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How to perform a factory reset on a Windows 11 desktop

A factory reset may be necessary when a device has performance issues or is set to go to a new user. IT can execute this process in Windows 11 while avoiding unwanted data loss.

There are several circumstances that may prompt Windows professionals to perform a factory reset on one or more Windows 11 desktops or laptops.

By definition, a factory reset restores the target PC to the same condition it was in when it first left the factory. The action removes any settings, preferences and other customizations that users made after the device's arrival. Any applications that users installed will likewise no longer be present.

A factory reset is a helpful option when IT needs to revert a device to its original state, and as an IT administrator, you can carry this action out easily in a Windows 11 environment.

Precautions to take before performing a factory reset

Not every device is ready to undergo a factory reset. You should keep a few considerations in mind before performing this action. Make an image-based backup before performing a factory reset on any Windows 11 PC, and make sure you have the tools necessary to restore such a backup.

Consider backup tools, such as Macrium Reflect, that create bootable media known as rescue media, which is typically stored on a USB flash drive. If anything goes wrong with the factory reset, you can boot to this media and then restore the PC to its pre-reset state.

Why perform a factory reset?

A factory reset is usually needed in two circumstances. The first scenario is when a PC will be decommissioned for sale or transferred to another user. The factory reset removes all changes since the PC left the factory, which leaves it in a clean state for sale or handoff. Make sure to apply pending updates to the OS to make the PC current and secure. The reset goes back in time to the date it left the factory, which may be one or more feature upgrades behind current production levels.

The second scenario is when a PC exhibits noticeable performance, stability or behavioral problems. There's little that an in-place upgrade repair install can't fix in Windows 11, but sometimes even that maneuver won't restore a PC to normal operation. When that happens, a clean install or a factory reset is a potential next step toward Windows recovery. Thus, the factory reset can take the PC back to its earliest Windows state, possibly fixing whatever ails it.

How to perform a factory reset in Windows 11

To start the factory reset process in Windows 11, click Start > Settings > System > Recovery (Figure 1). Then, select Reset PC.

You can also start the Reset PC operation from the sign-in screen or by using a recovery drive or installation media to enter recovery mode during boot-up. Press the shift key while selecting Restart to boot into local recovery mode.

The 'Recovery' screen in the Windows 11 system settings.
Figure 1. The option to reset the PC is under 'Recovery' in the 'System' section of settings.

From there, the screen will show two options (Figure 2). The option you choose depends on how you plan on using the PC after resetting it. If it's a last-ditch repair operation, it's easiest to select Keep my files. If you're prepping for sale or handoff, choose Remove everything.

The 'Choose an option' screen in 'Reset this PC' process, showing options to 'Keep my files' or 'Remove everything.'
Figure 2. Reset options let you keep personal files or get rid of everything.

After clicking on the desired option, you can choose how you want to reinstall Windows (Figure 3).

Choosing Cloud download will download the Windows install file from Windows servers in the cloud. This option is safest if you think your local installation is corrupt or damaged.

Choosing Local reinstall will download the Windows install file from the current Windows files on your PC. This option is faster but not immune to local issues. Unless the local Windows drive is compromised, however, it should work. For best results, choose the Cloud download.

The screen showing 'Cloud download' and 'Local reinstall' as the options for how you can reinstall Windows.
Figure 3. You can download the Windows install image from the cloud or from your Windows drive.

After choosing either reinstall option, the screen will show Additional settings. To continue the process with no settings changes, click Next.

If you want to make changes, click Change settings. From there, you can clean the drive completely by toggling Yes under Clean data? or download Windows from the cloud by toggling No under Download Windows? (Figure 4).

The 'Choose settings' screen, which appears if you select 'Change settings' at the previous step.
Figure 4. If you click 'Change settings' in the preceding step, you can revisit options here.

Once you confirm your choices, a final confirmation screen will appear. After you select Reset, the process will begin (Figure 5). This is your final chance to cancel the reset. If you allow this step to proceed and don't click Cancel at any point, you can no longer reverse the reset process. You'll have to let it complete and then restore a backup to return to where you started.

The 'Preparing to reset' screen, showing how ready the PC is for reset and giving the option to cancel.
Figure 5. The reset process does some preparation work before it reboots the PC.

Finally, the PC reboots and runs the Windows install that drives the chosen reset operation.

The installer will run through a series of prompts to complete the install once the OS is in place. These include prompts for country or region, language, keyboard layout and privacy settings. Logging in to a Microsoft account completes the process. Once the out-of-box experience finishes, the Windows 11 desktop will be in the same state as when it left the factory. If you plan to sell or hand off the PC to someone else, it's ready to go. If you plan to return it to its original user, there's still substantial work left to restore the user's preferences and customizations.

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