Q: How do I uninstall Windows 8.1 from my laptop?
A: I think Windows 8.1 is a pretty good operating-system update. But it's also an operating-system update — meaning that it can get tripped up by hidden software conflicts that don't arise when upgrading individual apps.
Unfortunately, Win 8.1 is also much harder to undo than other operating-system updates. Contrary to what its "point release" number might suggest, 8.1 is not some minor update you can roll back through the Windows Update control panel. And it's more difficult to roll back through the other usual mechanism in Windows, a system-recovery process.
A Microsoft frequently-asked-questions page about Win 8.1 explains this in conditional language that should give a reader pause: "If your PC came with Windows 8 you might be able to restore it back to Windows 8 by refreshing your PC."
Should that work, it will allow the most orderly retreat possible. Win 8's underrated "refresh" option will put a clean copy of the operating system in place, leaving your data intact but only reinstalling apps that came bundled on the computer or were obtained through the Windows Store.
To use this option, tap or click the bottom-right corner of the desktop (or swipe in from the right edge of the Start screen), select the gear-shaped Settings icon, and then select "Change PC settings."
In that screen, click or tap "Update and recovery," choose the Recovery option and proceed with a refresh from there. The computer will use the hard drive's system-recovery partition to put things back as they were when you took the computer out of the box, plus your own data.
If, however, you upgraded from Windows 7 or an older version to Windows 8 and then added 8.1 using Microsoft's free Windows Store download, the above process is out of the question.
As Microsoft's FAQ spells out, post-8.1 "you won't be able to use the recovery partition on your PC to go back to your previous version of Windows." If you hadn't earlier thought to create a recovery USB flash drive from that partition, you're most likely stuck doing a clean install of Windows. And that in turn usually requires beseeching or paying your PC's vendor for a Windows disc, because most computers don't ship with a separate system DVD.
ZDNet writer Ed Bott, an author of multiple Windows books, noted that Windows 7 includes the option to make a full "disk image" backup of the entire system. "If your reader had the foresight to make one of those image backups before doing the upgrade, they can be back exactly where they left off (minus any files that were changed between now and when the image was snapped)."
I can confirm that disk-image backups work, and that too many users don't think to make one until approximately one hour too late.
As for what could make a Win 8.1 update go bad, complaints I've gotten from readers generally focus on drivers — the background bits of software that let the system talk to components like video cards — and other apps that haven't been updated to work correctly in Win 8.1.
That's an old problem, and so is the most likely solution — waiting for the software in question to be updated for 8.1. Wrote Bott: "I would try to solve the driver problem first if I could. That's going to lead to the best outcome and the least amount of heartache."
At least going back remains an option in Windows. The rewind button remains intact, even if it's harder to access. (OS X Mavericks also lets you revert to an older version through the Time Machine backup app.) Apple's iOS 7, however, can't be uninstalled at all.
Tip: Create a Windows 8 recovery drive
Unlike earlier versions of Windows, 8 and 8.1 include simple, quick tools to create USB system-recovery drives. You can then use one to repair your system or restore it to factory condition, even if Windows itself has become unbootable.
To do this, plug in a reasonably large and empty USB drive — Microsoft says you'll need from 3 to 6 gigabytes — switch to Win 8's Apps view, and type "create." The first result should be "Create a recovery drive."
Follow the prompts there; if you choose the option to copy the computer's recovery partition, you'll also be able to restore the machine to factory shape from this USB drive.
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter attwitter.com/robpegoraro.