The power of personalization is something we all love about PCs, but sometimes there is good reason to want to roll back to an earlier state. Most consumer electronics devices today can be reset to some factory state, and so we built this capability into Windows 8 too. Desmond Lee is a program manager on the Fundamentals team and authored this post about “push-button reset.”
Many consumer electronic devices these days provide a way for customers to get back to some predefined “good” state. This ranges from the hardware reset button on the back of a wireless network router, to the software reset option on a smartphone. We’ve built two new features in Windows 8 that can help you get your PCs back to a “good state” when they’re not working their best, or back to the “factory state” when you’re about to give them to someone else or decommission them.
Today, there are many different approaches and tools to get a PC back to factory condition. If you buy a PC with Windows preinstalled, it often comes with a manufacturer-provided tool and a hidden partition that can be used for that specific model of PC. You might also use a third-party imaging product, Windows system image backup, or the tried and true method of a clean reinstall from the Windows DVD. While these tools all provide similar functionalities, they don’t provide a consistent experience from one PC or technique to another. If you are the “go to” person for your friends, relatives, or neighbors when they need help with their PCs, you may find that it’s sometimes necessary to just start over and reinstall everything. Without a consistent experience to do this, you might end up spending more time finding the recovery tool for a specific PC than actually fixing the problems, and this gets even worse if you’re helping someone over the phone.
With Windows 8, there are a few key things that we set out to deliver:
- Provide a consistent experience to get the software on any Windows 8 PC back to a good and predictable state.
- Streamline the process so that getting a PC back to a good state with all the things customers care about can be done quickly instead of taking up the whole day.
- Make sure that customers don’t lose their data in the process.
- Provide a fully customizable approach for technical enthusiasts to do things their own way.
As we began planning for Windows 8, we asked ourselves: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could just push a button and everything is fixed?” We really wanted to focus on the concept of “push button”, which translated into a design goal that represents a simple to use, predictable, and fast solution. We also wanted to build on the process many people already use today when they need to start over: back up your data, reinstall Windows and apps, and restore your data. The strength of this approach is that you start over from a truly clean state, but you still get to keep the things you care about. With that as the basis of the solution, our goal was to make the process much more streamlined, less time-consuming, and more accessible to a broad set of customers.
Our solution in Windows 8 consists of two related features:
- Reset your PC – Remove all personal data, apps, and settings from the PC, and reinstall Windows.
- Refresh your PC – Keep all personal data, Metro style apps, and important settings from the PC, and reinstall Windows.
Reset your PC to start over
In some cases, you might just want to remove everything and start from scratch manually. But in other cases, you’re removing your data from a PC because you’re about to recycle or decommission it. For both of these situations, you can easily reset your Windows 8 PC and put the software back into the same condition as it was when you started it for the very first time (such as when you purchased the PC).
Resetting your Windows 8 PC goes like this:
- The PC boots into the Windows Recovery Environment (Windows RE).
- Windows RE erases and formats the hard drive partitions on which Windows and personal data reside.
- Windows RE installs a fresh copy of Windows.
- The PC restarts into the newly installed copy of Windows.
(Note that the screenshots below reflect changes that we’re making for Beta, some of which are not yet available in Developer Preview)
Resetting your PC
For those of you who worry about data that may still be recoverable after a standard reset, especially on PCs with sensitive personal data, we also will be providing an option in Windows 8 Beta to erase your data more thoroughly, with additional steps that can significantly limit the effectiveness of even sophisticated data recovery attempts. Instead of just formatting the drive, choosing the “Thorough” option will write random patterns to every sector of the drive, overwriting any existing data visible to the operating system. Even if someone removes the drive from your PC, your data will still not be easily recoverable without the use of special equipment that is prohibitively expensive for most people. This approach strikes a good balance between security and performance – a single pass through your hard drive offers more than enough security for typical scenarios such as donation to a local charity, but does not bog you down for hours or days with multi-pass scrubbing operations that might be required for regulatory compliance if you are dealing with highly confidential business and government data.
Choosing how your data should be removed
Refresh your PC to fix problems
Resetting your PC can take you back to square one if you encounter a problem, but that’s clearly a very heavy weight solution, something you’d only do as a last resort. But what if you could get the benefit of a reset – starting over with a fresh Windows install – while still keeping your stuff intact? This is where Refresh comes in handy. Refresh functionality is fundamentally still a reinstall of Windows, just like resetting your PC as described above, but your data, settings, and Metro style apps are preserved. We have a solution to help you with your desktop apps, too, which I’ll talk about a little later.
The coolest part about Refresh is there’s no need to first back up your data to an external hard drive and restore them afterwards.
Refreshing your PC goes like this:
- The PC boots into Windows RE.
- Windows RE scans the hard drive for your data, settings, and apps, and puts them aside (on the same drive).
- Windows RE installs a fresh copy of Windows.
- Windows RE restores the data, settings, and apps it has set aside into the newly installed copy of Windows.
- The PC restarts into the newly installed copy of Windows.
Unlike manually reinstalling Windows, you don’t have to go through the Windows Welcome screens again and reconfigure all the initial settings, as your user accounts and those settings are all preserved. You can sign in with the same account and password, and all of your documents and data are preserved in the same locations they were before. To accomplish this, we actually use the same imaging and migration technologies behind Windows Setup. In fact, the underlying setup engine is used to perform both Reset and Refresh, which also benefit from the performance and reliability improvements we added to setup for Windows 8.
Refreshing your PC
Misconfigured settings are sometimes the cause of problems that lead to customers needing to refresh their PCs. To ensure that Refresh is both effective in fixing problems and in making sure customers don’t lose settings that they might have trouble reconfiguring, we’ve thought a great deal about which settings to preserve. In Windows 8 Beta, some of the settings we’ll preserve include:
- Wireless network connections
- Mobile broadband connections
- BitLocker and BitLocker To Go settings
- Drive letter assignments
- Personalization settings such as lock screen background and desktop wallpaper
On the other hand, we deliberately chose not to preserve the following settings, as they can occasionally cause problems if misconfigured:
- File type associations
- Display settings
- Windows Firewall settings
We will continue to enhance and tune both lists over time based on how we see the feature being used in the Developer Preview and Beta.
Restoring your apps
We preserve only Metro style apps when customers refresh their PCs, and require desktop apps that do not come with the PC to be reinstalled manually. We do this for two reasons. First, in many cases there is a single desktop app that is causing the problems that lead to a need to perform this sort of maintenance, but identifying this root cause is not usually possible. And second, we do not want to inadvertently reinstall “bad” apps that were installed unintentionally or that hitched a ride on something good but left no trace of how they were installed.
It is also important to understand that we cannot deterministically replace desktop apps, as there are many installer technologies as well as custom setup and configuration logic, of which Windows has little direct knowledge. That is why we discourage the use of third-party uninstallers or scrubbers. One simple thing to consider is that many setup and installation programs conditionally implement functionality based on the state of the machine at the time of the install (for example default browser, default photo handler, etc.)
You can, however, cleanly install and uninstall all Metro style apps using the .appx package format. If you’re interested in learning more about how Metro style apps work in this regard, check out the following sessions from //build:
If you do need to reinstall some desktop apps after you refresh your PC, we save the list of apps that were not preserved in an HTML file, and put this list on the desktop, so you have a quick way to see what you might need to reinstall and where to find them.
One caution is that if any desktop apps you have require a license key, you will need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions for how to reuse the key. This might involve uninstalling the app first, going to a web site, or going through some automated steps by phone, for example.
What if the PC can’t boot?
When your PC is able to boot normally, you can get started with refreshing or resetting it from PC settings. (This is the Metro style app that we called “Control Panel” in the Windows Developer Preview. It is different from the standard Control Panel that you can still use for more complex tasks from the desktop.) The options are easily discoverable, and will be in the same place on every Windows 8 PC. Once launched, you can get through them with just a few clicks, which makes it easy to guide someone through the process over the phone.
However, in some situations, the PC might not boot successfully and you might want to refresh or reset it to get it back to a working condition. In a previous post, Billie Sue Chafins discussed how the boot experience has been redesigned from the ground up, including troubleshooting using Windows RE. Naturally, we’ve made it possible for you to refresh or reset your PC from there as well.
Refreshing or resetting your PC from the new boot UI
In Windows 8 Beta, there will also be a tool that you can use to create a bootable USB flash drive, in case even the copy of Windows RE on the hard drive won’t start. You’ll be able to start your PC with the USB drive, and fix problems by refreshing your PC or performing advanced troubleshooting. And if your PC comes with a hidden recovery partition, you’ll even have the option to remove it and reclaim disk space once you’ve created the USB drive.
Refreshing your PC to a state you define, including desktop apps
We know that many of you like to first configure your PC just the way you like it, by installing favorite desktop apps or removing apps that came with the PC, and then create an image of the hard drive before you start using the PC. This way, when you need to start over, you can just restore the image and you won’t have to reinstall the apps from scratch.
With this in mind, we’ve made it possible for you to establish your own baseline image via a command-line tool (recimg.exe). So when you get a Windows 8 PC, you will be able to do the following:
- Go through the Windows first-run experience to configure basic settings.
- Install your favorite desktop apps (or uninstall things you don’t want).
- Configure the machine exactly as you would like it.
- Use recimg.exe to capture and set your custom image of the system.
After you’ve created the custom image, whenever you refresh your PC, not only will you be able to keep your personal data, settings, and Metro style apps, but you can restore all the desktop apps in your custom image as well. And if you buy a PC that already comes with a recovery image on a hidden partition, you’ll be able to use the tool to switch from using the hidden partition to instead use the custom image you’ve created.
If you’d like to try this out now, a preview version of this tool is included in the Windows 8 Developer Preview. You can try it out by typing the following in a command prompt window running as administrator:
recimg -CreateImage C:\RefreshImage
This creates the image under C:\RefreshImage and will register it to be used when you refresh your PC. Again, this is a very early version of the tool, so we know it’s not perfect yet. Rest assured that we’re working hard to get it ready for primetime.
Getting back to productivity quickly
When we started building these features, we knew that ease of use wasn’t going to be enough – refresh and reset had to be fast as well. Many of the recovery tools preloaded with PCs today take an hour or more just to get the PC back to factory condition, and you often still have to spend hours copying back your data and reconfiguring everything. Even solutions that back up and restore the entire hard drive can take a long time, as the time required generally scales with how much data you have.
To give an example of the performance of our solution, we installed a clean copy of Windows on the Developer Preview PC that we gave out to attendees at the BUILD conference, filled most of the drive with data, and measured the time it took to go through various recovery operations:
Refreshing the PC
8 minutes 22 seconds
Resetting the PC (quick)
6 minutes 12 seconds
Resetting the PC (thorough, with BitLocker enabled)
6 minutes 21 seconds
Resetting the PC (thorough, without BitLocker)
23 minutes 52 seconds
Compared to a baseline time of 24 minutes 29 seconds for restoring the same contents from a system image backup, most of these times show a considerable improvement.
The beauty of refreshing the PC is that performance isn’t impacted by the amount of data you have. Using the migration technology behind Windows Setup, your data never leaves the drive, and they are not physically moved from one location on the disk to another either, hence minimizing disk reads/writes. Restoring a system image from an external drive using the Windows backup utility, on the other hand, took much longer due to the data in the backup, even with the relatively small 64GB drive on the prototype PC. Thoroughly erasing data did take a bit longer than the other operations, as every sector of the drive had to be overwritten. However, you may also notice that when BitLocker drive encryption was enabled on the drive, this process took much less time. This is due to an optimization we employ so that erasing an encrypted drive would require erasing only the encryption metadata, rendering all the data unrecoverable.
A consistent and easy way to get back to a known good state
Sometimes things can go wrong and you just want to get back to a good state quickly, while other times you might want to remove your data before giving a PC to another family member, employee, or co-worker. With Windows 8, we’ve streamlined these processes and made them more accessible to customers with the new refresh and reset features. Here’s a video showing these features in action:
We hope you’ll find these features useful and time-saving when you’re fixing your own PC or helping others with theirs.
– Desmond Lee