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Ultimate Guide to Reinstall Windows

Give your PC the ultimate refresh, and make it as fast and responsive as the day you bought it. Let's shows you how.

There are several reasons why you might be thinking about reinstalling your operating system, for example if your hard drive has failed or you're upgrading to a larger device. Perhaps, your PC keeps crashing and no amount of cleaning or tinkering seems to fix it. Or maybe you're just missing the super-speedy performance you enjoyed when your computer was new and want to revitalize its sluggish system by reinstalling it. Whatever your reasons, there are clear benefits to start afresh. Over this post, we'll guide you through the process, from preparation to execution.

Plan ahead

Reinstalling Windows is not a task to be undertaken lightly and it requires a fair amount of preparation. Start by making a list of all the programs you regularly use, and make sure you have all the necessary installation discs and set-up programs to hand, along with the license details.

If you have software that uses add-ons or plug-ins, such as your browser, make a note of those, too.

You can check you haven't missed anything by auditing your system with Belarc Advisor. The program scans your computer and produces a detailed report, listing every program on your hard drive, along with the details of any stored software licenses. Print a copy or save it somewhere safe, such as on a USB flash drive.

 Belarc Advisor provides a detailed list of the programs on your PC

If you have a lot of free software installed, use the FileHippo.com Update Checker to compile a list of programs, complete with download links to the latest versions. Run the program, right -click the icon in the System Tray and go to Settings. Click the Results tab, then 'Show all programs, not just the ones that need updating'. Save the changes, right-click the icon again and select 'View results'. Now save the page somewhere safe.

FileHippo.com Update Checker compiles a list of your free programs and includes download links to the latest versions

Most importantly, make a note of the password and username for your internet connection and email settings, which you may need to get back online later. Also write down the POP3 and SMTP servers you use for email.

Back up everything

It's vital you make a copy of all your personal data, because you won't be able to get it back once you've formatted your disk and reinstalled Windows. The built-in Windows back-up tool can copy any document s, photos, videos, music tracks and so on, but there are other important things you will need to save, including emails, browser bookmarks, user settings, d rivers and any additional fonts you may have installed. MailStore Home can take care of your messages, and Chrome and Firefox both have built-in sync tools that save all your important browser data online. You can make a copy of your hardware drivers using DriverMax.

It's important to back up everything on your computer, including hardware drivers, before you start your reinstall

Create a back-up image

Even if you think you have copies of everything you need, it can still be worth creating a back-up image of the drive from which you can retrieve files in an emergency. Drivelmage XML can back up hard drives and partitions to another disk and will copy all files, even ones that are locked or currently in use. Verify the back-up once it's complete to make sure it has been written correctly. After all, a corrupt back-up is worse than having no back-up at all.

DriveImage XML creates a back-up image of a drive that you can retrieve files from 

Repair Windows XP

If Windows XP is causing you problems but you don't want to go through the hassle of backing up everything, formatting your hard disk and starting from scratch, you can try repairing the operating system instead. This involves reinstalling XP over itself and should fix any problems, while leaving your programs and personal data untouched. To do this, insert the XP disc into the drive, restart your computer and boot from CD. Ignore the first repair option (which will simply start the Recovery Console) and follow the instructions. Accept the license agreement by hitting F8. The installer should locate the existing XP installation. Select it and press R to begin the repair.

Repairing Windows XP re-installs the operating system over itself but leaves your programs and personal data untouched

Create an up-to-date install disc

Microsoft regularly issues patches and security fixes for its operating systems, and occasionally creates system packs. Unless your original install disc is fairly new, it may not include these, so once you've reinstalled Windows, you'll need to update it, which can take a very long time. If you have an early XP disc, that's nearly 11 years of fixes (and three system packs)! Vista users will have six years of updates to catch up on and even Windows 7 users could be missing out on two years' worth.

RT Se7en Lite lets you choose which components to install with Windows 7

Fortunately, you can use a technique called slipstreaming to produce a more up-to-date version of your install disc. This contains the latest system packs, and can be downloaded. You can do this manually, but it's much easier to use a dedicated program such as nlite for XP, vLite for Vista, or RT Se7en Lite for Windows 7. All three programs let you choose which Windows components should be installed with the OS, so you don't need to go through and remove unwanted features once your fresh install completes.

nLite will create the latest available version of the XP install disc, complete with all the latest system packs and Windows updates

Reinstalling for selling

If you're planning to sell your old PC, you'll have to do more than format the hard disk and stick a fresh copy of Windows on it to remove all t races of your personal data. For that, you'll want to use a copy of Darik's Boot and Nuke, which can be run from a CD, DVD or USB flash drive.

After installation

Once Windows has finished installing, you'll need to add your missing software. We'll look at this in detail next issue (out on Thursday 8 March), but if you don't want to leave you PC vulnerable, install the security tools (anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall), then use Windows Update to download and install any important OS updates, along with optional ones you feel are worth having. Check the Windows Device Manager in the Control Panel to make sure all your hardware is working correctly, and copy over any missing drivers. Now you can install your favorite applications and restore your personal files, settings, browser bookmarks and passwords.

Mini Workshops

Back up your computer using Windows' built-in tools
  1. Windows XP, Vista and 7 come with a built-in tool that you can use to back up your important data. Go to Start, type backup into the box, and select 'Backup and Restore'. If you've not used this function before, click the 'Set up backup' link. (1) Choose a Backup Destination. (2) You can also save your files over a network. (3)

  2. You now have two options. You can let Windows choose what to copy (1) or make the decision yourself. (2) The first option is fine for daily saves, but if you're planning a reinstall, you should select 'Let me choose', which will give you much greater control over what gets backed up. Click Next.

  3. You can choose to back up your data files; (1) an entire hard disk (2) or individual folders (click the arrow next to a drive to reveal its structure). If you're backing up to another disk, you'll have the option to create a system image. (3) Click Next to review the settings and start the back-up process.

Reinstall Windows 7 safely
  1. If your hard drive is blank, you can restart your PC and boot directly from the install disc. Otherwise load Windows, insert the DVD and run 'setup.exe'. Click the Install Now button (1) to start the process. You'll be given the opportunity to go online and check for the latest updates and patches.

  2. Select the Upgrade option (1) to install the new operating system over an earlier version of Windows. This leaves your existing files and applications untouched, though we'd still recommend backing them up beforehand. To format your hard disk and install a brand new copy of Windows, choose 'Custom (advanced)'. (2)

  3. Select the drive or partition you want to install the operating system on. Click Next, and Windows 7 will begin to install. The process will take a while and your computer will restart several times. Once it's completed, enter your product key to activate Windows (1) and then finish setting everything up.