Windows works pretty well most of the time, but there are occasions — often caused by ‘user error’ — when it grinds to a halt and won’t respond. If restarting doesn’t remedy this, more drastic action is needed and resetting Windows may be the only option.

System Restore is the first thing to try here, since it’s a non-destructive way of making things work again — it won’t wipe your files, in other words. More serious cases require more serious solutions, though, so let’s take a look at the various options.

[Read more: How to protect your computer from viruses and malware for free]

Tip 1: System Restore

In short, System Restore takes Windows back to an earlier point in time by restoring all files that were present on your PC when a particular ‘restore point’ was taken.

These are created automatically at opportune moments, but you can also make them manually — such as just before you install some new hardware — as an added precaution.

System Restore

System Restore works in the same way in Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 10. Launch the System Restore from the Start menu, or the Start menu search box, then choose a restore point to ‘rewind’ Windows back to.

Unless you have a specific restore point taken just before the problem occurred (such as a software installation), it’s best to start with the most recent one and, if that doesn’t fix it, chose the next most recent — and so on. System Restore won’t affect your documents, but it will affect installed software and Windows settings.

[Related story: Bad computer crash? Fix Windows problems with System Restore]

Tip 2: New options in Windows 8 and 10

Windows 8 and 10 also have new features for getting everything working again. Search for recovery from the Start screen or Cortana search box and you’ll see two new options — Refresh your PC without affecting your files and Remove everything and reinstall Windows.

The first is obviously the least damaging to your data. It won’t affect your files and settings, but it will remove any software you’ve installed, other than that from the Windows App Store. 

New options in Windows 8 & 10

The second option restores your PC to a factory fresh state, but that means getting rid of everything that belongs to you — your files, applications and any settings. This is a last resort, but usually a foolproof one. Just make sure you have a suitable backup before using it and be sure to run Windows update when it’s finished.

Windows refresh

Tip 3: What happens when Windows won’t start?

Of course these two options will only work if Windows will start in the first place, but some problems can be so serious that this isn’t possible. Still, all is not lost if this is the case.

If you have a Windows installation disc, you can use that to boot your PC and run System Restore from there. You’ll probably need to press a key when your PC first starts to boot from the disc rather than your hard drive, so look for any on-screen messages about this.

System Restore from the install disc

Then click past the initial screen that asks for your system language and select Repair your computer from the next screen. You’ll then be prompted to repair Windows, so make sure the correct Windows installation is selected and click the Next button.

You’ll then see more options and the top two are the ones of interest. The first will attempt to repair any problems that are preventing Windows from starting normally. This will only take a few seconds and won’t affect your files or applications.

System Restore from the install disc

The second option simply allows you to run System Restore in the usual way, so follow the advice for this above — you can always boot from the installation disc again to select an earlier restore point.

Tip 4: Using your PC’s recovery tool

If your PC was supplied without a Windows installation disc, then it should have either a ‘recovery’ disc or partition (part of the hard drive). The steps for activating this vary according to the PC manufacturer, but in all cases, it will restore your PC to an as-new state and fix any software problems in the process. 

In both cases, however, everything you’ve stored on your PC since you first bought it will be lost — the restoration processor will simply create a fresh version of Windows, along with any pre-installed software from the manufacturer.

So again, it’s vital that you back up anything you want to keep before selecting this option — or if this isn’t possible, learn a painful lesson about regular backups for any future Windows problems.

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