What is System Restore?

Use System Restore to Undo Changes to Important Parts of Windows

Screenshot of the System Restore utility in Windows 10
System Restore (Windows 10).

System Restore is a recovery tool in Windows that allows you to reverse certain kinds of changes made to the operating system.

System Restore is used to return important Windows files and settings - like drivers, registry keys, system files, installed programs, and more - back to previous versions and settings.

Think of System Restore as an "undo" feature for the most important parts of Microsoft Windows.

What System Restore Does

Like I said above, restoring your computer to a previous state only affects Windows files. It's that type of data that's normally to blame for issues that would prompt you to use System Restore.

If strange things are happening to your computer after a driver install, for example, you might find that restoring the system to a previous state before the driver install fixes the problem because System Restore will undo the installation.

As another example, say you're restoring your computer to the state it was in a week ago. Any programs you've installed during that time will be uninstalled during the System Restore. It's important to understand this so you're not left thinking that your computer is in an even worse state when you discover that a program or two are missing after the restore.

Important: System Restore doesn't guarantee that the issue will be resolved. Say you're only just now experiencing an issue with your video card driver, so you restore the computer back to a few days ago, but the problem persists.

It's possible the driver was corrupted three weeks ago, in which case restoring to just a few days ago, or any point within the last three weeks, will do no good in correcting the problem.

What System Restore Doesn't Do

System Restore does not affect your personal files like your photos, documents, email, etc.

You can use System Restore without hesitation even if you've just imported a few dozen pictures to your computer - it doesn't "undo" the import. The same concept applies to downloading files, editing videos, etc. - all of it will stay on your computer.

Note: Even though System Restore may remove a program you've installed, it won't also delete the files you've made through the program. For example, even if System Restore deletes your Adobe Photoshop installation, the images you may have created or edited with it are not removed as well - those are still considered your personal files.

Since System Restore doesn't restore personal files, it is not a fall-back solution if you've forgotten to make backups of your data or if you want to undo a change you made to a file. An online backup service or a file backup program is what you need to make backups of your files. However, you may consider System Restore a "system backup" solution because it does, in fact, backup and restore crucial system files.

On that note, System Restore is also not a file recovery utility that lets you "undelete" your files. If you accidentally deleted a folder full of important documents, and you can't restore it from the Recycle Bin, System Restore is not what you want to use to get those things back.

For that, see this list of free data recovery tools for a program made specifically for digging up deleted files.

How To Do a System Restore

The System Restore tool can be accessed from the System Tools program folder in Windows. Once started, this utility is designed as a step-by-step wizard, making it really easy to choose a point in the past, called a restore point, to return your important files and settings to.

See How To Use System Restore in Windows for a complete walkthrough of the process.

If you can't access Windows normally, System Restore can also be started from Safe Mode in all versions of Windows. You can also start System Restore from the Command Prompt.

You can even run System Restore from outside Windows completely via Advanced Startup Options in Windows 10 and Windows 8, or System Recovery Options in Windows 7 and Windows Vista.

See my What is a Restore Point? piece for much about restore points, including when they're created, what they contain, etc.

System Restore Availability

System Restore is available from within Microsoft Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, and Windows Me.

As mentioned above, System Restore is also available from the Advanced Startup Options or System Recovery Options menu, depending on the version of Windows, as well as from Safe Mode.

System Restore is not available in any Windows Server operating systems.

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