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Understanding Windows XP System Restore strengths and limitations

System Restore is an important feature for rolling back changes in Windows XP, but it's not ideal for every situation. Microsoft MVP Brien Posey breaks down how System Restore works and when to use it.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Brien M. Posey
Previously in this series on rolling back changes in Windows, I talked about the Windows XP System Restore feature. In this article, I will conclude the series by going into more detail about the capabilities and limitations of System Restore.

Windows XP is designed so that System Restore points are created automatically prior to activities that could prove to be catastrophic -- such as installing a new driver. The Windows XP System Restore interface also gives you the option of manually creating your own restore point. That way, if you are about to do something risky and are unsure if Windows is going to create its own System Restore point, you can create one just to be safe.

Find more on Windows XP System Restore

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If something does go horribly wrong, you can boot the machine into Safe Mode, and then restore the System Restore point of your choosing. Windows XP System Restore points are organized by date and time, so you can just pick the point in time that you want to roll the system back to, and then restore that System Restore point.

As you can see, Windows XP System Restore allows you to revert your computer's configuration to the state in which it existed at a previous point in time. Even so, it is important to remember that System Restore is not a substitute for a backup. System Restore information is stored on the drive that System Restore is protecting. Therefore, if a hard drive goes bad, then the System Restore information may be lost as well.

In addition to being vulnerable to drive failures, there are other certain situations in which System Restore will not help you. A System Restore point contains a snapshot of the system registry and copies of certain system files. It does not contain a full copy of the Windows operating system, nor does it contain copies of your applications or your data. As such, here are certain limitations that you need to be aware of:

  • System Restore is incapable of uninstalling applications. If you discover that your system is malfunctioning after installing a new application, you should use the Add / Remove Programs applet to uninstall the application rather than attempting a System Restore. Be aware, however, of a few caveats. System Restore can sometimes be used to fix the problem if the system continues to malfunction after an application has been uninstalled. Another caveat is that although Windows XP System Restore doesn't protect against damage related to normal applications, you can sometimes use it to recover from the damage caused by Trojans after visiting a malicious Web site.

  • System Restore points are overwritten any time you restore a system state backup (assuming that the restore operation is successful). Any Windows XP System Restore points that were created after the backup was made are no longer valid.

  • A Windows XP System Restore is capable of rolling back device drivers to a previous state. Nevertheless, you must keep in mind that performing a System Restore also rolls back any other configuration changes that have been made since the Restore Point was created. Therefore, if you know which device driver is causing problems, then it is better to perform a device driver rollback rather than a System Restore so that you can avoid accidentally making other changes to your system. On the other hand, if you suspect a driver problem but are unable to diagnose it, then performing a System Restore is an appropriate action.

  • System Restore does not protect files residing in redirected folders. Windows XP System Restore only protects files on local drives.

  • Upgrading to a new version of Windows (such as upgrading from Windows XP to Vista) invalidates all existing System Restore points. You cannot use System Restore to revert to the previous operating system.

  • System Restore will not retain drivers for hardware that is installed after a restore point was created. For example, suppose you created a restore point and then later added new hardware. If you later decide to restore the restore point, Windows will not have retained the new hardware's driver. System Restore assumes that the new hardware might be part of the reason for the restore, and therefore redetects the new hardware and prompts you to install a driver.

  • You cannot use the Recovery Console to restore a restore point.

  • You can use Safe Mode to restore a restore point but not to create one.

  • In most cases, restoring a system restore point will eliminate patches that have been applied by Windows Update since the time that the restore point was created.

  • If you perform a System Restore, but doing so does not fix your problem, it is possible to undo the restore.
  • In this article series, I explained that you have several different options for undoing the damage caused by a catastrophic configuration change to Windows XP. Any time that you decide to roll back the system though, it is important to stop and think about which of these tools best fits the job. Each of the tools and methods that I have discussed have their strengths and weaknesses, making each well suited to certain types of recoveries.


    The Last Known Good Configuration option
    Device driver rollback and System Restore
    System Restore strengths and limitations

    Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server, Exchange Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for and other TechTarget sites.

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