Sometimes Windows 10 breaks and there's no good reason for it. Other times it gets to a point where it runs slow or malware makes it way into your files and wreaks havoc. The list of reasons you may need to reinstall or restore Windows 10 can get pretty long. Hopefully, you won't run across any of these problems very often but if you do you can restore Windows 10 without losing your files.
You can restore Windows 10 and keep your files using several methods. Computers no longer ship with software on disks or with an option to download the operating system. Luckily, Windows 10 comes with a few built-in features that may get the job done. However, they may fail more often than they work. Old Windows restore points rarely work plus you lose anything you've saved since the restore point.
That said, we’ll talk about restore points and various ways to restore Windows 10 and keep your files in place. With the exception of a few methods, most of the ways we describe below define your files as anything you saved in your personal folders like My Documents or My Pictures. Anything saved outside of your userspace will probably get lost during the process.
Using Windows 10 Native Tools to Restore Your Computer
Let’s look at the built-in methods that ship with Windows 10 for restoring your computer before we dig into other ways that cost money or require more technical expertise. Compared to previous Windows versions, Windows 10 tries to make it easy to restore your computer to a factory default state. Windows 10 includes three ways to restore your machine to a working state which include:
Unless you turned it off or changed the settings during installation, Windows 10 periodically makes a restore point. Several things may trigger restore point creation like installing new software, Windows updates, or they may get created on a regular schedule. If you can’t get Windows to boot at all or it never fully loads to let you log in, activating a restore point may solve the issue.
The store point resets Windows to a previous configuration which also eliminates anything you've saved or installed since the date of the restore point. So, this technically doesn't keep all your files, but it's a better option compared to losing all your files if you can't get Windows 10 to boot up. Windows makes it easy to revert to a restore point provided you know your username and password.
The process is much easier than it was with previous versions of Windows. To get started, click the start menu and start typing "create a restore point." Click on the search result for creating a restore point to open the System Properties dialog box. Click the button for System Restore and follow the instructions. During the reboot and restore process Windows may ask for your username and password.
Refreshing your Windows 10 installation is probably the best option if you can log in. Right-click the Start button and choose Settings from the menu that pops up. In the Settings app choose Updates and Security near the bottom. Next, select Recovery on the left side of the screen, and you're ready to go. Just click on the get started button and follow the instructions. Make sure you choose to keep your files.
The reset your computer option is only included in this guide for extreme circumstances where the other methods fail because it resets everything including removing all your files. Use this method as a last resort to get Windows working correctly or booting. You start this process the same way you get a system refresh going by choosing the reset instead of refresh.
Resetting your computer is slow but much faster than refreshing it or using a restore point. Refreshing your computer can take a very long time if you have a lot of files to move around and then restore. Windows will do all the grunt work for you, but you still have to wait it out. Don’t get impatient and assume it froze up or stopped for some other reason. Just be patient or leave and check on it later.
Like all things that seem too good to be true, you may run into some problems using any of these processes if you start them from within Windows. Sometimes Windows gets in its own way. If the restore or refresh process fails, Windows will try to put everything back like it was before the start which means your computer is still going to need refreshing.
To get around Windows issues try refreshing your computer from the login screen. Reboot your computer or log out then hold the Shift key and click the power icon. Choose Restart from the menu and wait for it to reboot to a bright blue screen with only a few options. You don't need to hold down shift any longer after you click Restart.
Once the computer restarts, choose the Troubleshoot option then click the button that says, "Reset this PC." Windows will guide you through the process and let you decide to keep your files before it starts refreshing the computer. Like the methods above, this can take a long time if you have a lot of files for Windows to keep track of and restore.
Store and Backup Your Files to the Cloud for Safety
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If your files get stored online, you never have to worry about them getting lost or destroyed. This may be the best solution for many Windows users especially if you're one of the unlucky Windows users that keep getting hit with the bad updates from Windows. Some of the big seasonal updates Windows pushed out over the past year rendered several computers unbootable or slowed them to a crawl.
That said, the easiest way to restore Windows and keep your files intact is by storing the files online and working online if your circumstances permit it. With that notion in mind, we looked into which cloud storage solutions have the best reliability record and aren't hard to setup and use. If you choose one of these cloud storage solutions, you can just reset Windows and never worry about other methods.
This is arguably one of the best cloud storage solutions because it ships preinstalled on Windows 10 computers. You just need to sign up, and log in through the Windows app then configure your syncing options. Any files you save on your computer in My Documents, My Pictures, or in any folders under your username get mirrored to the OneDrive cloud.
It won't mirror your downloads folder to save bandwidth unless you explicitly tell it to back up that folder. It comes with five gigabytes of free storage with several paid options that give you more perks and more storage space. The pricing scheme as of this writing includes:
If you’re just worried about personal documents like your will, family photos, or tax records, the free plan is probably all the space you need. If you have a lot of work files, photos, or family videos to store, one of the larger packages is probably better plus they come with Office 365 which includes software like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.
This is the sort of rebranded version of Google Drive. If you have a Google account, you probably already have 10 or 15 gigabytes of free storage space. Download Googles Sync tool and show it which folders on your computer to back up to prevent losing any files in the future. It works roughly the same way as OneDrive, but you get more storage for free.
If the free storage is filling up, you can always buy more room if you need it. If you end up not needing it, Google lets you decrease your plan quickly. Honestly, for the low price and reliability of Google services, paying $19.99 annually for 100 gigabytes or $29.99 annually for 200 gigabytes is cheap. Again, this removes the fear of ever losing your files if you have to restore Windows 10.
Google offers plans up to 30 terabytes of cloud storage for $299.99 a month. It's unlikely you'll ever use that much space, but we wanted to mention it to demonstrate that the plans we discussed above can keep expanding to fit your cloud storage needs. For perspective, a terabyte of space holds about 250 average length movies.
Dropbox is slightly more challenging to use than OneDrive or Google One, but it is reliable and secure. Dropbox offers a free plan that gives you two gigabytes of free storage space. That's not much space, but you can store personal documents there along with some photos. However, you can expand your Dropbox to include up to two terabytes on the personal plan.
The free plan doesn’t offer many perks and limits the number of things you can sync to the cloud. You can upgrade to one terabyte for $8.25 a month or two terabytes for $16.58 a month. The two-terabyte plan comes with Dropbox’s Smart Sync feature which makes it function like Google One or OneDrive. The interface is not as elegant as Google One or OneDrive, so it has a learning curve as well.
This is the solution for anyone that needs extra privacy such as people that work with healthcare records or other sensitive personal data. SpiderOak is HIPPA compliant from the ground up. Their pricing plans stand up to the competition even with the added security features and desktop application that comes with the plans.
They offer small plans like their 150-gigabyte option for $69.00 annually, or you can opt for one that includes up to five terabytes of cloud storage for $320.00 annually. Five terabytes of storage hold roughly 1,250 movies or almost 2,000 hours of video. If you don't like the ones you see, send them an email and ask about custom plans and pricing solutions.
How to Choose the Best Solution for Your Needs
There’s no way we can know how many files you need to store or if those files contain personal data, so we’re assuming they do, and security is a primary concern. That said, your files are probably safer on Microsoft’s or Google’s servers than your hard drive. If your computer gets stolen, restoring Windows 10 isn't going to help you get the files back.
If you insist on keeping your files offline and on your hard drive, using windows Refresh this PC feature is relatively reliable and won’t delete your files if you are forced to restore your Windows 10 installation. As we explained above, it’s easy to do but can take a long time to finish if you have a lot of files for it to keep. Luckily, if it fails or your computer freezes, Windows will try to restore using a restore point.
You need to decide if storing your files in the cloud is the right solution for you, or if keeping them on your personal computer is just easier. We urge you to practice good backup habits whether you choose a cloud service like Microsoft OneDrive or a simple USB stick. If you opt for the USB stick, get into the habit of either working from the stick or copying your files to it at least once a week.
Some Final Notes
Refreshing your Windows 10 computer to solve problems or replace corrupted system files is easy to do using Window’s built-in tools. If you have to restore your computer, there’s a strong chance your files are safe unless you choose the reset option. That said, you really need some kind of backup plan for your files whether it’s online or offline.