“It was working fine until I installed/updated/changed that @%$^$@%^ thing!”

In the years supporting computer software, this is probably the most common phrase I have heard and continue to hear. For most regular folk, computers straddle that chasm between a modern convenience and an infernal contraption….and it seems like it only takes one thing to topple it the wrong way. It could be a new tool, a security update or even removing something that you didn’t need any more that could balance. Often, it not clear what is updated or changed, especially with all the automatic updates that software programs make to correct bugs or stay ahead of bad guys wishing to exploit their code

When I hear about the situations, the system has been often troubles for days and often weeks. So, “it was working fine until..” is usually follow by “I just want it work like was “before.”

You can never go back…well, maybe you can
A decade ago, this was a tough thing to do and often required a new installation of the system and applications to take the machine back to a state before the problem occurred. For Windows, this pattern changed, starting with Windows XP and the ability to “roll back” a driver for the device having trouble. By saving the old driver and its configuration information, you could restore it easily in case there were problems with the new driver. This was great for situations where you knew that new driver was the culprit. If it wasn’t clear who the culprit is, never fear! There was another option: System Restore.

System Restore periodically stores a snapshot or “restore point” of the current system, applications, and settings, and allow you undo changes made since that restore point was established. While System Restore is a reasonable name, it doesn’t begin to describe its capabilities to people who have had to use it. Macintosh OS X has a version of this feature with more exciting name (Time Machine) and while there are differences between the two tools, they both let you roll back the system to an earlier time…hopefully a time before your problem started.

A good idea with mixed reviews
System Restore made its first appearance in Windows ME before finding itself in Windows XP and future versions. While the idea was laudable, the initial reaction to the utility was mixed, largely because of the amounts of disk space the feature used. Back then, average hard sizes were much smaller. At the release of the Windows XP, 300 gigabytes (GB) drives were just hitting the market and people were more likely to have a drive in the 40-80 GB range. Since System Restore could take over 10% of that drive, people were often advised to lower the maximum space it could use or turn off the feature all together.

Fortunately, space is less of a problem these days with terabyte-sized drives costing the same as those old 80 GB drive. Yes, System Restore takes space… and that space is good insurance against trouble. Just how much size depends on your version of Windows:

Windows XP Drives over 4 Gig Drives 4 Gig and under
  12% of total disk space 400 megabytes (MB)
Windows Vista All Drives  
  15% of drive size or 30% of free disk space
Windows 7 Drives over 64 gig Drives 64 gig or under
  5% of drive or 10 GB Max 3% of drive max

It’s all about timing
Of course, the concern about disk space was also fueled by how often the system automatically sets restore points. In the opinion of many, Windows XP created restore points too often:

Windows XP Restore point is created every 24 hours of operation..
Windows Vista A restore point is created every 24 hour period if no other restore points were created that day.
Windows 7 Restore points every 7 days unless other restore points are created during that period.

With a 24 hour interval, people weren’t terribly happy with how System Restore worked in Windows XP. Also, since the time period not a 24 hour time period but 24 hours of system operation, the interval timer would pause and resume as people shut down or suspended their computers. This made the actual timing of the next restore point difficult to predict.

While the user interface does not provide a way to change this interval setting, you can adjust it by changing a setting directly in the System Registry, something I usually only recommend for knowledgeable people used to working in the Registry (if you are…see Resources for how). Joli Ballew wrote a great article on using System Restore in Windows XP that will help you better use the tool and adjusts many of its settings.

In Windows Vista and Windows 7, the system shifted further away from a rigid schedule, depending more on the actual system changes to determine when to set a restore point. Since most of issues that System Restore can address are related to these system changes, setting a restore point prior to these changes is the most effective and efficient approach. Here are some of the activities that will set a restore point:

· Application installations that work with System Restore. For example, if the application uses the Windows Installer or to add itself to the system, it will set a restore point before any changes are made.

· If an item is automatically downloaded through Windows AutoUpdate, restore point is set prior to installation.

· When you begin a System Restore operation, a restore point is set just in case you need to return to the current system. This is helpful if System Restore fails or the roll-back results in missing applications or settings you had not anticipated.

Understanding what you can lose in a System Restore
While knowing some of the mechanics around restore points is helpful, probably the most important thing to understand is what is saved when a restore point is set and what is not saved. System Restore does not change your documents or saved data at all, only the files and settings used to maintain the system and its applications.

The positive side of this is that system rollback won’t impact your documents when you restore to an earlier time. The downside is if the application you used to create the documents was installed or modified after the restore point used, you will likely have to reinstall or reconfigure the application to return it to the same state it was before the restore.

I recently had to use System Restore on a client’s machine to take the system back a month in time. While this resolved her problem, it also meant that the system needed nearly an hour of security updates to the system, anti-virus software, and other normally automatic updates to other applications. It was as if she had shut the computer down for the month and then had to catch up all at once.

The other point to remember is that System Restore is not a substitute for backup. It only stores executable files, the system registry and other files important to system operation. Windows XP uses the file extensions listed in Filelist.xml (found in the windows\system32\restore folder) as its guide for the files to save. For Windows Vista and Windows 7, that file is not used. You can find the listing of extensions on the Microsoft Developer Network website.

You should make sure that your documents and other hard-to-replace data are separately backed up and protected. If you have downloaded executable files that you need to keep, even if they are in the My Documents folder, I recommend you rename them prior to a system restore. If the restore point is before the file was downloaded, it will be removed unless you do this.

Going back with System Restore can help
As long as you take these precautions, System Restore can be a valuable tool to take your system back before the problem started…providing that the problem is due to a system change. While uninstalling or correcting the offending application are good first and second steps, System Restore is a solid third step to consider.

Resources
All Windows versions
eHow:
How to Set a Restore Point
Microsoft Knowledge Base:The Registry Keys and Values for the System Restore Utility

Windows XP
Joli Ballow:
Windows XP System Restore Is Easy to Use
Kelly’s Korner: System Restore for Windows XP
Microsoft Storage Team: Understanding how System Restore in Windows Vista treats executable files
Microsoft Knowledge Base: How to set a system restore point in Windows XP
Windows BBS: How to schedule creation of restore points

Windows Vista/7
How-To-Geek:
Create a Restore Point for Windows 7 or Vista’s System Restore
Microsoft Developer Network: Restore Points

Advertisements


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s