We’ve all been there. There are times when the best route to fix a problem is starting fresh. In cases like these, you would do well to go and repair your Windows 10 installation.
Unlike some other ways to reinstall — and there are a few of them — a reset or refresh install simply sets up a fresh copy of your Windows files on top of your existing ones. This leaves your programs, settings and files in place, and the process doesn’t completely wipe off your hard drive.
More importantly, if a corrupt file or Windows setting is the cause of your problem, then a repair installation can usually fix it.
It is also the path to take if you don’t want to lose your data.
What exactly is repair installation?
You may be wondering this repair install business sounds interesting, how do I go about it? Well, the key thing to note here is that these types of installs share one common characteristic. That is, you must launch repair installs from Windows itself.
This means you can’t boot from your install media and repair Windows through that.
Instead, you need to boot into the Windows operating system itself, and then start the repair process from there. Of course, unfortunately, if you are unable to boot into the OS, then you will have to opt for full destructive recovery. This nuclear option is often necessary to recover from major issues, or if you are looking to wipe the slate clean.
But we’re not talking about that ultimate choice today. We are just interested in repairing an existing Windows install, using the options Microsoft already provides for its operating systems.
Starting a Windows Repair install
Starting a repair install varies, depending not just on your PC model but also which version of Windows you are using. To do so, you will need the latest Windows installation media, which we will cover in detail in another section below.
That is because instead of reinstalling, you are technically upgrading your copy of Windows.
This performs a nondestructive reinstall, with the added bonus that all your applications will be preserved. Even including, thankfully, those classic desktop programs that you have installed outside of the Microsoft Store.
But the whole idea is to get you up to speed with the latest version of the OS, without having to waste time and effort to get your installation up-to-date later. For example, if you are a Windows 7 user and have installed Service Pack 1, then you will have the laborious task of first attempting to uninstall the update, then install the operating system, and then download and reinstall SP1 again.
Not the best use of a fine Sunday evening, I assure you.
What this also means for Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 users is that you should avoid the Refresh/Reset options that are provided under Settings > Update & Security panel — for now, at least. Because while these options will preserve your files and any apps that you have installed through the Microsoft Store, they will wipe any desktop programs you have installed, along with Windows itself.
In simpler terms, there is a way to truly repair your Windows installation, keeping almost all of your apps and software in place, and saving the stress of having to deploy tons of updates after the installation is complete.
And that is, by upgrading.
Before we begin
Microsoft did a swell job of changing the repair process in its modern operating systems, and minimizing data loss during the process. Windows 8.1 brought this feature, but Windows 10 users have the additional option of launching the repair process directly from the Media Creation Tool.
You can do that by choosing Upgrade when prompted.
That said, given how long it takes to download the files, you might be better off creating your install media yourself. This has the added benefit of giving you an option to also go down the path of a full-blown destructive install in the rare cases the upgrade install does not work.
Also, if you are prompted to download updates, it is a good idea to get this done and grab the latest, updated bits. This will save you time post-install.
Get the latest install media
Windows installation now revolves around install media, and the various tools that Microsoft has made available for versions of the operating system. The software titan has put up the Media Creation Tool for all supported versions of the OS on its website — Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.
Point your browser to this link to download the tool for your particular version, and follow the steps.
The procedure for both Windows 10 and 8.1 is simple enough. But if you are a Windows 7 user, you will need to enter a product key and then download the 32-bit or 64-bit versions as required.
You will also need to grab the Windows USB Download Tool to create a USB flash drive for this older version of the operating system.
Download and run these tools, and they will take a few seconds to set things up on your device. You can then follow the instructions to create an installation media for your specific version of Windows. It is also possible to launch the repair process directly from the tool for Windows 10.
Which is exactly what we will do next.
Launching the repair process
The procedure from this point on various according to the version of Windows that you have. If you are still running good old Windows 7, you need to pop in their install media, double-click setup.exe and follow the regular install process. When prompted, go online to get the latest updates, accept the licensing agreement, and choose the Upgrade option.
The upgrade process can take up to an hour, even on the fastest machines. Be patient. Your PC will also reboot several times, and you will be prompted to enter your product key, so keep it handy. There is also a possibility that the repair install for Windows 7 may result in a PC that does not boot. In this case, dig out your rescue media.
Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 will relaunch with the same setup wizard you see when upgrading from an earlier version of the operating system. It is all very straightforward, so review the options and click along as usual.
If all goes well, you should find yourself at the desktop after a little while — hopefully with the problem you were encountering fixed. Confirm by checking for that specific issue and see whether it is resolved, while also take a look around and verify that the rest of Windows still works as it should.
If you are rocking Windows 10 Creators Update or newer, then you also get access to Fresh Start, a shiny new addition to the operating system. This, as the name gives away, is a tool that lets you start fresh with a clean installation of Windows 10.
This is different from the Reset this PC feature in Windows 10, which basically restores your computer to its factory default settings — packing in all the bloatware and additional software that your PC manufacturer may have included.
But Fresh starts lets you perform a clean install while leaving you data intact, and is essentially a way to simplify the process. It will, as noted, keep your personal files and some Windows settings, but will remove most of your desktop programs as well as the stuff that came preinstalled on your device out the box. Your device will also be updated to the latest version of Windows in the process.
After a few timely click, and a couple of cups of coffee, you are hopefully back in business. The handy Upgrade option saving the day, and repairing your Windows installation, while keeping your apps and programs in place, as they were before.
Now is the time to stress test your environment to verify everything is working as it should.
In certain cases, you will also find that repair can introduce more problems than it solves. This only happens sometimes, though. But if this is the case, you can undo the changes if you are running Windows 10 and 8.1.
Go to Start > Settings > Update & recovery > Recovery, and then look for the option to go back to your previous version. Click or tap on Get started, and then follow the prompts.
If repair does not fix your underlying problem, you have one more intermediate step. Both Windows 10 and 8.1 provide the option of reset or repair. For either of these, you will have to wave goodbye to all your desktop programs like Microsoft Office, antivirus and security software, and the likes. But your Microsoft Store apps, files, and Windows settings will be preserved.
Leave your install media insert, and head on over to the Update & recovery > Recovery section under the Settings panel. This time, click the Get started button under the Refresh (Windows 8.1) or Reset (Windows 10) options and follow the prompts.
Repairing you Windows installation this way is very much the best way to go about things if you encounter unrepairable issues. Both Windows 10 and 8.1 offer a similar way to repair your installation, while things are pretty streamlined on Windows 7, too.
A full nuclear, destructive option is always there if things don’t go according to plan. But since Microsoft already provides this neat functionality, it is a good idea to always try this repair route first.
Shawn is a WindowsChimp Staff writer, who is a fan of making lists and does the same on this site. He has a Contemporary Writing degree and been in technology niche since last 3 years.