Windows 8 to get one-step refresh

Windows 8 users will be able to take their PCs back to factory settings in much the same way as is possible with smartphones and other consumer devices

Windows 8 will include a smartphone-style reset-to-factory-defaults function, along with a way to reinstall the operating system without deleting apps and settings.

Windows 8 screen

Windows 8 users will be able to take their PCs back to factory settings, Microsoft has said. Image credit: Microsoft

Microsoft said on Wednesday that the Windows 8 reset function would be useful for those decommissioning or recycling PCs, and the refresh function would help people whose PCs are "not working their best" but who do not want to have to back up all their data and reinstall from scratch.

"Today, there are many different approaches and tools to get a PC back to factory condition," Microsoft program manager Desmond Lee wrote in a blog post, listing manufacturer-provided tools, third-party imaging products, Windows system image backup and clean reinstallations.

"While these tools all provide similar functionalities, they don't provide a consistent experience from one PC or technique to another," Lee said. "As we began planning for Windows 8, we asked ourselves: 'Wouldn't it be great if you could just push a button and everything is fixed?'"

According to Lee's post, the bootable Windows Recovery Environment (Windows RE) in Windows 8 will offer the option of erasing and formatting the Windows and personal data hard-drive partitions, and automatically installing a fresh copy of Windows. The PC will then restart with the newly cleansed system.

Delete option

There will also be an option to "thoroughly" delete data while performing the factory reset. This option will "write random patterns to every sector of the drive, overwriting any existing data visible to the operating system", Lee said, while conceding that well-resourced people could theoretically still recover data from the drive afterwards.

As we began planning for Windows 8, we asked ourselves: 'Wouldn't it be great if you could just push a button and everything is fixed?'

– Desmond Lee, Microsoft

"This approach strikes a good balance between security and performance — a single pass through your hard drive offers more than enough security for typical scenarios such as donation to a local charity, but does not bog you down for hours or days with multi-pass scrubbing operations that might be required for regulatory compliance if you are dealing with highly confidential business and government data," Lee wrote.

While the reset option simplifies a process that many people already perform, the refresh function is entirely new to Windows.

The refresh procedure in Windows 8 will install the OS anew without affecting data, Metro-style apps or most settings. Desktop apps that do not use the Metro design language will require manual installation, however. Microsoft said that most reset and refresh procedures would take around a third of the time required to restore a system from an image backup.

As with the reset option, refreshing the OS will take place in Windows RE. The system backs up relevant data before installing a fresh copy of Windows and restoring the data.

"Unlike manually reinstalling Windows, you don't have to go through the Windows Welcome screens again and reconfigure all the initial settings, as your user accounts and those settings are all preserved," Lee said. "You can sign in with the same account and password, and all of your documents and data are preserved in the same locations they were before."

Not all the settings will be preserved, he said, as some frequently misconfigured settings are usually responsible for the sluggish performance that require the refresh in the first place. Therefore, Windows Firewall settings, display settings and file type associations will not be carried across to a refreshed installation.

Reinstalling desktop apps

Microsoft's reasons for not automatically reinstalling desktop apps, according to Lee, include the possibility that such an app may be "causing the problems that lead to a need to perform this sort of maintenance", and a desire to avoid reinstalling "bad apps".

"It is also important to understand that we cannot deterministically replace desktop apps, as there are many installer technologies as well as custom setup and configuration logic, of which Windows has little direct knowledge," Lee wrote. "That is why we discourage the use of third-party uninstallers or scrubbers."

Microsoft will also include a command-line tool in Windows 8 called recimg.exe that creates an image of the hard drive when the desktop apps have been installed. The resulting image will be usable during the refresh process to make sure that desktop as well as Metro-style apps are easily retained.

An early version of recimg.exe is already in the Windows 8 developer preview. Much of the functionality described on Wednesday will appear for the first time in the beta release, due in February.

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