Dell factory restore when F8 does not work

UPDATE: after all this work, I started up the laptop only to find that the restore had somehow retained data from the previous install. Need more investigation to figure this one out…

Performing a factory reset on a Dell Inspiron 15R N5110 wound being a ridiculously complex task. I found many people online having problems with the factory restore function; fortunately I was able to put together a recipe for success after reading through a mountain of blogs and forums.

Some people recommended ditching the factory restore and installing from scratch. This was not an option for me because 1) Dell did not include the installation media with my purchase, and 2) even if they did I would need to apply the drivers myself; that gets awkward if I’m trying to sell this laptop as a blank slate.

F8 actually does work

Dell’s official instructions are a bit unclear about the timing of the F8 key taps:

Turn on the computer, after the Dell logo press F8 key repeatedly until the Advanced Boot Options menu (Advanced Startup Options).

You need to press F8 after the Dell logo disappears from the screen but before the Windows logo appears. If I hit F8 any time while the Dell logo was up, I would not get the Advanced Startup Options. [Source]

Wherefore art thou, Dell DataSafe Restore?

Continuing to follow Dell’s instructions, you are eventually supposed to select a Dell DataSafe Restore and Emergency Backup option. This option was missing for me.

The major things I had done to this computer were to upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate and to enable Bitlocker. The Dell recovery disk partition was still present and untouched, but maybe one of those things caused the option to disappear. So I was then left to discover how to apply the recovery partition data myself.

If you want a job done right…

The steps to successfully apply the recovery yourself are mostly described here: Inside the Dell PC Restore Partition. Here is my own recipe:

  1. Install the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK). This will give you the imagex.exe utility you’ll need to apply the factory image.
  2. Use F8 to boot into Repair Your Computer mode and open a Command Prompt
  3. I found myself in an X: ramdisk. For convenience, I copied imagex.exe into this ramdisk. Needed help from the internet to realize that I should use the amd64 version despite running an Intel processor and not an AMD. Command: copy "d:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\amd64\imagex.exe" . (dot at the end is intentional)
  4. More help from the internet to aggregate Dell’s factory images into one as part of the restore. Command: imagex.exe /ref c:\dell\image\factory*.wim /apply c:\dell\image\factory.wim 1 d:\
  5. The restore takes about 15 minutes, after you which you can reboot into the factory fresh install.

In the end, this is a nice reminder of why I have ditched Windows PCs. Very rare that I have to burn a Sunday evening mucking around with some obscure software issue on my MBP. Apple certainly has its problems, but only Windows vendors can set the frustration bar this high.

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