How to reset your devices without losing everything
Starting anew can be scary but rejuvenating.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on January 28, 2021.
Think back to how you felt powering up each of your devices for the first time. That sparkling, uncluttered interface, speedy performance, and plenty of possibilities. You can actually feel that again any time you like by resetting your phone or computer.
Resetting a device is about more than just getting a fresh start though: It can fix persistent bugs, get rid of unwanted apps and dangerous malware, and free up storage space on your device.
Ultimately, tapping or clicking that reset button can be scary, but your data should be fine as long as you consider the potential pitfalls and proceed carefully. Let us guide you.
Before you reset, make a plan
Resetting a device wipes it clean and takes you back to the setup stage, so you’ll need to make sure all your important data is backed up first. We’ve covered this in plenty of depth elsewhere, but it’s worth dropping some quick pointers here.
Mostly, backups are common sense: Think about where you’ve stored your important files and make sure you have copies of them on another device, disk drive, or in the cloud before you start the reset process.
This sort of audit is much more straightforward now than it was in years gone by—consider how much easier it is to simply sign back into Spotify than to back up gigabytes of MP3s, for example. Cloud apps are the norm today and are meant to be used from multiple devices.
What’s more, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all gone more cloud-centric in recent years. With iCloud, Google Drive, and OneDrive it’s now easier than ever to access your data from anywhere and keep it constantly backed up in the cloud.
That said, don’t be complacent. Desktop programs like the Steam gaming portal and Adobe Photoshop will sync data to and from the cloud, but it’s worth double-checking that the apps you use regularly are actually doing the backups you expect them to. You’ll also want to find out if you can easily redownload them once you’ve hit reset.
If you use your phone to prove your identity for accounts with two-factor authentication (2FA), understand that this data will disappear when you reset it. You’ll need to make absolutely sure you can still get into your online accounts without 2FA, albeit temporarily.
What this means in practice will depend on your 2FA-enabled accounts and the 2FA method you’re using for each one. Do some diligent research and you should have nothing to worry about. Some accounts give you backup codes to use if 2FA fails, so if you get one, make sure it’s in a safe, accessible place. For other accounts, it might just be easier to disable 2FA until you’re all set up on your phone again.
Apple and Google both let you use SMS codes as a backup to a 2FA authenticator app and verification code, so that’s an option (assuming you are keeping your SIM after you reset your phone). Beyond that, other authentication apps let you back up your logins to the cloud, which might work best for you, or you could transfer your authenticator app and its codes to another phone or tablet if you have one spare.
[Related: How to do two-factor authentication like a pro]
Once you’ve decided to reset your phone or computer, it’s also a good idea to spend a few days noting exactly how you use it and how easily you’ll be able to get everything back the way you like it. Most software developers know devices get reset, lost, or stolen on a regular basis, so they should have planned for that, but it’s best to make sure.
Bear in mind that downloading gigabytes of data from the web can take a long time, depending on the speed of your internet connection. If you’ve got masses of files in Dropbox, for example, you can always redownload them from the cloud—but it might be quicker and easier to copy them to an external hard drive before resetting. That way, you can transfer them straight back when you’re done and save the strain on your broadband.
How to reset an Android phone
Google has always developed its software with the cloud in mind, and everything from Gmail to Google Photos lives mostly online. However, you should still make sure that everything you need is in the cloud and that you don’t need anything stored on your phone (such as files downloaded from the web).
It’s also worth double-checking that you know all the usernames and passwords for your apps (and your Google account for that matter), as you’ll need to enter them again after the reset. Don’t worry about having to pay for apps you already own—the Play Store will recognize you once you’ve signed into your Google account and knows what you’ve previously purchased.
You’ll find Android’s own backup process under System and Backup in Settings, and this covers data such as contacts, text messages, and certain device settings (including WiFi passwords). It’s a good option, but make sure it covers everything you want it to save. We also recommend reading through the official Google support document for resetting Pixel phones.
When you’re ready to reset, make sure your phone is plugged in and charging so the process doesn’t get interrupted. Open Settings and then choose System, Reset options, and Erase all data (factory reset). Android will then show you an overview of the data you’re about to wipe. Tap Erase all data, enter the lock screen PIN code, then tap Erase all data again to start the reset process. Once the reset is complete, you’ll find yourself back at the Android setup process.
How to reset an iPhone
Traditionally, Apple hasn’t been quite as savvy as Google when it comes to constantly syncing data to the cloud, but iCloud has improved in recent years. It can now store a substantial amount of information for you (from contacts to calendars) while you’re busy resetting your phone. When it comes time to reinstall apps, Apple’s App Store will remember what you’ve paid for, so you won’t need to purchase them again.
As for backups, iOS has a comprehensive backup option, which uses either a computer or iCloud. If you open Settings, tap your name at the top, and then pick iCloud, you can see the apps sending data to the web. You can also choose iCloud Backup from this list to make sure a backup occurred right before you start resetting your phone.
[Related: The best ways to back up all your photos to the cloud]
Apple has a thorough support document on resetting your iPhone, which you should read before proceeding, just to ensure you’ve done everything necessary. It also covers how to back up your phone if you need extra help with that (iOS will actually prompt you to create a backup when you reset it, if you haven’t run one in a while).
Get your phone plugged in and charging to make sure the reset isn’t interrupted, then open Settings and pick General, Transfer or Reset iPhone, and choose whether you want to Reset the device or Erase All Content and Settings. You’ll be prompted to enter the passcode for your phone and possibly your Apple ID password to confirm your choice (this is a good way to ensure you remember your Apple ID password, as you’ll need it to sign in again). After the reset, the iPhone will reboot to the setup screen.
How to reset Windows
With OneDrive now such an integral part of Windows, a lot of your files should automatically be synced to the cloud even if you’re not using a third-party option like Google Drive or Dropbox. That said, you should still give your hard drive a scan to look for files that might not be backed up anywhere else.
You should also go through your desktop programs, as they’re often not as ready as mobile apps when it comes to restoring everything from the cloud. Make sure you have all the files, purchase details, and login information you need before these applications get wiped—you’ll have to redownload them all and set them up from scratch once the reset is completed.
Windows actually gives you the option of resetting your entire computer, or just resetting key Windows files and leaving your personal files as they are—this saves you the trouble of a backup, but it’s not as effective as a full reset. For your fresh start, you can use a local copy of Windows (the traditional method) or one downloaded from the web (usually preferable, if your broadband can take it). If you need help with any of these choices, Microsoft has plenty of information about resetting your PC and using the cloud as a reset backup.
[Related: Free up space on your laptop by moving all your files to the cloud]
If you’re using a laptop, make sure it’s charging so that there’s no chance of a dead battery interrupting the reset process. On Windows 10, open up Settings from the Start menu, choose Update & Security, and then Recovery. Under Reset this PC, click Get started. On Windows 11, the steps are: Settings > System > Recovery > Reset this PC > Reset PC. No matter your OS, you’ll see the options we mentioned: Keep my files or Remove everything. Once you’ve made your choice, (and decided if you want to keep your apps with your files) click Next and then Reset on the summary screens. When the computer reboots, you’ll be back on the setup screen.
How to reset macOS
Apple’s computers now use iCloud as much as its phones, so a lot of your Mac applications are probably backing themselves up automatically already. If you open the Apple menu, then choose System Preferences, Apple ID, and iCloud, you can see a list of these apps. You can also use Apple’s own Time Machine utility for backups, too—it doesn’t really matter which backup method you have in place, as long as there is one.
As with any other device, audit the programs you’re using day-to-day to make sure they’ll be able to recover from a reset: Can you download them from the web again? Do you know all the account usernames and passwords involved? Are your settings backed up somewhere? Pay particular attention to older software that may not be as cloud-ready as newer applications.
If you’re dealing with a MacBook, get it charging before starting the reset, so a dead battery doesn’t interrupt it. You should also read the official Apple support document to give you an idea of what’s going to happen. You’ll then need to turn your Mac off and on again. On Apple silicon devices (mostly machines manufactured since 2020), keep the power button held down until you see the Options link, then tap it and choose Continue. On Intel-based Macs, press and hold Cmd+R right after turning your Mac back on, until you see the Apple logo.
You’re then in the recovery options for macOS. Pick your user account, enter your password, choose ReinstallmacOS, and work through the screens as they come up. Along the way, you’ll have to choose which hard drive you actually want to install the operating system on (most systems will only have one drive). When the reset process has finished, you’ll be right back at the macOS setup screen.