Windows 8 Refresh: A great feature, if you know the limitations

Windows 8 Refresh lets you restore your Windows 8 PC to earlier state without destroying data, but beware hidden gotchas

In the past few weeks, I've seen many analyses and demos of Windows 8 Refresh, but they all seem to overlook a very important fact: It ain't perfect. At the risk of sounding overly technical, the fundamental problem is that you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Refresh, you may recall, is the Windows 8 revitalization procedure that preserves the user's data and settings but re-installs Windows underneath. (Reset is the other option, which wipes out the PC and returns it to the same state it was in when you bought it.) Microsoft advises that Windows 8 customers run a Refresh under the same circumstances that Windows 7 users might run a System Restore -- that is, when your system suddenly falls over or starts behaving absurdly.

System Restore rolls back Registry settings and some system files to an earlier state. Refresh works completely differently. As Desmond Lee explains in a Building Windows 8 Blog, "Refresh functionality is fundamentally still a reinstall of Windows ... but your data, settings, and Metro style apps are preserved." When performing a Refresh, your PC boots into Windows Recovery Environment, which sets aside user data, settings, and Metro apps, re-installs Windows, then brings back the user data, settings, and Metro apps.

The really cool part about Refresh is that you can take a snapshot of a system, after all the major legacy apps are installed and configured, and use that snapshot as the Refresh baseline. Run a Refresh, feed it the snapshot, and the system is restored to its original, pristine state, with all apps -- including legacy apps -- up and ready to run, and all user data intact.

We're talking Holy Grail time. But let me show you how it works and explain why the steak isn't quite as enticing as the sizzle.

If you're running the Consumer Preview of Windows 8, you might want to take a few minutes to create a custom refresh point, mash your PC a bit, and run a Refresh to see what happens. The method's surprisingly simple:

In Windows 8 CP, right-click in the lower-left corner (you know, the place where the Start button should be) and choose Command Prompt (Admin). You have to click through a User Account Control message, but the good old DOS prompt appears, c:\windows\system32:

Next, create a new folder -- something like:

mkdir c:\refreshpt

Then have Win dows 8 create a refresh point using the recimg command. Like this:

recimg /createimage c:\refreshpt

Windows 8 generates a file called install.wim, where "wim" stands for "Windows Installer Image." It takes a while -- more than an hour on a relatively clean machine with a copy of Office installed, up to many hours for well-worn systems with lots of data. You can mess around with recimg, have it create multiple images, choose among them, and so on -- Anandtech has the details.

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