Returnil creates a virtual system on your machine that completely mirrors your actual setup. It is designed to take the risk out of exposing your machine to all manner of software, websites, downloads, or anything else that might have adverse effects on your machine or infect it with malware.

Once restarted, your system will revert back to its original state and all changes to your primary partition will disappear. It’s free for home users. Don’t let this whole “virtualization” business put you off; aside from having a name that sounds like a pharmaceutical, Returnil is a very simple software to use that works really well.

You can think of it as a system-wide “undo” function; once you turn it on, you can do whatever you want with your system; all changes to your primary partition will be temporary and will disappear when you restart the computer.


Here’s how to use this software:

  1. Install Returnil: a very simple process. The only decision that is out of the ordinary is the option to create a virtual partition (the program will not need this partition, but you might; see point #4 below). During installation you can also set a master password to restrict access to the program.
  2. Turn Returnil’s protection on, when you need to; no actual changes will occur on your primary partition once this happens; from this point onward everything occurs on a “virtual” copy of your system.
  3. Do what you need to do: e.g. surf those dodgy internet sites, or install that piece of software that you want to test, or open the files you need to open, etc.
  4. Save your data: you will have to save any files you are working with someplace other than the primary partition (e.g. a secondary partition, a thumbdrive, or upload your files on the internet, etc.) Or let Returnil create a virtual partition for you; its purpose is precisely to provide a place for you to save your data when protection mode is turned on, and you can set any size you want for it that you have space for on your hard drive. Any files/data saved on the primary partition will eventually be lost.
  5. Restart the system: this is the only way ro turn Returnil’s protection off. Once this happens, any changes that happened when system protection was on will be gone; your system will look exactly the way it looked before you started.

returnilReturnil works by cloning your system settings in memory and implementing any changes virtually into that cloned entity. By working within memory it purports to offer better speed and reliability than other virtualization solution. If you are wondering, as I did, how Returnil can handle, say, an 80 gig primary partition within 128 or 512 megs of RAM, the answer to that question as stated in the FAQ section of their website is something to the effect that since the actual 80 gigs will remain unchanged, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to hold this entire disk image in memory. My understanding of this is that, in fact, all the program needs from your actual system is a bunch of settings that it uses to replicate your it within a constructed virtual environment. More notes on this program:

  • Making changes permanent: you cannot make changes made while in protection mode permanent even if you want to (unlike, say, Sandboxie). The only way to do this would be to re-do the changes normally with system protection off.
  • Testing software: while Returnil works extremely well for temporarily installing and testing programs within the virtual environment, programs that require a restart to install cannot be tested with Returnil as the restart switches off the virtual layer.
  • Deleting data: any deleted data or programs uninstalled while protection is on will actually be preserved and will re-appear when system protection is turned off and your machine is restarted.
  • The user interface: Returnil can be accessed through a system tray icon or a floating toolbar (see screenshot). You can use these to (a) turn system protection on, (b) mount/dismount the virtual drive, or (c) schedule system protection so it automatically turns on at specific times. You can also set a hotkey by which to activate system protection.

The verdict: as virtualization solutions go (see Altiris SVS and Sandboxie), Returnil is the simplest, most user friendly and intuitively comprehensible. As a user there are really only two things that you can do with this program; (a) turn system protection on, and (b) turn it off via a system restart. This not only makes Returnil extremely easy to use, but also contributes towards limiting any so-called ’leaking’ that sometimes occurs with virtualization programs where data meant for the virtual layer ’leaks’ into the actual system. This one is my favorite amongst all the free virtualization solutions mentioned above that I have come across so far. I highly recommend it. [Thanks go to reader Brockman for tipping me off about this program].

Version tested: Compatibility: Windows XP, 2003, VISTA 32 bit. Go to the program page to get the latest version (approx 1.7 megs).

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Has been reviewing software since 2006 when he started
  • cicom3nd3z
  • Anonymous

    Since I have been using Returnil for a few weeks, I notice many entries in Vista’s Reliability Monitor showing Disruptive Shutdowns. Is this normal or cause for concern?

  • Joe Quark

    Samer: Will the data saved, when the protection mode is on, in the virtual partition (created by Returnil at the time of installation) also be lost after a system restart? If not, how can one access after the protection mode has been switched off?
    By the way thanks for the wonderful list of 54 freewares you recently released (renstalling XP etc). That must have involved a huge amount of labour
    Oct 29, 2007

  • franklinkin

    One of the best software in the year of 2007. I like Returnil very much. thanks!

  • Try Sandboxie, more convenient & customizable. Actually you can extract files & registry data from the “virtual boxes”.


    Why is it that my Returnil turns off sometimes after a few restart

  • CT


    Seems even more safe & secure than SandBoxie, and now BOTH are in my ‘Toolkit’!
    Still, I’d LOVE to see a ‘Portable’ Virtualization program, to put on my ‘Tools’ Thumbdrive! I’m aware of the ‘Portable’ loader for SandBoxie, but it just isn’t quite ready yet, IMHO.
    I’ve found several tools here that I wasn’t aware of – they’re on my Thumbdrive and/or Computer, now, and I’m still reading!

    Thanks for a GREAT Website!

  • guest

    This is a great replacement for Deep Freeze (which had been buggy for a few times [for me] ).

    This software and this neat review should be submitted to social bookmarking sites (especially to increase awareness.

  • fr

    “Testing software: while Returnil works extremely well for temporarily installing and testing programs within the virtual environment, programs that require a restart to install cannot be tested with Returnil as the restart switches off the virtual layer.”

    Why don’t you test Windows SteadyState? It overcomes this problem.

    Windows SteadyState Features:

    * Windows Disk Protection – Help protect the Windows partition, which contains the Windows operating system and other programs, from being modified without administrator approval.Windows SteadyState allows you to set Windows Disk Protection to remove all changes upon restart, to remove changes at a certain date and time, or to not remove changes at all. If you choose to use Windows Disk Protection to remove changes, any changes made by shared users when they are logged on to the computer are removed when the computer is restarted
    * User Restrictions and Settings – The user restrictions and settings can help to enhance and simplify the user experience. Restrict user access to programs, settings, Start menu items, and options in Windows. You can also lock shared user accounts to prevent changes from being retained from one session to the next.
    * User Account Manager – Create and delete user accounts. You can use Windows SteadyState to create user accounts on alternative drives that will retain user data and settings even when Windows Disk Protection is turned on. You can also import and export user settings from one computer to another—saving valuable time and resources.
    * Computer Restrictions – Control security settings, privacy settings, and more, such as preventing users from creating and storing folders in drive C and from opening Microsoft Office documents from Internet Explorer®.
    * Schedule Software Updates – Update your shared computer with the latest software and security updates when it is convenient for you and your shared users.

  • Samer

    @ fr: thanks for the tip … this sounds promising I will look into it 😉

  • fr

    Thank you for your tips… I really appreaciate!

    Most people confuses SteadyState with a Parental Control aplication because of MS marketing…

  • Whilst windows steady state does exactly what it says on the tin, it is a terribly inefficent piece of software, despite having a quad core computer with 8GB of ram, my computer was dreadfully slow at booting, logging on, logging off and hibernating when I test drove windows steady state, Id stay away from it unless you have a super computer.

  • Bukizzle316

    To the guy that complained about Returnil turning off after a restart, you fail, give up at the computer.

  • zzenn

    I use steadystate on a laptop to revert it’s settings everytime the users log off. It can also RESTRICT user privileges and customize the user interface. It’s very, very handy at this. They can go wild on their guest accounts, and after they log off, it’s all back to normal. Meanwhile, I can do what I need to do with the admin account and changes are permanent if I so choose.

    Returnil cannot do any of this, as far I know.

    The laptop is a run of the mill old dell and I have not experienced any slowdown. If anything, the system maintains it’s speed because nobody can mess it up 🙂

  • Fred Astaire

    I’ve been using Returnil (Free Version) on a test system for about a week, after finding it via some BartPE links, and so far, very good, it does it what it says it does, and it’s _simple_, it’s either Off or On, and you can save to the partition, a network drive, or an external drive. I’m still learning about it that’s how I ended up here, for all you paranoid types (rightly so) that think all comments are from the dev team, etc. 😉

  • If you’re running Windows in VMware, there’s a way to do this same process natively with “snapshots” … here’s a quick rundown on that:

  • Merci pour votre article sur notre logiciel Returnil.
    Ce commentaire pour vous dire que l’antenne France de Returnil vient d’ouvrir et que le logiciel est disponible sur Returnil france


    Nicolas de

  • goodsignal

    The latest version is over 38MB, not 1.7MB. Lot’s of unwanted features included now. Anyone have a link to the reviewed version?