Opinion: Windows 8 refresh feature makes it easy to start with a clean slate

How many times have you reinstalled Windows because it had a pesky conflict, or was just running slow? With Windows 8, you simply Refresh

One of the coolest features of Windows 8 is Refresh. Regardless of why you might want to start over, Refresh gives you a quick and easy way to start with a clean slate while also maintaining your apps, data, Windows settings, and user profile.

I've always been a proponent of Windows System Restore. If things start running wonky you don't need to bother troubleshooting--just go back in time to a known good state using Windows System Restore. Since its inception, though, Windows System Restore has had its issues, and for many people it seems to fail when they really need it most.

Many users simply resort to a periodic fresh install of Windows. Windows 8 also provides Reset--a simpler way to wipe the PC and start over with a completely clean Windows 8 OS. That's great if you're selling the PC, or passing it on to another user, but if you just want a fresh start the Refresh feature gives you the power to do so at the push of a button without having to reinstall everything or restore it from backup.

Refresh Windows 8

When you use the Refresh feature, Windows is still technically starting over with a fresh install of the operating system. The main difference is that the Refresh process automatically sets aside your data, Windows settings, and Metro apps, then puts them back where they belong once the OS is reinstalled. The result is a clean slate for your OS, but with your configuration settings and data intact.

More often than not, the reason you want to do a Refresh in the first place is to try and resolve some conflict or issue that is causing your PC to perform poorly. Microsoft wanted to preserve as much of the state of the OS as possible, while eliminating things that are likely to be part of the problem.

So, things like wireless network configurations, mobile broadband settings, BitLocker and BitLocker-to-Go encryption, and drive letter assignments are maintained. But, things like file type associations, display settings, and Windows Firewall configurations are reset to default to give you a chance to configure them properly and ensure they aren't the root of your problem.

What About Your Software?

The standard Refresh process will not restore the software you have installed. It will restore Metro apps, but not traditional Win32 software. Microsoft claims this is another function of troubleshooting. It wants to avoid simply re-installing whatever software it is that might be causing your problem.

What Microsoft does is to create an HTML file that lists the applications that were not installed, and places it on the desktop of the refreshed Windows 8 system so you at least know what software you're missing.

Refresh to a Custom State

You have the power to change that, though. You can establish your own Refresh baseline that includes the software you want installed, or excludes software or services that you'd rather remove from your Windows 8 system.

In order for it to truly be a "fresh" image to Refresh to, though, you need to make sure you go through this process immediately after you get the PC set up the way you want it. The more you use Windows 8 and the applications you've installed, the further you will get from a clean baseline.

When you install Windows 8, go through the initial process of configuring the basic settings as you wish. Install whatever software you want--Microsoft Office, Adobe Flash, WinZip, Tweetdeck, etc.. Then, remove any pre-installed tools or services you don't want.

Once you have the Windows 8 system set up exactly the way you like it, use the recimg.exe tool as described in this Building Windows 8 blog post to capture an image of the system. Once you create your own custom image with this tool, whenever you Refresh Windows 8 it will go through the same process of reverting to a fresh install of Windows 8, and maintain your data, Windows settings, and Metro apps. But, rather than a totally clean Windows 8 install it will use your custom image so your software will also be restored to its clean, baseline state.

After you've created the custom image, whenever you refresh your PC, not only will you be able to keep your personal data, settings, and Metro style apps, but you can restore all the desktop apps in your custom image as well. And if you buy a PC that already comes with a recovery image on a hidden partition, you'll be able to use the tool to switch from using the hidden partition to instead use the custom image you've created.

To use the recimg.exe tool you need to be running as Administrator. Type the following to create a custom Refresh image and store it in a directory on the C: drive called RefreshImage:

  • mkdir C:\RefreshImage
  • recimg -CreateImage C:\RefreshImage

I highly recommend you take the time to build the Windows 8 PC the way you want it, and use the recimg.exe tool to save your baseline image with your software. Someday you will need to Refresh, and you'll thank me when you don't have to take the time to reinstall and reconfigure all of your software.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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