How to reinstall Windows
By Nick Peers
Tutorial Reinstall Windows in less than an hour with our guide
The process of reinstalling Windows on your computer is simpler than you might think.
The very idea can often induce a mild sense of panic, but the benefits of reinstalling Windows far outweigh any perceived risks, particularly as you can eliminate those dangers simply by making sure you back things up as you go.
Reinstalling Windows offers a number of benefits. It can revive a sluggish system by clearing out all the clutter and letting you start from scratch.
You’ll be amazed at how quick your PC suddenly feels, and it’ll be more stable too, with corrupt files and problematic programs removed from the equation. In many circumstances it can also clean your computer of malware, although it’s important to note that this isn’t guaranteed.
There are three different levels of reinstalling you can perform depending on how far you want to go, and in this feature we’ll cover them all – from a quick over-the-top reinstall to try and fix minor problems to a full-blown reorganisation of your hard drive, complete with formatting and fresh installation.
Whatever ails your computer, there’s a reinstall solution to help fix it.
If you’re reinstalling Windows because you think your system needs a quick refresh, then a repair installation is worth considering. The whole process takes less than an hour, and basically installs a fresh copy of Windows over the top of your existing, jaded copy, so that programs, settings and data remain intact.
There are two ways to perform a repair install: if your copy of Windows was pre-loaded by your manufacturer, follow its instructions for a system recovery, choosing ‘non-destructive’ when prompted. This may involve recovery discs, but in most cases can be done by rebooting and before Windows loads, pressing the key to access recovery options.
Not all manufacturers provide a non-destructive option – if the only options you can see involve partitioning, formatting or wiping your existing installation, you’ll have to jump to the next section and perform a full-blown reinstall instead.
If you installed Windows from an installation disc, then the process is a little more complicated. If you’ve installed any Service Packs since Windows was first installed, then these will need to be removed as the installation disc will detect a ‘newer’ version of Windows and refuse to install over the top of it. If you’re unable to remove the Service Pack or you’re unable to boot into Windows at all, then you’ll need to perform a full reinstall instead.
NOTE: Commenter badvok66 rightly points out that if you have apps that require authorisation or authentication (such as iTunes, some anti-virus programs or Adobe Creative Suite) then you ought to deactivate these before reinstalling your system to prevent any problems when reactivating.
Perform the installation
The step-by-step guide below reveals how to perform a repair installation in Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Windows XP users do things differently: start by rebooting with the Windows XP CD inserted.
Press any key when prompted – if you get a message about Windows not being able to recognise your drive, you’ll need SATA drivers on a floppy disk (check the manufacturer’s site for a make-disk utility). Then restart the process, pressing F2 when prompted to load the drivers.
When the Welcome screen appears, don’t press R – instead, press Return to set up Windows as directed. Press F8 and Windows will scan for your existing installation. Make sure it’s selected and then press R to repair it.
Windows XP will now delete all system files and copy replacements from the installation disc. Setup will then initialise and save your configuration, then reboot. Ignore any request to boot from CD.
When prompted for your language settings click Customize – set both options to English (United Kingdom), then switch to the Advanced tab and do the same. Click OK > Details. If it’s present, select English (United Kingdom) – United Kingdom from the menu or click Add to pick it from the list.
Once done, pick the US entry and click Remove followed by Apply, then click OK twice. Click Next, then enter your product key – you should find this with your installation disc. Then click Next.
Once complete, Windows XP will restart – click Next at the first screen, opt whether or not to register and click Next again followed by Finish.
Post repair steps
Once the repair process is complete, you should find yourself back at your desktop. Your programs, files and user settings should be intact, although some things, such as System Restore points, will be lost. Some programs may also stop working – try installing the program over the top of itself to resolve these lingering problems.
All that’s left to do is to bring your PC back up to date. Open Windows Update to check for and install updates – you may have to repeat the process a few times, rebooting Windows when prompted, before it finally tells you everything is current. A repair install can resolve many niggling stability issues, but if the problems continue it’s time to perform a complete reinstallation.
Repair installation: Get a new PC in 30 minutes! (Win Vista/7)
1. Remove service packs
If you’ve installed a Service Pack after Windows was first installed or loaded on to your computer, you’ll need to remove it first. Open the Programs and Features Control Panel and select View installed updates. Scroll down, select Service Pack for Windows and click Uninstall to remove it.
2. Start repair process
The repair installation process must be run from Windows itself – boot into Safe mode if necessary to start it. Pop your Windows disc into the drive and if the Autoplay dialogue box appears, click Run setup.exe. If it doesn’t appear, click Start > Computer and double-click the DVD drive icon.
3. Get updates
Click Yes followed by Install Now to start the process. When prompted, click Go online to get the latest updates for installation (recommended) and wait for them to be downloaded. Once done, the process will automatically restart.
4. Choose upgrade installation
Read the licence, then tick I accept the license terms before clicking Next. Windows Vista will ask for your product key (Windows 7 will skip this step), then at the next screen choose Upgrade. Now wait while the compatibility check is performed.
5. Make a cup of tea
Once complete, Windows will install over the top of itself, following a similar – but not identical – process to a fresh install. It will restart several times during the process, but can be safely left to its own devices. Expect this to take half an hour or so.
6. Complete repair process
When prompted, enter your product key and click Next. Choose Use Recommended Settings, then work your way through the rest of the set-up wizard verifying your time zone and network settings – click Skip to ignore any irrelevant parts.
A repair installation can fix some problems, but it won’t clean up your PC or do much to speed it up.
If all the clean-up tutorials in the world have no effect on your PC’s performance, if its reliability is at an all-time low, or you can’t even boot into Windows, a complete format and reinstall is – in most cases – the solution.
Formatting your hard drive will erase everything on that drive, so it’s important you back up all your data – documents, photos, email, settings and so on – before you begin. Open your backup tool and perform a manual backup to ensure the latest versions of your files are secure.
If you’re unable to boot into Windows, or want the security of knowing every possible file on your computer is protected, you will need to take a complete backup – known as a ‘drive image’ – of your hard drive. If anything goes wrong, simply restore this backup and start again.
Again, the procedure for reinstalling Windows differs depending on whether your computer came with a recovery disc or partition, or a Windows installation disc. As with the repair installation procedure, if you’re using built-in recovery options, set this procedure in motion when starting your PC – either boot from the disc or press the key when prompted to access them.
The key difference between this and a repair restore is that you want to perform a ‘destructive’ recovery – one which wipes all existing data from the Windows partition and returns your computer to the exact state it was in when you first switched it on.
A full reinstall
Reinstalling from the Windows installation disc is reasonably straightforward – unplug any non-essential USB devices such as printers, then pop in your Windows installation disc and restart your computer.
When prompted to press any key to boot from CD or DVD, do so, and the installation process will begin proper.
This process differs depending on whether you’re reinstalling Windows XP or Windows Vista/Windows 7. For a complete guide on reinstalling Windows XP you can check out this page which should have all bases covered. Win 7 and Vista users can read on.
After Windows has loaded the basic set-up files you’ll be asked to set your language: click the Time and Currency format menu to select English (United Kingdom), which is above the default setting of English (United States). Click Next followed by Install Now to continue.
Windows Vista users will be prompted to enter their product key here – do so before clicking Next. After reading the licence agreement, tick I accept the license terms and click Next again.
When prompted for the installation type, choose Custom (Advanced). A list of your hard drives and partitions will appear – select the one with your current installation and click Drive Options for more options. Click Format, read the warning – this is the point of no return – and click Yes to format the hard drive.
Sit back and wait
Once formatted, click Next and the installation proper will begin. This will take 30 minutes or so depending on the speed of your hard drive.
Once done, Windows will reboot – ignore the prompt to boot from CD or DVD this time – and you’re ready to configure your new installation.
Configuration is straightforward: supply a username, a name for your computer (to identify it on your network) and a password for your account. Windows 7 users will then be prompted to enter their product key. Once done, click Use recommended settings to ensure Windows stays up to date, then verify your time zone.
The final stage involves connecting to your network: if Windows installed wireless and/or Ethernet drivers, you’ll be prompted to connect to any wireless network. Once done, Windows will complete the set-up process and you’ll have a fresh, uncluttered installation to work with.
Once you’re back at your desktop, follow the instructions in the post-restore box to bring your computer back to working order.
Once done, the final step is to restore your data and settings using your backup tool. Whether you’re using the built-in Backup and Restore tool in Windows, or using your own backup tool, you’ll need to manually select your backup – in the case of the Windows Backup tool, after clicking Restore you’ll be told the backup can’t be found.
Don’t panic: choose Select another backup (Windows 7) or Advanced restore > Files from a backup made on a different computer (Windows Vista) to locate it yourself. When you come to restore the backup, the default setting should be to restore the files to their original location, which should be the correct option in most cases.
Once your files have been restored, launch your backup tool again and create a new backup plan to ensure your files are protected in the future.
Before you reinstall: Don’t start installing without this checklist
1. Get backed up
Make sure all your important files and settings are backed up – use the Windows Backup tool, or try Comodo Backup 3. Also you can take a fail-safe drive image of your entire hard drive using backup software such as Redo. You can also back up your programs and settings with our handy guide.
2. Source drivers
Make sure you can reconnect to the internet after you’ve reinstalled Windows: if you’re reinstalling from an installation disc, you’ll need to download the modem (USB connection), Ethernet (network cable) or wireless drivers from your manufacturer.
3. Verify programs
Make sure you’ve got any program installation discs and relevant product keys safely written down or backed up. Try Belarc Advisor if you can’t find those keys, or be prepared to pay $25 for Recover Keys.
Three reasons to reinstall: Check out the benefits of taking the plunge
1. Speed up
Over time Windows gets bogged down with clutter: too many programs, leftover traces of old programs, redundant files and so on. Reinstalling Windows from scratch clears out all of this rubbish, speeding up your computer as a result.
2. Fix problems
A fresh reinstall fixes most non-hardware related problems. If your PC has reliability issues or crashes regularly, and you’ve ruled out hardware causes like a faulty power supply or failing hard drive, a reinstall should make it much more stable.
3. Take full control
A clean slate lets you craft Windows to your tastes and needs. Take a drive image once your ‘perfect’ set-up is in place, and you’ll never have to reinstall again – instead, just restore the drive image and bring it up to date.
One of the biggest hassles when it comes to reinstalling Windows is having to back up and restore data and certain settings each time, because there’s always a danger you’ll be caught short and miss something, which will never be seen again.
Our recommended – but most complicated – procedure for reinstalling Windows therefore involves splitting off your documents, photographs and other files from Windows by storing them on a separate partition or hard drive.
An increasing number of computers come with the hard drive already split into two partitions, but if you only have a single hard drive visible in Windows you’ll need to divide it in two by a process called partitioning.
Partitioning simply consists of a virtual marker being placed somewhere on the drive – on one side it’s treated like one virtual disk, on the other, it’s another disk.
Keep things separate
Storing your files on the second ‘data’ partition rather than on the same partition as the operating system insulates them from problems with Windows. Then if Windows goes belly up, you can format your Windows partition and reinstall without worrying about your data, which is kept safe on the data partition.
Note that partitioning your drive isn’t a substitute for backing up – you still need to protect your data by storing a separate copy elsewhere, either on a backup drive or online.
Once your hard drive is partitioned, you need to move all your files to your newly created data drive – and although many manufacturers provide a second partition, they often continue to store your data on the same partition as Windows by default, so even if your drive came ready-partitioned, if there’s no trace of your data on the D drive, read on.
Transferring your files to your newly created data partition is a pretty simple process. Start by creating a suitably named folder, such as your name or ‘My Files’ on the new drive. Next, click Start and select your username to open your personal user folder.
Assuming all your key files and settings are stored in these folders, just drag each one across to the folder you’ve just created on your data drive, where they’ll be duplicated. It’s possible to store other files and settings here on your new data partition too, including your all-important email messages. If you’re running Outlook Express (Windows XP), Windows Mail (Windows Vista) or Windows Live Mail, the process is practically identical.
People running Outlook Express and Windows Mail should choose the Tools > Options > Maintenance tab; Windows Live Mail users should click on the menu button and choose the Options > Mail > Advanced tab, and then click Maintenance.
Next, select Store Folder, click on Change and then browse to and select a suitable folder – such as Email – inside the folder you created earlier. Follow the prompts to move your email messages across, and verify that the messages have moved after you restarted your email program by checking the contents of the Email folder on your data partition, which should no longer be empty.
You should also be able to move your email folders in other email applications too – just check the program’s website for details on how to go about moving its data folders to a new location.
Once your data and key settings have been moved to the data partition (usually the D drive), we’d still recommend taking a fail-safe drive image of your Windows partition to ensure no files are lost. You can then reinstall Windows proper following the guide outlined above.
After reinstalling Windows, your drivers and any outstanding updates, the next step is to reinstall your email program if necessary, set it up and repeat the procedure you followed earlier to point it towards the Email folder on your data partition, at which point you should have access to all your email messages again.
Next, open your User folder. People running Windows XP should now right-click on My Documents and select Properties; Windows Vista and Windows 7 users should right-click on Documents and select Properties > Location tab. Click the Move button and browse to your newly created partition or data drive. When prompted, click Yes to transfer your data to this new drive.
Now click OK and double-click on the Documents folder – you should see all the files that you’ve transferred to the data partition appear, indicating the process has been successful. Windows 7 and Windows Vista users should now repeat the process for other folders, including Pictures, Music and Videos.
With these changes in place, take a drive image of your finished set-up – when you next want to reinstall Windows from scratch, simply restore this drive image instead. It’ll speed up the reinstallation process considerably – once that’s done, all you have to do is download any Windows and driver updates released since the drive image was taken – plus it will ensure you never have to worry about taking a fresh backup of your data or key settings prior to reinstalling Windows again.