By Michael Simmons

When was the last time you had to reinstall your operating system? Some people have noticed fewer rebuilds in Windows 7 then they had to perform with earlier versions of Windows.

It seems that the more recent the operating system, the less you have to reinstall it. The improvements in the OS help to prevent programs, and also users, from adversely affecting the PC’s performance. Still, entropy creeps in and the occasional OS repair is just a part of life for many of us.

This article shines a light on what hopefully is a very rarely used feature of Windows 8 – the Advanced Startup Options.

From such humble beginnings

Earlier Windows versions had fewer startup options: There was Safe Mode and VGA mode, and you could enable boot logging or debugging mode. There was also the Last Known Good Configuration.

Safe Mode is still a great idea – load up only the most basic set of hardware drivers. Since so many software problems can be traced back to a faulty or incompatible hardware driver, the ability to turn them all off is still a hugely valuable troubleshooting technique.

Debugging Mode is beyond what most users do to repair their system. It’s great for engineers, but requires too much training to be used by regular PC users.

Using the Last Known Good Configuration was a great idea, too. The concept was simple – if the settings make it all the way to the end of the session, they must have worked. Save them and call them “Last Known Good”. It was a step in the right direction.

By Windows 7, the Advanced Startup was getting really good

The Advanced Boot Options for Vista and Windows 7 was even better. You could change your PC to no longer reboot automatically after a system crash right from the startup options.

And in addition to the original options, you could now run Memory Diagnostics, System Restore, and even automatically repair many common problems from the advanced startup options.

Windows 8 Advanced Startup Options are the best they’ve ever been

It all starts with a start. And when your computer isn’t running right, you’ll really appreciate just how advanced the new advanced startup options are for Windows 8.

Refresh and Reset are the first two options. They are brand new, and they have gotten quite a lot of attention the newest features in the advanced startup menu.

Refresh is a heavy duty cleaning of your computer – but leaves your personal data intact. It also removes programs in the classic desktop mode. However, you keep the Metro programs that you installed from Windows Store.

Personalization settings (desktop background, screen resolution, picture password) are kept. PC Settings (network settings, hardware drivers, windows features) are removed or set to defaults.

Reset is the equivalent of doing a factory reset. It brings your computer back to the way it was when you got it, or at least when it was new. All programs have to be reinstalled, and your personal data is gone, too. You’ll need to backup any data that you’ll want to keep before doing this and Windows 8 gives you very clear warnings about what’s about to happen to your data if you proceed.

In fact, you’re actually given two options when you’re doing a Reset. You can either remove the files, or you can remove the files and “scrub the hard drive”, making it more difficult for somebody to recover the deleted files. If you’re planning on reinstalling programs and continuing to use the computer, choose the fast method. If you’re selling or giving away your computer to charity, then choose to fully clean the drive.

Even more advanced options in Windows 8 Advanced Startup

Besides Refresh and Reset, there are other advanced options available in the Windows 8 Advanced Startup Options.

System Restore puts the PC settings back to the way they were at the last Restore Point

Restore Points are taken by the system before installing security and software updates. So after having your PC in operation for a while, you’ll have plenty of System Restore Points. This puts the settings back to the way they were, but it does not change any of your personal data. Personal data (pictures, documents, music, and videos, for example) are neither backed up nor restored during a system restore.

System Image Recovery is a full restore from a backed-up System Image File

If you want a more customized restore option – one that can restore your operating system as well as installed programs, then a System Image Recovery is the ideal way to go. However, you’ll need an image to be used for the restore. This is usually done by organizations to deploy PC’s with all of their standard software installed. Most home or home office users will choose to do a Refresh or a Reset to handle their reimaging.

Automatic Repair Fixes a lot of problems for you

There are many issues that can keep your computer from starting up correctly – a misconfigured setting, or a hard drive that has a file error on it. This startup option scans for hundreds of files and settings, and if it finds a problem with one of them, it takes corrective action. No further input required. This is a big improvement over restoring the Last Known Good Configuration, and it’s much more helpful.

Command Prompt when you just need to have a little access

Sometimes all you need to do to fix a problem is to get to the command line. From there, you can run commands like NBTSTAT and IPCONFIG to help troubleshoot and repair the system.

Startup Settings includes all of the original Advanced Repair Options like Safe Mode

Engineers still need debugging mode, and sometimes reimaging, refreshing, or resetting is not the right fix. Safe Mode, Debugging Mode and Low Resolution Mode are still available from the “Startup Settings” section of the Advanced Startup Options menu.

Bottom line

While they usually go unnoticed, the advanced startup options are always available to you. And though we can forget that they’re there until we need them, when we do need them they become very important.

The Advanced Startup Options in Windows 8 keeps all of the old favorites like Safe Mode and Debugging Mode, and adds in several new features that give some great options for fixing your PC yourself without having to take it in for costly repairs at a service center or calling the corporate help desk.

Michael Simmons is a Systems Engineer and author for the TrainSignal blog which offers certification and technology news and webinars, how-to guides and career information for IT professionals. He is an IT veteran with over 15 years of experience specializing in SharePoint and PowerShell. Follow him on Twitter at @GeekSerious.

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