A ‘no-reformat reinstall’ for Windows 8

Fred Langa

Win8′s Refresh your PC without affecting your files feature lets you rebuild your operating system in minutes.

A refresh returns Windows 8 to like-new condition while leaving users’ accounts, data, passwords, and personal files intact. But there are a few limitations to consider.

As I noted in the July 11 Top Story, “Understanding Windows 8′s File History,” Windows 8′s backup/restore mechanisms are a significant break from the past.

For example, File History doesn’t use traditional, periodic backups; instead, it makes nearly continuous backups of all new and altered files in the Windows Library. File History offers an unprecedented level of backup protection — if used properly.

Along with File History, Win8′s backup/restore system has two new components: Refresh your PC without affecting your files (“Refresh” for short) and Remove everything and reinstall Windows (“Remove”).

Refresh is a nondestructive reinstall that restores Win8′s core system files to factory-fresh condition. It can strip away deleterious changes caused by application installations, bad settings, data corruption, and so on.

Refresh doesn’t alter your user accounts, passwords, or data (including Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos), and it won’t remove or alter some installed programs. (More on what’s kept and lost in a moment.)

Remove, on the other hand, wipes out all user accounts, data, passwords, and installed programs — leaving you with a scratch Win8 installation that’s ready to be set up and customized.

Win8 is the first Windows to offer these two options built in. Because they’re part of the operating system, they work fast — much faster than the manual refresh/reinstall options available for previous Windows versions. A refresh, for example, requires almost no user input and runs to completion in as little as 20 minutes.

Win8 also lets you make your own custom recovery images — you can “refresh” to the specific, preconfigured setup of your choice.

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through a basic refresh so you can see how it works and know your options. In future installments, I’ll cover Remove, plus how to create and use custom recovery images. And I’ll explore the rest of what’s new and different about Win8′s backup/recovery systems.

Doing a refresh — start to finish

As mentioned, a refresh is a kind of nondestructive reinstall that puts your Windows system files back into factory-fresh condition but doesn’t alter your user accounts, data, or passwords. Moreover, some — if not all — installed programs are left intact.

Nondestructive reinstalls aren’t new to Windows. I explained the process for Vista and Windows 7 in the July 14, 2011, Top Story, “Win7′s no-reformat, nondestructive reinstall.” Windows XP users should check out the 2006 InformationWeek article, “XP’s no-reformat, nondestructive total-rebuild option.”

Prior to Win8, a nondestructive reinstall was a relatively painstaking, laborious, manual process. As already noted, Win8′s Refresh is push-button simple, highly automated, and fast.

To find Refresh, start at Win8′s General Settings page. Click the Settings charm (the gear icon), select Change PC settings, and then click the General heading. Scroll down to the Refresh your PC without affecting your files heading (circled in yellow in Figure 1).

Refresh

Figure 1. Win8's Refresh your PC without affecting your files — aka Refresh — tool

Keep in mind, Refresh is rebuilding the entire Windows 8 core — so when you click the Get started button (see Figure 1), the process begins with a quick explanation of what’s in store, as shown in Figure 2.

Refresh warning

Figure 2. So there are no surprises, Win8 tells you just what a basic refresh will do.

The Microsoft Win8 support page, “How to restore, refresh, or reset your PC,” explains in a bit more detail what Refresh’s basic settings will keep and discard (I’ve added emphasis to key phrases):

  • “The apps that came with your PC or you installed from Windows Store will be reinstalled, but any apps you installed from other websites and DVDs will be removed. Windows puts a list of the removed apps on your desktop after refreshing your PC.”

No doubt about it, temporarily losing your third-party apps is a hassle. But Microsoft reasons that most system troubles arise from third-party apps — and removing them will help get Windows going again. With Windows restored, you can then reinstall third-party apps, one by one, and see whether one is causing trouble.

If you’d rather retain your third-party apps, you can. Refresh can use a recovery image to rebuild a Win8 system to a specific configuration — one that includes third-party apps.

Some PCs come with a manufacturer’s recovery image installed on the hard drive or on DVD. Refresh can use that image to restore both the OS and the manufacturer’s software and drivers.

Better yet, Refresh can use custom system images created with recimg.exe, a command-line tool unique to Win8 (see MS Support article 2748351 for more info). If the custom image you created included third-party apps, Win8 will restore those apps as part of the refresh process.

I’ll cover recimg.exe and custom system images more fully in an upcoming article. For now, let’s complete our walk-through.

When you set Refresh in motion, it looks for known-good copies of system files it needs to restore. The files might be in a system image, on the hard drive, or on Win8-installation media such as a setup DVD, flash drive, .iso file, etc.

If Refresh can’t find all files it needs, it’ll pause and ask you to provide a source for the files (see Figure 3).

Additional files

Figure 3. If Refresh can't find needed system files, it'll ask for help.

Once Refresh has everything it requires, it will prompt you to start the actual refresh process, as shown in Figure 4.

Begin refresh

Figure 4. The actual start of the refresh process

Click the Refresh button, and your system will churn a bit, think for a moment, and then run the refresh process in earnest — including several reboots along the way.

Note: The refresh reboots are automatic — no user input is required. If you’re using a Win8 setup DVD (or other bootable medium) to provide necessary source files, Refresh’s reboots might ask you to “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD.” Ignore any such prompt. During a refresh, Win8 should boot only from the C: drive.

As the Refresh proceeds, Windows will display a variety of minimalist information screens along the way. Figures 5 and 6 show two examples.

Refresh underway

Figure 5. This minimalist progress screen appears early in the refresh process.

Refresh status

Figure 6. As the process nears completion, you'll see a more colorful but even less informative screen.

Start to finish, it took about 20 minutes to refresh my simple 64-bit, 8GB test system. Ultimately, the time required for a refresh depends on all the normal system variables: raw system speed, amount of installed RAM, hard-drive and other storage-device speed, etc.

Shortly after Refresh completes, Win8 runs Windows Update to bring the newly installed system files up to date. It might take the OS days to install all updates. Fortunately, it runs in the background, so you can start using your newly refreshed system immediately.

If you’d rather get updating over with as soon as possible, you can run Windows Update manually (Control Panel/System and Security/Windows Update). Click Check for updates to get all patches more or less at once.

What’s different after a basic refresh

Most of Refresh’s changes are invisible — the replacement of Win8′s system files with known-good copies.

But some alterations are immediately noticeable. For example, unless you used a custom system image, your Start screen will no longer show tiles for nonnative Win8 apps.

Figure 7 shows the Start screen of my test system prior to running a basic refresh (no custom image). Note the leftmost group. It includes: native Win8 apps (Internet Explorer, Desktop, and Store), a third-party Chess app from the Win8 Store, a couple of custom tiles (shutdown and lock), and third-party apps from non-Microsoft sites (Secunia PSI and CCleaner).

Pre-refresh Start screen

Figure 7. Before refresh: My Start screen tiles included a mix of custom tiles and tiles for both native Win8 apps and third-party software.

Figure 8 shows the same system’s Start screen immediately after running Refresh. The tiles for all custom and third-party apps have been removed, leaving only those for native Win8 apps and the Chess app from the Win8 Store.

Post-refresh Start screen

Figure 8. After refresh: The refresh process kept only native Win8 apps and an app from the Win8 Store.

After a refresh, the system places a file — Removed Apps.html — on the Win8 Desktop; it contains a list of all software the refresh removed from your system. As Figure 9 shows, the list includes the removed software’s name, publisher, and version number. In some cases, the app’s name provides a direct link to the publisher’s site, making it easier to download and reinstall a fresh copy of the missing app.

Removed-apps list

Figure 9. The Removed Apps.html file provides specific information on apps removed by a refresh.

Here’s a surprise: Refresh doesn’t delete the apps it removed; they’re taken out of service and stored in a protected folder — Windows.old — that’s typically located on the C: drive (see Figure 10).

Disabled-apps folder

Figure 10. Removed apps are stored in a Windows.old folder.

This is an important safety feature. If you discover that you need something from your pre-refresh software setup — a configuration file, forgotten template, specific .dll, or whatever — it’s probably still there in Windows.old.

The Windows.old folder will be quite large — it contains almost your entire pre-refresh setup! On my test system, the folder held almost 12GB of files. So once you’re sure you don’t need anything inside Windows.old, you’ll probably want to delete it.

Before highlighting Windows.old and pressing the Delete key, note that it’s a protected folder — you have to remove it in a roundabout way. Use Win8′s Disk Cleanup applet and select the Clean up system files option. For more information on cleaning up Win8 system files, see the Aug. 8 LangaList Plus column, “Easy ways to gain more hard-drive space.”

Once the bulky Windows.old folder is gone, your newly refreshed Win8 system should be smaller, leaner, and cleaner than before. In fact, it should be running very nearly like new!



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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.