Refresh Versus Reset in Windows 10

One of the family laptops has been running so badly, I’ve been weighing the benefits of a refresh versus reset in Windows 10. But what exactly is the difference between those anyway? And what issues will either of them cure?

(Un)helpfuly, the use of those terms has changed across Windows 10 versions.

Refresh, known as “Refresh your PC” in older Windows 10 builds up to 15002 means to reinstall and update Windows, keeping personal files and settings but removing any programs it can’t access through the Microsoft Store.

Refresh now sits under Settings, Recovery, Reset this PC. The Get Started dialog presents two options: “Keep my files” and “Remove everything.”

A “Keep my files” refresh winds back the operating system close to a fresh install, without deleting your personal files.

  • Your personal user profile and data is unaffected
  • It re-installs Windows from local files (recovery partition) and not the latest version from Microsoft’s servers
  • All Windows software settings are changed back to the defaults
  • Apps installed from the Windows store are kept
  • Apps installed from discs or other websites are removed
  • Only drivers that come with a default Windows installation are kept
  • The list of removed apps and files is saved to the desktop

A “Remove everything” refresh returns the machine to its factory state with a base install of Windows. It probably won’t include the device-maker’s OEM software, utilities and drivers and it definitely will wipe all user profiles.

Before you use either option: BACK UP ALL PERSONAL FILES to another device, external drive or the Cloud.

While saving your data and resetting Windows, the utility creates a Windows.old folder of your previous installation, so you can retrieve something if necessary. You may even be able to launch some of your old programs from Windows.old.

The Windows.old folder will take up a lot of storage space. When you’re ready you can delete it from the root directory with admin permissions or through the Disk Cleanup tool. Click “Clean Up System Files” at the bottom of the Cleanup dialog.

You may also want to create a Windows Recovery Drive using a spare flash drive by going through the “Create a recovery drive” tool allowing you to boot off the drive into a recovery environment with repair options.

Which route and why?

Both of these are drastic measures. You’ll want to do a reset if you have incurable performance issues, compatibility issues, corrupted system or application files that you can’t fix any other way.

You should work through diagnosing and fixing those issues before thinking about a reset. Recreating your unique personal Windows environment involves reinstalling some or all the programs you use. It’s not quick, and reinstalling paid software requiring reactivation with license codes can be a royal pain. Restoring your data files can also be a long and tedious job. It’s why I’ve avoided a Refresh with the problem laptop as reinstalling essential legacy software is not easy

Having a regular backup regime is one way to avoid a time-consuming reset, especially if you backup system files and data separately. You could also try a System Restore if you have Restore Points running to take regular snapshots of your Windows setup.

Windows itself will try to convince you that using the File History feature is an adequate way to backup your configuration. It isn’t. There is a whole stack of free and paid backup utilities available to do the job properly. Don’t skimp.

On the whole, you’ll want to reserve both refresh options until you’ve exhausted your troubleshooting skills finding or fixing your Windows issues. Refreshing then recreating the same Windows environment which broke. AJS

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