bullwinkle's WABAC Machine (thank you, Mr. Peabody), setting and using restore points provides a relatively simple way to switch your PC's internal settings to an earlier, and presumably happier state, should something go awry.
    Unlike in earlier versions of Windows, restore points aren't set automatically, and in Windows 10, it's hard to get to the rollback settings. Not to worry. The mechanism is still intact and useful. Details are in this tutorial.
  • Reset:
    In my experience, a Windows 10 reset with the Keep My Files option works almost all the time. It's light years ahead of System Repair, safe mode, and recovery mode, and should be your fix-it method of second resort, after you try using a restore point. If refresh doesn't work, you're in a world of hurt. Search online for instructions on manually booting into safe mode and running a recovery.

When Start Fresh is Better

Microsoft has recently introduced yet another option called Start Fresh, which you access from a link at the bottom of the Universal Settings app's Update & Security Recovery page. There wasn't enough practical experience with Start Fresh to recommend it without reservation, but the feature looks promising.

Few people realize that your PC manufacturer has a say in what Reset's "Remove Everything" means. Most hardware manufacturers have the command jury-rigged to put their crapware back on your PC. If you run Reset with Remove Everything on those systems, you don't get a clean copy of Win10. You get the factory settings version. Yes, you get the original manufacturer's drivers, but you also get the manufacturer's garbageware.

With the Start Fresh option in the Anniversary update, Microsoft is making it easier to create a non-bloatware-addled system. They're circumventing the hardware manufacturers in the process. It's hard to say if this will tick off the few hardware companies that aren't already alienated by Microsoft's Surface sales. After all, the Dells and Lenovos and HPEs of the world make most of their PC-sales profit by sharecropping out screen real estate on new PCs and selling it to the highest bidder. It remains to be seen if the Start Fresh option will eat into their revenue.

There's one clear winner in all this: users. Not only do we get an easy option to nuke all the junk on new PCs, but we also have a way to wipe a Win10 PC clean without going through the hassles of booting to an installation drive. Thank you, Microsoft.

What is Safe Mode?

Safe mode used to be the gateway into the Windows inner workings: In earlier versions of Windows, if something went wrong, you booted into a very limited version of Windows - one that let you diagnose problems and install minimalist drivers, but not much more.

Safe mode still exists in Windows 10, but it isn't used as much as it once was. Microsoft has improved things to the point where safe mode isn't nearly as important as it used to be. Running a reset, in particular, will do just about everything people used to do in safe mode but without the hands-on nitty-gritty.

If you still want to get into safe mode, hold down the Shift key and click or tap Start, then the power off icon, and then Restart. Keep holding down the Shift key while your machine reboots. When the blue Choose an Option screen appears, choose Troubleshoot → Advanced Options → Startup Settings. Click Restart, and you see an Advanced Boot Options screen. Type the number for Safe Mode (or Safe Mode with Networking or Safe Mode with Command Prompt). You get logged in to Windows in safe mode using the built-in administrator account.

Yes, it's that complicated. Microsoft doesn't really want you to use safe mode, unless you know what you are doing and are willing to bend over backward to do it.

If a reset with the Keep My Files option doesn't work and you don't mind losing all your data and installed programs, or if you want to wipe your computer clean before you sell it or give it away, you want to run a reset, choosing Remove Everything. Global thermonuclear war.

Most of the time, you run a reset with the Keep My Files option when your computer starts acting flakey. You run a reset to wipe the whole system when you're going to sell your PC. But either or both - or using restore points - may be offered as options when your computer won't boot right.