Hundreds of millions of Windows 10 users can’t be wrong -- or can they? I hear from people every day who tried the Win10 upgrade and for a variety of reasons -- broken drivers, incompatible programs, unfamiliarity, fear of snooping, doubt about Win10’s future -- want to get back to their good ol’ Windows 7 or 8.1.
If you performed an upgrade using Microsoft’s tools and anointed techniques, rolling back should be easy. Operative term: “should.” Unfortunately, many people find that Win10 is a one-way trip -- sometimes for very good reason.
Here’s a thorough rundown of what you should expect, during the upgrade, then amid the rollback, along with a list of what frequently goes wrong and a bunch of tips on how to make the round trip less painful.
If you’ve upgraded from Win7 or Win8.1 to Win10 and you love your new system, more power to ya. But if you have a nagging doubt -- or want to know what’s in store if you decide to move back -- this report details what awaits.
Anatomy of a hassle-free rollback
Most people who want to roll back from Windows 10 to their previous version of Windows have no problem with the mechanics. Providing you still qualify for a rollback (see the next section), the method for moving back is easy.
Caveat: If your original Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 system had log-on IDs with passwords, you’ll need those passwords to log in to the original accounts. If you changed the password while in Windows 10 (local account), you need your old password, not your new one. If you created a new account while in Windows 10, you have to delete it before reverting to the earlier version of Windows.
Step 1. Before you change any operating system it’s a good idea to make a full system backup. Many people recommend Acronis for the job, but Windows 10 has a good system image program as well. It’s identical to the Windows 7 version, but it’s hard to find. To get to the system image program, in the Win10 Cortana search box, type
Windows Backup, press Enter, on the left click Create a System Image, and follow the directions.
Step 2. In Windows 10. Click Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery. On the right, you’ll see an entry to “Go back to Windows 7” (see screenshot) or “Go back to Windows 8.1,” depending on the version of Windows from whence you came.
If you don’t see the “Go back to” option and are using an administrator account, you’ve likely fallen victim to one of the many gotchas that surround the upgrade. See the next section -- and don’t get your hopes up.
Step 3. If you choose “Go back to a previous Windows,” you’re given a choice (screenshot), analogous to the choice you made when you upgraded to Windows 10, to either “Keep my files” or “Remove everything.” The former keeps your files (as long as they’re located in the usual places), so changes you made to them in Windows 10 will appear back in Windows 7 (or 8.1). The latter wipes out all of your files, apps, and settings, as you would expect.
Step 4. The Windows rollback software wants to know why you are rolling back, offers to check for updates in a last-ditch attempt to keep you in the Windows 10 fold, warns you “After going back you’ll have to reinstall some programs” (a problem I didn’t encounter with my rather pedestrian test programs), thanks you for trying Windows 10, then lets you go back.
Step 5. After a while (many minutes, sometimes hours) you arrive back at the Windows 7 (or 8.1) log-on screen. Click on a log-on ID and provide a password; you’re ready to go with your old version.
I found, in extensive testing, that “Keep my files” does, in spite of the warning, restore apps (programs) and settings to the original apps and settings -- the ones that existed when you upgraded from Win7 to Win10. Any modifications made to those programs (for example, applying security updates to Office programs) while using Windows 10 will not be applied when you return to Win7 -- you have to apply them again.
On the other hand, changes made to your regular files while working in Windows 10 -- edits made to Office documents, for example, or new files created while working with Windows 10 -- may or may not make it back to Windows 7. I had no problems with files stored in My Documents; edits made to those documents persisted when Windows 10 rolled back to Windows 7. But files stored in other locations (specifically in the \Public\Documents folder or on the desktop) didn’t make it back: Word docs created in Win10 simply disappeared when rolling back to Win7, even though they were on the desktop, or in the Public Documents folder.
One oddity may prove useful: If you upgrade to Windows 10, create or edit documents in a strange location, then roll back to Windows 7 (or 8.1), those documents may not make the transition. Amazingly, if you then upgrade again to Windows 10, the documents may re-appear. You can retrieve the “lost” documents, stick them in a convenient place (such as on a USB drive or in the cloud), then roll back to Windows 7, and pull the files back again.
Important lesson: Back up your data files before you revert to an earlier version of Windows. If you lose a file while going from Windows 7 to Windows 10, you can usually find it from inside Win10 in the hidden Windows.old folder. But when you go back from Win10 to Win7, there is no Windows.old folder.
Impediments to rollbacks
Microsoft promises that you can upgrade to Windows 10, then roll back, if you perform the rollback within 30 days. While that’s true to a first approximation, the details are a shade more complex.
When you perform an in-place upgrade from Windows 7 (or 8.1) to Windows 10, the installer creates three hidden folders:
Those folders can be very large. Upgrading from a clean Windows 7 machine with Office 2010 installed, C:\Windows.old runs 21GB.
Deleting the hidden C:\Windows.old folder, either of the other two folders, or any of their contents, will trigger a “We’re sorry, but you can’t go back” message (screenshot). Those are the folders that hold all of your old system, including programs and data. Generally, it’s difficult to delete the folders manually, but if you run Disk Cleanup in Windows 10, opt to Clean up System files, and check the box marked Previous Windows installation(s), your Windows.old folder disappears and can’t be retrieved.
(Older posts suggest that running the Windows Media Creation tool will delete the $Windows.~BT folder. That may have been true six months ago, but it looks like Microsoft fixed the problem.)
Although it isn’t well documented, apparently the Win10 upgrade installer sets a Scheduled Task to delete those files -- they take up a lot of room, and understandably, Microsoft wants to give that room back to you. I couldn’t find any associated setting in Task Scheduler, nor could I find any documentation about the task, so the removal of those files after 30 days may be more complicated than most assume. Others have found that moving (or renaming) those files, then moving them back after the 30 days has expired, does not reload the rollback mechanism. If you think you can be tricky and hide the files, returning them when you want them, I’ve found no indication that’s possible.
You can, however, roll back from Windows 10 to Windows 7, then roll forward again. By rerunning the downgrade/upgrade cycle within the 30-day window, you’re good for another 30 days. I’ve rolled back and forth four different times on the same machine, with no noticeable problems.
There are other situations where either Windows.old never gets generated, or it is stripped of all of your programs and data. That’s what happens with a clean install.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that if you run the Windows Media Creation tool, use it to “Upgrade now,” and in the dialog marked “Choose what to keep,” specify Nothing, you won’t be able to roll back to your original programs or files. This is a common technique for performing a clean install of Windows 10 -- highly recommended to make sure Win10 is more stable. Unfortunately, it also removes your ability to go back to Win7 or 8.1.
In the same vein, if you upgrade to Windows 10, use either the Media Creation Tool or the Windows 10 “Reset this PC” function (Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery), then tell Windows that you want to “Remove everything / Removes all of your personal files, apps and settings,” the key folders will be removed, and you can’t revert to your old version of Windows.
I’ve seen a lot of advice for recovering the three key hidden folders, should they be deleted. Unfortunately, I haven’t witnessed any approach that works consistently.
That thing about the 30-day clock
After 30 days, you're up the ol' creek without a paddle. If you want to go back to Win7 or 8.1, you have to re-install it from scratch, and you're responsible for moving your apps and data.
If you made a system backup before you upgraded to Win10, you can, of course, go back to that backup. Usual system backup rules: What you get is an exact copy of what you had at the point you made the backup.
If you're coming close to your 30 days, and are the cautious type, you should consider rolling back (taking into account the disappearance of files in unusual places), then rolling forward again. That resets the clock, so you get an additional 30 days to see if you like the Win10 experience.
It's not clear how Microsoft sets the 30 day clock. You'd think it would be a Scheduled Task, but I looked high and low and couldn't find it. (I was anticipating a hack where you could re-schedule the task manually.) But what is clear is that once the files necessary to roll back are wiped out, you're SOL.
What to do if the wheels fall off
In my experience, the rollback to Windows 7 and 8.1 works remarkably well, given the caveats mentioned previously. I have heard of problems, though, ranging from icons that don’t display properly on the recovered desktop, to missing data, to programs/drivers that aren’t working correctly, even though they used to work fine.
If you can’t get Windows to roll back and absolutely detest Windows 10, you’re up against a very tough choice. The only option I’ve found that works reliably is to re-install your original version of Windows from scratch. On some machines, the old recovery partition still exists, and you can bring back your old version of Windows by going through the standard recovery partition technique (which varies from manufacturer to manufacturer), commonly called a “Factory restore.” More frequently, you get to start all over with a fresh install of Windows 7 or 8.1.
That is a completely different can of worms. There are raging debates about the availability and legality of copies of Windows 7 -- suffice it to say that Microsoft doesn’t have any legal source of the bits for individuals. If you’re very lucky and you have the right kind of key, you can download an ISO of Windows 8.1 on an official Microsoft site.
I had a friend stuck in a similar situation, where Windows 10 was unstable. Rolling back from Win10 to Win7 left him with a system that constantly crashed. My suggestion: Back up his data as best he could, rerun the upgrade, then go to Windows 10. Inside Windows 10, run a Reset (Start > Settings > Update & security > Recovery), then “Remove everything / Removes all of your personal files, apps and settings.” That triggers a clean install of Windows 10. He may not like Windows 10, but running that clean install made it substantially more stable. He learned to live with it.
Your mileage may vary, of course.
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