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Return Windows XP to a previous working state with System Restore

When other measures like uninstalls, virus scans, and registry cleanups fail, the best solution may be to restore the operating system to a point in the past when it was working as intended using Microsoft Windows XP System Restore.

In light of the recent troubles many TechRepublic members have been having with the installation of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, I thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the concepts behind the System Restore feature of Windows XP.

System Restore runs in the background and periodically records the state of the OS at a specific point in time. Theoretically, you can return your operating system to that recorded point, which presumably is a point where the operating system was working properly. This restoration can take you back to a time before a driver, application, malware, or other recent installation corrupted the operating system.

Steven Warren wrote a "How Do I..." on Windows XP System Restore in June 2008 that explains how it works, how you can use System Restore to create a restoration point manually, and how an actual restoration process plays out.

If you have been wrestling with a bad install of Internet Explorer 8, this may be an option to consider.

Note: System Restore in Windows Vista is similar to this process but different enough to warrant its own blog post. Look for the Vista version in a later post.

Also, System Restore may be turned off via Group Policy, so the feature may be missing on some enterprise PCs.

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

22 comments
Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

I have used System Restore many times in the past to revert to a Windows state that was working properly, but not lately. When was the last time you used System Restore?

Ric_Shanahan
Ric_Shanahan

Hi folks, A friend accidentally contracted the Antispyware XP 2009 scumware in Vista and could not remove it. I walked him through a 'Safe mode' boot and System restore. Then a download and install of Malwarebytes in Safe mode. After running this sequence his machine is back to normal.

gjkool
gjkool

I used system restore on my XP machine about a week ago for the last time. I have used it frequently in the past years,on several XP machines. About once a month, whenever I try a certain new program and it did not satisfy me. I love system restore! However, on 2 pre-installed XP systems I have seen it did not work. Seems to do its job, but at the end it tells you it did not succeed. I checked all the settings, all was o.k. I even did reset system restore, still the same problem. On one of these systems I formatted the C drive, re-installed XP, and from that moment on it have worked fine on that machine too.

Snuffy09
Snuffy09

is not a replacement for a goob backup system restore will only restore your registry to an earlier time. some doc and settings items may change but probably not. I disable system restore.

sfretz
sfretz

I have had the need to use System Restore many times and it almost never works. It seems like it does the restore, reboots, and then tells me it wasn't successfull. I try the day before and get the same thing.

chris
chris

From my limited use of system restore I didn't find it that useful due to the following. 1) If malware/viruses strike they have a nasty tendency to in bed themselves in the system restore backup files. 2) Usually within an enterprise environment it is quicker and simpler to salvage user data and re-image from a SOE image. 3) There is resource overhead disk space wise and most likely performance wise as well. In one particular case where I used system restore because I had accidentally uninstalled several programs (about 6-8) required by a user, the system restore did not revert back correctly and of all programs office visio 2007 would not function correctly. I do concede it can be useful in SME market and for home users. PS. Thanks for the group policy reminder, I will be sure to use it ;)

wlportwashington
wlportwashington

I have tried System Restore and I too find that it rarely works. Now I consider it a last ditch effort before going onto more agressive tactics.

mkr1951kr
mkr1951kr

This has been my experience exactly.

masters1
masters1

I have the same problem System Restore never works for me. It always tells me it was not successfull and there were no changes made. I also have a Dell system and it is supposed to have a drive that is in the system to format the system back to the original format it came with ane it will not work either. I have to load everything the hard way.

Tuvan
Tuvan

.... my experience of System Restore. It seldom or never works. Everything seems to work just fine, and in the end a sad notice that it was not successful. What is wrong?

biztech
biztech

1) "Embed", maybe. But not that often. 2) What is a "SOE image"? 3) Yes, it uses disk space on the local PC. Do you have PCs that are running low on disk space? Really? Unless they are using VMs or doing video, very few modern business PCs are low on disk space. :) Besides, the default setting is 12% of the system partition. You can, and I have the general practice to, reduce that. At 12% on a 120GB drive, for example, gives you MANY MANY restores points. Down at 4-6% you still get a lot of functionality. As to your experience with System Restore not recovering from deleted applications, that is correct behavior. System Restore is not intended to recover lost/deleted application or data files. It is not a backup program. This seems consistent with your admission to having little experience with System Restore. :) There is no performance overhead. It does not 'run' in the background or anything like that. What is a "SME" market? I know of SMB for Small/Medium Business. If you do *disable* System Restore enterprise-wide, then I worry for your company's technology assets overall. You seem inclined to make decisions based on too little actual knowledge. On of the most challenging things about IT is knowing which tool is right for the job when both the tools and 'the job' are always changing. Cheers

tmalo627
tmalo627

I'll admit system restore does have very limited use in an enterpise environment. It is not designed to back up data or applications. But it is a built in tool that can back up the registry if you have to make changes. I used it today while trying to remove some registry keys left after uninstalling IE8 from a user's computer.

neonsoldja
neonsoldja

Bare in mind as well, relating to the previous poster who stated issues w/ his Dell restore partition, there are other ways to access it as long as you didn't mess it up prior. Either on the OS side via the GUI DELL restore app, @ POST (sometimes it's a hidden option and you must hit Ctrl + F11), or if it's a Vista based unit, via the Repair/Recovery console. This last option is great for most people as unlike in the XP days, the Vista repair console is GUI based and also has direct access to system restore outside of the OS (unlike in XP). Via the Vista repair console you will find at the bottom the option for the Dell recovery partition. This is all assuming that the user didn't FUBAR something prior (which most of the "it don't work" complaints are).

biztech
biztech

The recovery partition on Dell systems is very often a life saver. But, like everything else with PC technology, it only works when you have taken enough time to know how to use it as it is intended to be used *and* you don't ruin it with some other, prior, actions. If the recovery does not work, it's probably due to something you installed or did. Do you ALWAYS read the ReadMe and release notes on everything before you install? I've read a few and some of them even mention "installation of this product may be incompatible with a recovery partition or other system recovery products." Did you try the System Reinstallation disk (many Dell models have one available)? Did you call Dell Support before wiping it out and starting over? I find most people who complain 'but it didn't work' are simply ignorant of how these things affect each other and or how they were intended to be used in the first place. PCs are very complex now but most people don't have the time, inclination or aptitude to figure it all out. It's a mess.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I can't wait until Malwarebytes comes out with a 64 bit version!

blackmaleya41
blackmaleya41

I agree Avast anti-virus works. It's much better than McAfee which I am using with ATT&T Internet. I am going to be switching back to Avast. In addition, check out Super anti spyware and Malewarebytes. You can download it free at download.com

masters1
masters1

I have avg and my system will not restore. It used to work even when I had avg but it quit restoreing about a year ago. My computer was just over a year old then and dell would not help because I would not extend my warrenty. Heck I don't need their warrenty for the cost of it.

sparky52
sparky52

We use Avast, and have no problems with the System Restore at all. Works everytime, if I get any messages that the restore can't do it I start looking for that trogan, worm, or virus that slipped through. I have found that is the most causes of it not working.

mkr1951kr
mkr1951kr

I run Zone Alarm Security Suite with same results.

roy.mogk
roy.mogk

I have this issue on some computers, but not all? The common thread seems to be Norton and McAfee anti-virus. Even with the anti-virus disabled, it still won't restore. It must interfere with how the restore file is saved or accessed. I haven't tried AVG or the others yet, but machines that used to restore stopped after virus updates about 3 years ago.