System Restore – A Layman’s Guide

How, When, and Why

system-restore-featureSystem Restore is a feature in Microsoft Windows that allows the user to revert their computer’s state (including system files, installed applications, Windows Registry, and system settings) to that of a previous point in time ~ Wikipedia

I peruse a lot of articles on tech sites, not only to help further my own education but also to keep an eye on what others are writing about. Although some tech sites are spot on with their information, it never ceases to amaze me just how many are spreading bad advice and misinformation. I recently came across one such article discussing System Restore which included the following closing statement:

Everyone should think of System Restore first when they start having problems with their computer.

In my humble opinion, that is patently bad advice. System Restore should always be the last resort, not the first response. There are several very good reasons for this:

  1. Not all malware manifests itself immediately, some malware can sit dormant for days before its payload is triggered, and even if malware delivers its payload immediately, the affects may not be noticed until several days have passed. Any restore point created from the time of initial infection will also include the malware. Now, if under these circumstances, someone follows the normal procedure of restoring to a date close to the time before the issue first appeared, all they’ll be doing is restoring the malware along with everything else.
  2. By using System Restore to “fix” problems, you are not getting to the heart of the matter, nor are you learning anything. If you have no idea what went wrong, the chances of duplicating the same issue at some time down the track are very high.
  3. While system restore has become more and more reliable it is still not 100% foolproof. System restore can take quite some time to complete and if, for example, during that time a sudden power outrage occurs, it is highly likely that your system will be toast. So, no matter how slight, there is an element of risk involved.

malware-magnifiedContrary to that other tech site’s advice, if an issue suddenly appears for no apparent reason, your first course of action should always be to eliminate the possibility of malware. The best way to do this is by scanning the system with a reputable malware scanner/remover, such as MalwareByte’s Anti-Malware (free) or Emsisoft Emergency Kit Scanner. If malware is identified and removed, and the issue no longer exists, then all good. Even if the system is reported as being 100% clean, at least you now know it’s unlikely that your restore points are infected, and if the issue persists there are still plenty of steps remaining to help find a solution.

Many issues which appear out of the blue are caused by recent changes – installing updates or new software installations for example. If you go to Control Panel > Programs and Features and click on the Installed On column header, the list will be sorted by date of installation. From there you can easily check to see if anything new has been installed around the time that the issue first appeared. Similarly, if you click the View Installed Updates option in the left hand panel, you’ll be presented with a list of all installed updates. Same system. Click the Installed On column header to sort into date of installation and identify any recently installed updates.

control panel-programs and features

Often, uninstalling a recently installed software or update will rectify the situation. Even if nothing new has been installed within the time frame, you can still continue the search for a fix by utilizing a number of Windows diagnostic tools – Troubleshooter, System File Checker, and DISM commands – all helpful tools. And, if any of that is above your pay grade, you can always seek advice through any number of help forums, including the DCT Forum, where our team of experts will be only too happy to assist.

The point being, System restore is not the be all and end all for computer problems and a proper diagnostic process will often be of far greater benefit in the long run. Of course, System Restore is always available as a last resort, if all else fails.

Accessing & Configuring System Restore

You can access System Restore by several methods, however, the common method across all Windows operating systems is to navigate to Control Panel > System and then click the System Protection option in the left hand panel:

control pnael-system-system protection

This will take you to the “System Properties” window where you can configure System Restore, manually create new restore points, and access a list of restore points to restore your system to an earlier time:

system properties window

Protection settings should be turned On for your system drive (usually C drive). If not, highlight the system drive in the list of available drives, click the Configure button, and enable the option to Turn on system protection. You can also allocate the amount of hard drive space to be used by System Restore:

sytem restore-configure

Due to differences in hard drive capacities plus varying degrees of free disk space, there is no hard and fast rule for how much space to allocate. Bear in mind that once System Restore has reached the maximum amount of space allocated, the oldest restore point will be deleted each time a new restore point is created – meaning less space equals less available restore points and more space equals more available restore points.

The amount of disk space you allocate will be largely dictated by the capacity of your system drive. In my case, the system drive is a 250GB Samsung SSD with 200GB free space and, as you can see from the above screenshot, I’ve allocated 10% (or 23.21GB) to be used by System Restore. I’ve seen lots of estimates on how much space is used by each restore point, however, this is equivalent to asking how long is a piece of string, as it will differ from user to user and operating system to operating system. The best way for you to ascertain an approximation of this figure for your own system is to wait until multiple restore points have been created and then divide the amount shown under “Current Usage” by the number of restore points saved.

Manually Create a Restore Point

Some restore points will be created automatically; prior to installing Windows updates for example, and some software installations will also trigger automatic creation. The system will also automatically create a restore point if none have been created within a specific period of time – I believe that’s 7 days for modern Windows operating systems.

However, it’s always a good idea to manually create a system restore point prior to making any major system changes, such as:

  • Before installing a program;
  • Before making changes to the Windows Registry (including clean-up using 3rd party tools).
  • Before cleaning junk files in aggressive mode.
  • Before utilizing any sort of tweaking or optimization tool.

Here’s How: In the System Properties window, click on the Create button. In the popup window, type a suitable name into the dialogue box (a name which will help identify the restore point), and then click the popup’s Create button:


Restoring the System to an Earlier Time

Access saved System Restore points by clicking on the System Restore button at the top of the System Properties window.  Then, in the new window, click Next:


To view a list of all available restore points, enable the option to “Show more restore points“. Now, select a restore point (highlight it) and then click Next. *As I mentioned earlier, the usual procedure here is to select a restore point close to the date before the issue first appeared.


Closing Words

System Restore is certainly no substitute for a proper backup strategy including creating system images. Still, provided it’s used sparingly and as a last resort, System Restore can provide a simple method to help overcome certain issues.

About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

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