How to back up and wipe your Windows PC

Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

If you’re selling your Windows computer or passing it on to someone else, you’re going to want to first wipe everything. Or you may want to rid yourself of several years of data bloat and start again with a clean slate.

The good news is that wiping and reinstalling Windows is a lot easier than it used to be. I’m old enough to remember when it involved hours of file swapping, installation discs, and hours spent putting programs, emails, and files back in place. Thanks to the cloud and online apps, it can now be done in less than an hour.

Backing everything up beforehand is vital, though, even if you’re planning to leave your personal files in place (which Windows lets you do). When you’re planning a backup, besides your personal files, think about other data such as your local media libraries and saved games (if you’re a gamer). And while most applications can be simply downloaded again from the web, it’s worth double-checking what you’ve got installed to make sure they’re still available.

How to back up Windows

You’ve got a wealth of options for backing up data from Windows. In fact, the safest option is to have not one backup but two: otherwise, as soon as something happens to the original data, you’re then in the precarious position of only having one copy of your important files again.

A combination of cloud storage and local storage is usually a good bet. Whether you want to use Microsoft’s own OneDrive or third-party options such as Google Drive or Dropbox, you can set up important folders to be constantly synced with the web. As soon as you make changes on your PC, the synced files are updated online.

Syncing with OneDrive

Screenshot: Microsoft
Windows will suggest you use OneDrive for backup when you set up your PC.

You will have been asked if you want to sync your files with OneDrive when you first set the Windows operating system up. If you have opted to do that and want to make changes afterward:

Search for “OneDrive” from the Start menu, then select the top OneDrive result to see your OneDrive folder in File Explorer. You can also click on the OneDrive icon on the right side of your taskbar and select Open folder.
Right-click the OneDrive folder in the navigation pane on the left, then choose OneDrive > Settings.
Under Sync and backup, you can choose which parts of your system (such as the Desktop folder and saved screenshots) are managed by OneDrive.
If you don’t want to use OneDrive for your backups, click Account > Unlink this PC.

You can also go to the general Windows Settings page and click Accounts > Windows backup to choose which folders to back up and to include various Windows settings (such as the wallpaper you’ve set and your Wi-FI passwords) as well as files.

Syncing with Google Drive

Screenshot: Google
Google Drive is another backup option.

If you’d rather go with a third-party cloud storage backup option, the process will vary depending on your pick. In the case of Google Drive, for example, you can download the Windows client from here. Once you’ve signed in to your Google account, you can specify where on your system you want your Google Drive folder to be located and which files you’d like synced.

To configure your Google Drive backup, find the icon in the lower right of the Windows system tray. Right-click on the icon, then click the gear icon and Preferences.

Open My computer and click Add folder to pick folders on your system, outside of your designated Google Drive folder, to back up (such as the Windows desktop).
Open Google Drive to get to the Google Drive folder on your PC and to decide whether files are mirrored (always saved locally) or streamed (only downloaded as and when needed).
Click the gear icon (top right) to change the location of the Google Drive folder on your system and to manage settings such as screenshot backups.

Using local storage

Windows does still have a local storage backup option of its own, but it’s well hidden: search for “file history” from the Start menu to find it. The tool will help you move files from selected folders from your PC to an external drive on a regular basis — and if you buy an external hard drive or NAS drive, it’ll come with backup software included, too, giving you another option.

How to reset Windows

Screenshot: Microsoft
You can keep your files during a reset, if you want to.

There are two paths you can take when you’re resetting Windows: you can either choose to wipe everything and start again from scratch or reset the core operating system files and applications while leaving your personal files untouched.

The former is clearly more comprehensive, but the latter (assuming you’re keeping the computer) saves you the trouble of having to move back all your data afterward. If you’re troubleshooting an issue with your PC, try the “soft” reset first to see if it fixes your problem before going for the full reset.

Whichever path you take, there’s also another choice further on: download the latest version of Windows from Microsoft’s servers or use the installation files already on your PC. The cloud option typically takes longer because you’re waiting for 4GB of data to download, but it does mean you’ve got the latest version of Windows — you won’t need to then apply any further updates.

Here’s how to get started:

Open up Settings from the Start menu, then head to System.
Scroll down to and select Recovery > Reset PC.
This is where you choose between Keep my files or Remove everything.
After that, you get the screen for picking either Cloud download or Local reinstall.

Before you get to the final Reset option, which actually starts the reset proper, you’ll be able to review your choices: click Change settings if you want to do it differently. Note that if you’ve opted for Remove everything, selecting Change settings also lets you choose to Clean data, which isn’t done by default — if you want to enable this, flip the toggle from No to Yes.

Screenshot: Microsoft
A cloud-based reinstall gives you the latest version of Windows but takes longer.

This “cleaning” process means all existing data is overwritten, rather than just marked as deleted. It’s a security feature. With a normal reset, it’s very hard even for experts to recover any erased data, but when the drive is cleaned, it’s just about impossible. It takes longer (up to a couple of hours), but it’s worth doing if you’re selling or otherwise disposing of your computer.

With all that taken care of, the Windows reset process gets underway. How long it’ll take depends on how much storage your system has and how much of it needs wiping, so you might want to go and do something else for a while. When it’s done, you’ll be invited to log in to Windows or set up the operating system again.

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