Windows 7 System Restore explained

22nd Oct 2009 | 11:00

Windows 7 System Restore explained

Recover from spyware and Windows 7 errors

System Restore in Windows 7

Windows 7 has many great features, but System Restore is one of the few genuine lifesavers.

It's a tool that you'll hopefully never have to use, but as with all system maintenance, it's always worth making sure that you're ready in the event of having to call on it.

Its job is to keep notes of everything you change on your computer, enabling you to reverse them with a couple of clicks. Times you might need to use it include clearing up a bit of spyware that managed to sneak its way on to your system, error messages suddenly appearing after installing a new tool, or a critical error developing.

System Restore is switched on by default when you install Windows 7, although it's always worth doublechecking. Type 'restore' into your Start menu (not pressing Return) and you'll see the three key options – opening System Restore, and shortcuts to creating and restoring from a Restore Point.

Windows 7 creates these automatically, once a week or just before you install new software, but you're not bound to this schedule – you can create your own Restore Points whenever you like. For the most part, though, this isn't necessary.

Changes, changes

The most important thing to remember about System Restore is that it isn't a file backup tool – it's a system backup tool, and there's a critical difference.

System Restore's job is to look out for Windows files; the programs that you install; registry settings that get changed; and other behind-the-scenes elements – not your documents.

The advantage of this is that in the event of a disaster, you can get your system up and running without needing to worry about anything you created post-Restore Point being wiped away. The downside is that there's not much that it can do if your problem is a deleted file or corrupted photograph.

Windows 7 does add one useful feature, however. Along with system data, Restore Points track any changes to files and folders, enabling you to go back to previous versions.

File versions

RESTORE POINT:The best time to make a System Restore point is when you've just installed/reinstalled Windows 7 and your drivers, and everything's working as it should

Right-click on any file or folder, choose 'Restore previous versions' and you will see the list. This is fantastic for documents with a long lifespan, but it doesn't help you if you only need to rewind time by an hour or so.

System security

What can help is that System Restore works hand-in-hand with Windows Backup, although this isn't switched on by default. You'll find the option to use it in System and Security in your Control Panel.

This provides extra previous version support, with its saved copies accessed from the same place as the System Restore ones mentioned earlier; file backups that enable you to retrieve individual documents; and most dramatically, full system images.

A system image is a complete copy of your hard disc – Windows, system settings, your documents, your files, even your wallpaper settings – that can simply be dropped back on to the drive after a crash, ready to use as though nothing ever happened.

Online backup for your Windows 7 machine

It's a good idea to couple all this built-in protection with an online service. Your data may be safe on a DVD or a network drive at home, but a fire or similar disaster isn't likely to stop at just your computer.

Saving a copy of critical files to the internet gives you many more options, often including access to your files wherever you go, not just if you need to recover them.

Not needing to have DVDs or portable hard drives to hand also means that the process can be invisible, rather than a weekly chore, and can be performed on a more regular basis than any of us would have time for – every few minutes, not every few days. For mass backup and restoration, we like Carbonite (£33 a year from

If you want easier access to your files when on the move, Livedrive is an excellent mix of backup tool and online storage. The standard version offers 100GB of space for £39.95 a year.

Combine all these, and there's not much that can go wrong. You might lose a file on your hard drive, but you'll always have a copy close to hand. Fail to prepare for disaster, however, and when the worst happens, there'll be nothing you can do.

Protecting your system

1. Automatic process

Step 1

System Restore runs automatically, and there aren't any complicated options to keep track of. The recommended restore point is simply the last one, but you don't need to remember what it did – important changes are listed.

2. Alternative points

Step 2

To see more Restore Points, simply click Choose a different restore point followed by Next. This lists the ones Windows has saved, and by clicking Scan for affected programs you get more detail without having to actually run the process.

3. Back up

Step 3

Backup requires more effort. Visit System and Security in Control Panel to activate it. You can choose to save your files to a network drive (Professional/Ultimate edition only), but in most cases you'll be burning to a DVD.

4. Select files

Step 4

The default is to let Windows choose which files to back up – which includes the desktop, libraries and standard Windows folders, such as Documents. This will cover 99 per cent of files you want, but you can add more or be more selective.

5. Whole hard drive

Step 5

The System Image option, on the other hand, copies your whole hard disc. This requires multiple DVDs or a second hard disc (a risky proposition) for a complete system reinstall, but you can't pull individual files from the archive.


First published in Windows: The Official Magazine Issue 36

Liked this? Then check out Windows compared: Windows 7 vs Vista vs XP

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