How to reset your Windows 10 PC when you’re having problems

When you’re running a Windows system, sometimes things just go wrong. A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of not checking to make sure my laptop was securely plugged in while Windows was undergoing a major update. The battery ran out in the middle of the update and voila! I was stuck with what I was sure was now a very expensive brick. Another time, a Windows 10 system decided that it didn’t like the latest update and began misbehaving. (It would stop responding to input one minute after it booted.)

In both cases, I was able to save an otherwise unusable PC by doing a reset, which removes all (or most) of the files and apps on the hard drive and reinstalls Windows.

(By the way, you have backed up your computer, right?)

Resets are also useful if you’ve just bought a spanking new system, loaded all your data onto it, and now want to sell / trade in / give away / discard your old system. But before you get the no-longer-needed computer out of your house, you’re going to want to wipe all your data off the hard drive first.

There are several ways to initiate a reset in Windows 11 depending on what you need to do. You can do it from the Windows interface or, if you’re in trouble, from the more basic Safe Mode. There is also a different method of reinstalling Windows called “Fresh start” (formerly “Refresh”). Ready? Here we go.

Reset in Windows 11

If Windows 11 is working — or even if it’s mostly working — it’s simple to do a reset.

  • Click on the search icon in your task bar and type reset, which will bring up Reset this PC as the best match. Click on that.
  • Alternatively, click on the Start icon, select Settings, and go to System > Recovery.

The Recovery screen lets you easily reset your PC.

The Recovery screen lets you easily reset your PC.
  • You can try to fix your issue first by selecting Fix problems without resetting your PC.
  • Didn’t work? Select Reset PC.
  • You’ll be able to choose from one of two options. Keep my files will remove apps and settings but let you keep any personal files while Remove everything will reset the computer to its “as-new” state. If you’re recovering from an update issue or are trying to remove a bad app, you could try Keep my files first. If you’re going to get rid of the computer, select Remove everything.

You can keep your files when you reset Windows 11, or start from scratch.

You can keep your files when you reset Windows 11, or start from scratch.
  • Either way, the next screen will let you choose either Cloud download to let you install a brand new version of Windows or Local reinstall to let you simply reinstall from your device. The former will take more time (it’s over 4GB to download) but may work better if you suspect your problem is with your OS rather than an app or a misapplied setting.

You can either keep your files or remove everything.

You can do a Local reinstall or download and install a new version of Windows.
  • The next screen will tell you that the apps and files will be removed, along with any provisioning packages installed by your workplace. (Don’t worry — you’ll get a chance to change that if you need to before the reset happens.) Windows will either be downloaded and reinstalled (if you chose Cloud download) or reinstalled from your device (if you chose Local reinstall).

Before you reset, Windows tells you exactly what will happen.

Before you reset, Windows tells you exactly what will happen.
  • Click on the Change settings link to see more options.
  • If you opted for Local reinstall, you can choose whether you want to restore the preinstalled apps and settings that came with your PC, and you have another chance to either reinstall Windows from your device or download a fresh copy. (No, I don’t know why this option appears in two separate places. It’s Windows.)

If you do a local reinstall, you can choose to restore preinstalled apps.

If you do a Local reinstall, you can choose to restore preinstalled apps.
  • If you opted for Cloud download, you can choose whether you want to delete those provisioning packages and / or simply clean your PC data — in other words, remove your files — rather than do a complete reset. You also, once again, can decide whether you want to download Windows or reinstall from the device.

If you download a new version of Windows, you can choose to just remove your files.

If you download a new version of Windows, you can choose to just remove your files.
  • Confirm your choices and then select Next. At this point you’re running on battery power, so you’ll be instructed to plug in your PC.
  • Otherwise, the next window is Ready to reset this PC. You’ll see a list of all your options. If you’ve opted to keep your files, you can click on View apps that will be removed to see which apps you may need to replace; that list isn’t available if you’re removing everything. Ready? Click on Reset to start the process.

Some of your apps will have to be reinstalled after a reset.

Some of your apps will have to be reinstalled after a reset.
  • You may need to enter a recovery key to continue. You should be able to find it by signing in to your Microsoft account (or the account of the computer’s owner) at account.microsoft.com/devices/recoverykey.

Reset outside of Windows

Sometimes Windows is so screwed up that you can’t get to the reset feature. In that case, the next thing to try is to reset it from Settings. Microsoft’s support site actually lists three ways that you can get to the reset outside of Windows: from Settings; from your sign-in screen; and from a blank screen.

From Settings

  • Follow the directions for resetting above. When you arrive at the Recovery screen, look for Advanced startup and click on the Restart now button. You’ll get a reminder to save your work, after which you’ll need to click on Restart now.

Troubleshoot > Advanced options > Startup Settings > Restart.

  • Your system will reboot, and you’ll get a blue screen that lets you Choose an option. These options may vary. On my system, I could choose to continue to Windows 11, boot from an external device such as a USB drive, turn off the PC, or troubleshoot. If you want to reset your PC, click on Troubleshoot.
  • The next screen will let you reset the PC, restore it from a factory image, or offer additional Advanced options.
  • Before you decide to reset, it may be to your advantage to check out the advanced options. They include a Startup Repair feature, Startup Settings, which lets you restart to change a variety of Windows options (and lets you enable Safe Mode); an option to uninstall updates (which are often the cause of problems); System Restore; and others.
  • If you want to reset your PC, then click on that option; you’ll then be given the choice to either keep your files or remove everything. Click on either and the process will begin; again, you may need to fill in your recovery key first.

From your sign-in screen

If your PC is crapping out after you pass the sign-in screen, you can try to access reset from that same sign-in screen. These are the instructions on the Microsoft site, though it didn’t work for me. The system would reboot, but I always ended up at the same sign-in screen. However, you could give it a shot:

  • Hold down the Shift key and click on the power icon in the lower-right corner.
  • While holding down the Shift key, click on Restart.

From a blank screen

This is the most difficult way to access the Choose an option screen. But it’s what you want to try if your PC is simply not booting Windows. It may take several tries, so prepare to be patient.

  • Make sure your computer is completely turned off.
  • Press the power button to turn your PC on. As soon as it restarts (for example, if you see the manufacturer’s logo), press the power button for about 10 seconds until the system turns off again.
  • Repeat the process of on / off a second time.
  • The third time you power up, you should be able to access Advanced options > Choose an option > Troubleshoot > Reset this PC.

Again, after multiple tries (admittedly on a working PC) I was not able to access this screen using this method. But, if your PC is simply not booting up and you want to try to reset it, it’s worth a try.

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