Commentary
7/10/2002
01:37 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary

Langa Letter: Maximizing ''System Restore'' In WinME and WinXP

Depending on how you use it, this component can be a help--or a hog!



"System Restore" is built into every copy of Windows XP and ME. In theory, it's sort of a system-level "undo" command that lets you recover from a failed software installation, a software conflict, or other similar problems.

Microsoft describes it this way: "System Restore actively monitors system file changes, so that if something goes wrong with your computer, you can restore your system to a previous state without losing data."

And that's true, as far as it goes. But, if the volume of reader mail I get about System Restore is any indication, many, many users are confused about exactly what System Restore can and cannot do.

System Restore can be useful--and we'll get to the details in a moment--but it's important to note its four main limitations:

  1. It doesn't back up your user files and documents. System Restore focuses on system-level files and services; it doesn't back up most files you create. If you munge or permanently delete an important document or spreadsheet, or want to go back to an earlier version of such a document, System Restore can't help you. System Restore doesn't take the place of full, normal backups. (See Fast, Easy Backups For Win98/ME/NT/2K/XP)


  2. System Restore isn't a true "roll back" tool. For example, if you install new software that crashes badly, System Restore may be able to get Windows running again, but may not erase the errant program as a whole; may not delete leftover vestiges of the program that failed to uninstall properly; and may not clean up any messes the troublesome program made outside of the system file areas.
  3. >

  4. The default settings make System Restore an enormous space hog. For reasons known only to the programmers at Microsoft, System Restore, like the Recycle Bin and the Internet Explorer cache, sets aside space for itself based on a percentage of what's available on your hard drive. This might not have been too bad when disks were small, but with today's large hard drives, the total space set aside for System Restore (and Recycle Bin and the IE cache) can be ridiculous: It can amount to gigabytes, in total! This not only consumes disk real estate, but also creates a huge amount of needless extra data you have to process when you do a normal backup.
  5. >

  6. System Restore is CPU- and disk-intensive when it runs, which is fairly often:

    • At first boot
    • Every 10 hours of continuous system operation
    • Every 24 hours of real-world time
    • Every time Windows Update installs something
    • Every time you install any software using an installer program that System Restore recognizes (such as InstallShield 6.1 or higher)

If System Restore were a 100% "roll back" or "undo" solution, it might be worth all the activity and disk space. But to me, System Restore takes too much and gives back too little to let it run in its default mode. So, let's look at how you can modify System Restore to make it more efficient, more useful, and far less wasteful. There are three main approaches, and one of them will be right for you:

Simple Option: Let It Run, But Rein It In
You can reduce System Restore's voracious appetite for disk space by manually reducing the area set aside for the Restore cache area. Here's how to access that setting:

In XP: Right click on My Computer, then Properties, and then the System Restore tab. Select the hard drive you wish to adjust (in XP, each drive can have its own System Restore setting), and click the Settings button.

In WinME: Right click My Computer, then select Properties, then Performance/File System/Hard Disk.

Next, in both operating systems, move the slider to choose a reasonable amount of disk space for the System Restore files. I suggest you start by choosing the smallest allowable Restore area (usually a still-hefty 200 megabytes) by moving the slider all the way to the left.

Don't worry: You don't have to guess if that's enough space. Over the next few days and weeks as you use your system, you can check to see if you have enough "Restore Points" available for your own needs and preferences. Here's how:

In XP: Click Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/System Restore.

In WinME: Click Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools/System Restore.

In both operating systems, select "Restore my computer to an earlier time" and click next. You'll then see a calendar with some dates in bold; those are the days with one or more available Restore Points. Note how far back the bold dates go. Next, click Cancel to exit the Restore tool. (In other words, don't go on to the next step and actually to perform a System Restore; you're just checking to see what Restore Points are available.)

I find that the minimum 200 megabytes of Restore area easily provides a couple weeks' protection for me, but it's highly dependent on how you use your system. If you want to have more Restore Points available, simply repeat the size-setting procedure outlined earlier to increase the amount of disk space available to System Restore until you've found the right balance between disk space usage and the number of available Restore Points.



Extreme Option: Disable It Entirely
If you're already making regular, full backups by some other means, you don't really need System Restore at all: Your backups already do far more than System Restore can. Good backups protect everything on your system (system files and user data) and can get every part of your system fully back to trouble-free operation.

If you have a good backup regimen in place (e.g., http://www.langa.com/backups/backups.htm), consider turning System Restore all the way off. Here's how:

In XP: Right click on My Computer, select Properties, and select the System Restore tab. Select the checkbox labeled "Turn off System Restore on all drives." Or, if you wish just to disable System Restore on some of your drives or partitions, you can do that, too: Select the drive you wish to adjust, click the Settings button, and then check the box marked "Turn off System Restore for this drive."

In WinME: Right click My Computer, select Properties, then Performance/File System/Troubleshooting. Then check the box marked "Disable System Restore." Note that unlike XP, WinME does not allow per-drive settings; it's all or nothing.

With System Restore disabled, you'll reclaim previously wasted disk space, and also avoid the CPU- and disk-intensive background tasks that System Restore otherwise automatically launches from time to time.

Hybrid Option: Run It Only On An Ad Hoc Basis
System Restore can be handy as an ad hoc tool, when used in conjunction with full backups:

You can use System Restore to set a manual Restore Point just before you install new software or make significant system changes between backups. This way, should the new software mis-install or cause other problems, you can get your system running stably again in less time that it would take to do a full restoration from your backups. But because you're using full backups as your main line of defense, you don't have to leave System Restore running all the time: You can shut it down once you're sure your new software is working OK, or your system change worked out. Used this way, System Restore is a kind of handy, temporary safety net.

Here's how:

First, follow the steps above in "Extreme Option: Disable It Entirely" to turn off System Restore. Then, when you're about to install major new software, or make other significant system changes, simply reverse the process:

In XP: Right click on My Computer, select Properties, and select the System Restore tab. Deselect (uncheck) the checkbox labeled "Turn off System Restore on all drives." Or, if you used per-drive settings, select the drive you wish to adjust, click the Settings button, and then deselect the checkbox marked "Turn off System Restore for this drive."

In WinME: Right click My Computer, select Properties, then Performance/File System/Troubleshooting. Then uncheck the box marked "Disable System Restore."

Once System Restore is re-enabled, manually make a new Restore Point:

In XP: Click Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/System Restore.

In WinME: Click Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools/System Restore.

In both operating systems, select "Create a Restore Point" and follow the prompts. Now install the new software or make your system changes. If the new software installs cleanly or your other system changes go smoothly, you can then turn System Restore back off until the next time you need it. But if there's a problem with the software installation or system changes, you can use the newly created Restore Point to set things right again.



What's Right For You?
First, note that the default settings for System Restore are almost always needlessly wasteful. At the very least, you should manually control the size of the Restore area so that it's not consuming huge amounts of disk space.

Beyond that, the ideal approach for you depends on how your system is set up, how you use it, and whether or not you make regular, full backups:

For users with fast PCs and large hard drives, the "Simple" option discussed above is probably best. With a large hard drive, losing 200MB is not a big deal; and with a fast CPU, you won't be impeded for long when the system decides it's time to create an automatic Restore Point. As long as you also make regular, full backups to protect the files that System Restore doesn't monitor, you'll be well guarded against both the smaller kinds of problems System Restore can fix, and also major trouble that can wipe out not only your system files, but also your data files, too.

The "Extreme" option may be best if you have a slower system, or don't want to lose disk space to System Restore; and/or if you rarely modify your system. In this case, a regular, unattended backup will provide all the data and system-file security you need, without any of the annoyances of System Restore.

If you're a "tweaker" who frequently modifies or adjusts his or her system; or if you experiment with lots of new software; and if your system is such that the "Simple" option isn't appropriate, then the "Hybrid" option is probably best. Regular backups should still be your main line of defense, but the ad hoc use of System Restore can help correct minor problems that may arise from errant tweaks and software mis-installs.

What's Your Take?
Do you use System Restore? Did you know it was such a space hog? Do you use one of the three approaches outlined above, or do you have another method of ensuring you can restore your system in the even of trouble? What tricks and tools do you use to bulletproof both your data and your system setup? Join in the discussion!

Resources:
More info on tuning WinXP:
Ten Ways To Make Windows XP Run Better

More info on tuning WinME:
Ten Ways to Make Windows Me Run Better

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