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Interesting Thoughts on "Starting Over" with Your Chosen OS

Earlier this week, I found one of my Windows 7 test machines in what can only be described as an “interesting state.” For whatever reason (I’d just finished updating a bunch of hardware drivers, and I suspect that one of them bit this OS installation in the hindquarters) the OS would no longer interact with Windows Update, and the file system interface through Windows Explorer was decidedly flaky. To make a long and tedious story short enough to be tolerable, I ended up rolling back to a system image dated just before the December 13 Patch Tuesday updates before that balky test PC returned to a stable and workable state. I found myself wishing for some mechanism to put my system in good order that would be better than a trial-and-error march back in time through restore points and system images until something finally clicked.

Desmond Lee, the program manager for the Windows 8 Fundamentals team, must have often entertained those same thoughts as he went about writing this January 4 post to the Building Windows 8 blog, entitled “Refresh and reset your PC.” Of course, this capability is focused on Windows 8 rather than Windows 7, but in the wake of a trying repair and recovery scenario, it was reassuring to read that my recent situation isn’t unique, and that people do wish for a quick and easy way to make this possible. In fact, Lee’s list of key objectives for the “refresh and reset” initiative are likely to strike chords with you readers, as well as resonating forcefully with me (I quote them verbatim):

  • Provide a consistent experience to get the software on any Windows 8 PC back to a good and predictable state.
  • Streamline the process so that getting a PC back to a good state with all the things customers care about can be done quickly instead of taking up the whole day.
  • Make sure that customers don’t lose their data in the process.
  • Provide a fully customizable approach for technical enthusiasts to do things their own way.

In fact, the approach to providing this functionality in Windows 8 was to provide what Lee calls a “push-button” technique for repair and restore operations. This is by no means a new concept but no matter how urgently platform and product providers have hyped such solutions in the past, my own personal experience with such tools has been that they’re invariably simpler in concept than in practice. Sigh.

To that end, Windows 8 will apparently ship with a reset option that returns a system entirely to factory-fresh set-ups and settings, and removes all personal preferences, settings, data, and so forth so that it can safely be turned over to a third party without incurring the risk of unwanted data disclosures. The refresh option is more interesting to me at the moment, in the wake of my recent “Where and when did things go wrong?” adventure. The idea here is to “…get the benefit of a reset – starting over with a fresh Windows install – while still keeping your stuff  intact…” In this case the Windows Repair Environment (Windows RE) copies “…your data, settings, and apps, and puts them aside…” before installing a fresh copy of Windows, then carefully restores all of that personal and personalized stuff onto a newly-installed and up-to-date copy of Windows. That said, file type associations, display settings, and Windows Firewall setting are NOT preserved as a matter of conscious design to avoid problems arising from mis-configurations in the previous Windows incarnation.

But alas, there’s a catch: where apps are concerned, Windows 8 will preserve only Metro style apps, “… and require desktop apps that do not come with the PC to be reinstalled manually.” In my own recent personal experience, where installing Windows and getting it ready to use may take two to four hours, re-installing all the applications I use (which varies from a low count of around 50 on test and traveling PCs to a high of 110 on my production PCs) can take the better part of a day to chunk all the way through to completion.

So, while this sounds like a partial answer to my recent problems, it’s still not a 100% solution, either. And, of course, it will be very interesting to learn how these goals translate into practice as the Windows 8 builds make their way into GA status. Stay tuned!

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