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Ask Help Desk: How do I get my stuff back out of the cloud?

In this week’s edition, we tackle cloud conundrums, emergency-only phones and Windows woes.

(Brinson + Banks/Washington Post Illustration)
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For me at least, opening the Help Desk inbox is a little like spending time with my family for the holidays — I never know what kind of tech support questions I’ll have to face, and there’s always a lot of them, but it always winds up being a good time.

That’s because helping people improve their relationships with their tech is what we’re all about. This week’s edition of Ask Help Desk is all about maintaining control over the tech you might use most frequently, from rolling back software updates you aren’t a fan of to wrenching your files and data out of the cloud.

As always, our metaphorical mailbag has a little bit of everything, but we’re always open to hearing about the tech issues plaguing you. Just fill out this submission form or email us at and we’ll do our best to get you the answers you need — and who knows? Maybe your request will wind up in a future edition of the column, where it can help people facing the same problem.

We look forward to tacking your issues, but until then, let’s get on with this week’s questions.

Undoing the upgrade: If I update to Windows 11, and it doesn’t suit my needs, can I convert back to Windows 10 easily enough?

— Glenn Brown, Grand Junction, Colo.

I love when a question can be summed up in a song title, and this one feels like “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to me. You’re definitely not alone in your wariness, Glenn: Windows 11 comes with a lot of changes, some of which can feel a little jarring to people who have gotten used to how Windows 10 works. (Changing your default apps for browsing the Web and opening certain files springs to mind, because it’s a real pain now.)

Thankfully, Microsoft is giving you an out.

Assuming you’ve upgraded normally — that is, you went into your computer’s Windows Update settings and clicked a button, rather than gaming the system to get the update sooner — you have the option of downgrading back to Windows 10 with all of your files and apps intact. (That said, you should make sure to back up all your important files to an external drive anyway.)

As usual, though, there’s a catch: You only have 10 days to do it, and the clock starts once your upgrade is complete. Here’s how to do it:

How to downgrade from Windows 11 to Windows 10 within 10 days

  • Open the Start menu and click “Settings”
  • Click “Windows Update” in the left column
  • Scroll down to “Advanced Options” and click “Recovery”
  • Click “Go Back” and fill out the short form asking why you’re downgrading

That should be it — from there, Windows 11 will take a little while to process before beginning the downgrade. If you’re already out of the 10-day window, Windows 11 will break the bad news to you after you click “Go Back.”

And if that does happen to you, don’t panic: You can still revert to Windows 10, but you’ll need to use Microsoft’s installation media creation tool to reinstall that software from scratch. (Aren’t you glad you backed up your files already?) It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but if you run into any issues, you know where to find me.

Backing up the backups: How can we download or transfer all files at once from an overcrowded iCloud or Google Drive account to a large enough hard drive? I want to stop paying perpetual monthly fees — a trap that was free when I walked willingly into it now feels a bait-and-switch situation, or even extortion!

— D. Patrick, Richmond

I was just looking at my bank statement and had a similar thought — I’m up to my eyeballs in subscriptions and it’s getting pretty old. And while having all of my important files saved in the cloud for easy access is definitely convenient, it’s always a good idea to keep a local backup just in case. (If we can save a little money along the way, even better!)

If you don’t have that many files saved in Google Drive or iCloud Drive, it might be worth downloading each of them individually to that external drive you mentioned. Google makes it relatively easy: just open your main Drive folder, hit Ctrl-A (Windows) or Cmd-A (Mac) to select all your files, click the three-dot menu button in the top-right corner and select “Download.” From what I can tell, though, you can’t download multiple files from iCloud Drive at the same time.

Thankfully, Google and Apple offer tools to help you download everything you’ve saved in your cloud storage all at once — you just need to know where to look for them.

If you’re trying to get all your files out of Google’s clutches, go to the company’s Takeout site and deselect everything except “Drive.” Then click “Next step,” select how frequently you’ll want to export those files and choose how large you want the .zip files with all your stuff in them to be. (The default 2GB option is probably fine.) Then just hit “Create export” and settle in for a wait — it could take anywhere from hours to days, according to Google.

Apple’s approach is pretty similar: visit the company’s Data and Privacy site and log in with your Apple ID. Then you can click the option called “Get a copy of your data” and tick the boxes for iCloud Drive files, iCloud Mail, iCloud Photos, depending on what you’d like to save. Once you’ve confirmed your choices, Apple will also email you to let you know when you can start downloading all of your important data.

Emergencies only: I don’t use a mobile phone (I don’t want to be found). But, I would like a solution when I’m out driving around, away from my landline, to contact 911. Is there any kind of phone service or burner phone solution that does not incur a monthly charge, but charges on a per-use basis?

Anne Hopkins, Tucson

Pay-as-you-go phone services like the one you describe used to be extremely common — I saw them all the time when I sold cellphones in college. Unfortunately, they’re a lot more difficult to find now that big wireless carriers and smaller resellers push monthly plans wherever possible. But you do have some options.

Page Plus, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that sells access to Verizon’s airwaves, still has options that should work for you. According to the company’s website, you’ll be able to squeeze 166 minutes out of a $10 top-up card or code on its 4G pay-as-you-go plan and you’ll only have to add money to your account every 120 days. (Other companies with similar per-minute calling plans make you refill your account every 90 days instead.)

You’ll also have to pay for a SIM card and a compatible phone to get started, but Page Plus seems to have a slew of reasonably priced models.

You might also want to consider TracFone Wireless, which — as it turns out — owns Page Plus. After chatting with a few customer service reps, I learned that it doesn’t do pay-per-minute calling at all. What TracFone will do, however, is let you buy 400 minutes of talk time for $99. The kicker: Those minutes will last an entire year and based on how often it sounds like you’ll use your phone, you’ll probably still have plenty of talk time left over come November 2022.

You’ll still have to a get a phone — either by buying one at a store or grabbing a compatible model from a friend — but you won’t have to worry about remembering to refill your account frequently.

If you’re absolutely positive that you’ll only ever use a mobile phone for emergency calls, there is one more thing you could try. Every functioning cellphone in the United States, regardless of whether it’s been activated on a wireless carrier’s plan, can place a 911 call at no cost. (Thanks, Federal Communications Commission.)

This obviously isn’t ideal — without a working phone number, there’s no way for emergency services to call you back if they need to — but some people still do it. All you would need is a phone that still turns on that was released within the last five years or so; anything older than that might be affected by the 3G shutdown scheduled to take place in early 2022. But I think you and I would both feel better if you had an actual phone number, even if it’s one you only use rarely.