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When Windows breaks: How to fix it, piece by piece

Brad Chacos | Nov. 5, 2013
Your browser goes bonkers! Your firewall freaks out! No worries: Windows can repair many problems itself. Here's how.

Windows is so customizable, it's tempting to tinker. Don't like Internet Explorer's default feel? There are settings for that! Hate the way Windows 8's Ribbon UI looks? Tweak away! And if you're feeling truly adventurous, a veritable universe of change awaits within the easy-to-bork Windows registry.

But there's a dangerous downside to all that freedom: You can really, really mess things up. And yes, that includes some very vital things.

Don't swear off your courageous exploration just yet, though. Microsoft's built a slew of granular controls into Windows that let you reset all sorts of individual aspects of the operating system. There's usually no need to hit an irritating fly with that great, big "clean install" sledgehammer! Read this before you burn your installation to the ground and start all over.

Reigniting IE
More than any other part of Windows, the Internet Explorer browser is most likely to suffer from excessive tinkering—especially if you're the type of person who likes to install lots of free software, which all too often comes bundled with tacked-on toolbars and settings that hijack your homepage.

If you've managed to trash the desktop version of your browser beyond repair, click the gear icon on the right side of the IE toolbar, then select Internet Options. In the new window, open the Advanced tab and click the Reset button all the way at the bottom of the screen. Decide whether you'd like to clear personal settings (like your homepage) as well, then click Reset once more to blast your browser back to its origins.

File History
If you've made the jump to Windows 8 or Windows 8.1, Microsoft's insurance extends beyond the system itself to protect your oh-so-precious personal files—if you make a point of enabling the new File History feature.

File History periodically backs up your Windows Libraries, desktop, contacts, and favorites folders to an external drive, network drive, or some other storage location that isn't the primary Windows drive. By default, the feature saves once per hour. Even better, each save is stored as a different version, which means you can dive back multiple steps in time to restore an older state.

To enable File History, make sure another drive is connected to your system, then head to Control Panel > System and Security > File History to set it up. Advanced options can be found in the left-side menu pane.

There are some key caveats to this otherwise awesome feature, however—mostly stemming from its reliance on Libraries. (Why no SkyDrive backup option, Microsoft?)

First and foremost, Windows 8.1 hides Libraries by default, so you'll want to re-enable them. And what if you want to save a folder that isn't part of one of the default Windows Libraries? Simple: Add it to one. Just right-click the Library you want to absorb the folder (Documents, Music, etc.) and select Properties > Add..., then point the system to your chosen location.


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