How Windows 10’s “Reset This PC” Has Gotten More Powerful
The “reset This PC” feature has been around since Windows 8, but it's changed a lot since then. Microsoft keeps making it better and better, and it's easy to miss all the improvements. Cloud Download is just the latest, most visible one.
How “Reset This PC” Works
The Reset This PC feature makes it “almost like you just opened your PC for the first time,” according to Microsoft's Aaron Lower, a project manager in charge of Recovery at Microsoft, in a Windows Insider webcast. If you're selling or giving away your PC, you can erase your files and even wipe your drive so your data can't be recovered. If you're experiencing a PC problem or just want a clean Windows system, you'll get that fresh Windows OS.
When resetting your PC, you can choose to either keep your personal files or have them removed from your PC. Either way, Windows will remove your installed programs and give you a fresh operating system.
To reset a PC, head to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery or choose the Troubleshoot > Reset This PC option in the Advanced Startup Options menu. This menu opens if you have problems booting your PC, but you can also open it by holding the Shift key while you click the “Restart” option in the Windows Start menu or on the login screen.
Under the hood, Windows will gather the files it needs and basically create a new Windows installation. It will migrate your personal files, if you choose, as well as hardware drivers and preinstalled applications to the new system.
Imageless Recovery on Windows 10
Windows Recovery goes a long way back. “Recovery partitions” began in Windows XP and were also used by Windows Vista and Windows 7. These were separate partitions containing a compressed copy of Windows and the manufacturer's customizations, and you could restart your PC and boot into them to restore.
On Windows 8, the “Reset This PC” feature exposed the recovery feature in a standard way PC manufacturers didn't have to build their own recovery features. While Windows 8 didn't use a recovery partition, it supported “recovery images” that it restored from. You could even replace the recovery image with your own for example, uninstalling
On Windows 10, the “Reset This PC” feature has always worked differently from how it did on Windows 8. Windows 10 uses “imageless” recovery. Instead of having a recovery image take up space on the drive, Windows 10 creates a fresh copy of Windows by assembling files present in the Windows installation. This means no storage space wasted on a separate recovery partition. Also, any installed security updates are preserved and not discarded, so you don't have to update everything after going through the recovery process, as you did on Windows 7.
Fresh Start Integration for Removing Bloatware
“Fresh Start” is now integrated into Reset This PC. This lets you restore a Windows 10 PC without restoring all the manufacturer-provided software some of which might be useful, but much of which is definitely bloatware that clutters and slows down your PC.
Previously, this feature was hidden. You had to go through Windows Security to find it. Lower said this project was a “parallel effort” alongside Reset This PC at Microsoft. It uses the same recovery tech as Reset This PC under the hood but doesn't restore those manufacturer-provided applications.
To use this, you'll be able to go through the Reset process, access additional options, and deactivate the “Restore preinstalled apps?” option. This will make Windows perform a “Fresh Start” without the manufacturer provided software like reinstalling Windows.
Microsoft's Lower called the Windows Security option a “secret squirrel entry point” and said Microsoft would be discontinuing it. It makes sense for Fresh Start to be integrated into Reset This PC rather than being buried in Windows Security, which is an almost entirely separate application.
For now, the Fresh Start option is still available at Windows Security > Device Performance & Health. Click “Additional Info” under Fresh Start and click the “Get Started” button.
The Recovery Environment Can Uninstall Updates
Starting with the October 2018 Update, Windows 10's recovery environment can now uninstall quality updates. These are the smaller updates Windows installs on Patch Tuesday, for example. If an update caused a problem and your PC can't reboot, you can use the Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > Uninstall Updates option in the Advanced Startup Options menu to restore it rather than digging through a Command Prompt window and looking for the most recent installed KB.
The “Uninstall latest quality update” option will uninstall the last normal Windows Update you installed, while “Uninstall latest feature update” will uninstall the previous major once-every-six-month update like the May 2019 Update or October 2018 Update.
This feature may sound pretty technical, and few people may use it, but there's some good news: Windows will automatically use it when it detects a problem with an update. So, if an update renders your Windows 10 system unbootable or causes another major issue, Windows 10 will automatically uninstall that quality update when it goes through the restore process. You don't even need to know this feature exists.
Before this automatic feature, only seasoned administrators who knew what they were doing could uninstall updates from the recovery environment.
Coming Soon: Cloud Download
Cloud Download is the latest exciting feature. As Lower writes on Microsoft's blog, the standard imageless recovery now known as “Local Reinstall” “can take more than 45 minutes and cannot always repair Windows if the installation is in a really bad state or is too corrupted.”
The new Cloud Download feature will let you reinstall Windows from the cloud rather than using your local copies of files. If you have a fast internet connection, it can be faster than using Local Recovery and it “can be a more reliable way” of recovering Windows, too. It's just like using the Media Creation Tool to download Windows onto a USB stick and restore your OS, but it's built right into Windows 10, and you can do it in a few clicks.
To use this feature after Windows 10's 20H1 update becomes stable, head to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery > Get Started. After selecting either “Keep my files” or “Remove everything,” you'll be prompted to choose “Cloud download” or “Local reinstall.”
Lower explains how it works in more detail on Microsoft's blog. It works like you might expect it to. Windows will download the files it needs from Microsoft's servers, create a new root operating system folder, migrate files like drivers from your current installation, and then swap the operating system's root folder.
The Future of Reset This PC
In the future, Microsoft's Lower said that Microsoft would be simplifying the overall interface by removing those “secret squirrel entry points” like the Fresh Start button in Windows Security.
Also, he said he hoped to do more with Cloud Download rather than using the machine's local hardware drivers during the reinstallation, he would like Windows to download the latest, freshest hardware drivers instead. That's just an aspirational goal, and there's no guarantee Microsoft will do this.
Lower also said he'd be interested in whether people would want Cloud Download to let them upgrade to newer builds or downgrade to older builds, so that's another possible feature for the future.
Whatever Microsoft ends up doing, Windows recovery has already come a long way from even the days of Windows 7, when you had to use a manufacturer-provided recovery partition or just reinstall Windows from scratch.