In a past post on how often one should do a clean install of their operating system, Jeff pointed out that the need for operating system re-installation varies between different people.  However, no matter who you are or what you do with your computer, at one point or another you are more than likely going to have the want or need to re-install your computer operating system and start fresh.  This is often seen as a tedious and time consuming task.  Because of this, I’ve decided to write this post explaining why re-installing your operating system is important, as well as a series of tips that will allow your re-installation process to go as smooth as possible, and ultimately allow your computer to be up and running in a minimal amount of time.

Firstly, we need to fully understand what a re-install is.  Think of your comptuer hard drive as your brain.  Over time, your brain collects a lot of information; both useful and useless.  After a while the excess of useless information begins to bog down your brain (or in this case the computer hard drive), and make you less sharp and productive.  Think about it.  Surely there is a program that you installed ages ago (or maybe even one that came pre-bundled with the operating system) that you no longer use or have a need for.  While you may simply choose to uninstall said program, the fact of the matter is that the program leaves behind remnants of itself in the form of registry entries and unused system files.  When you multiply this reality by the number of useless files and programs on your hard drive, you end up with a lot of “garbage” on your system.

A re-install essentially wipes your computer of everything and starts you from scratch.  Doing a re-install will cause you to loose all of the data that is on your computer.  The end result will be a completely minimal operating system installation; a clean slate.

If you are a power-user, you may be asking yourself why simply de-fragmenting the hard drive is not enough.  The answer to this is that even though de-fragmentation is useful, it does not aid the overall loss of performance over time.  Additionally, while it may be possible to “clean up” an existing installation of an operating system, it is often much easier to simply backup necessary files and start over.

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Once you decide that you are going to do a system re-install there are a few steps that you can take to make sure that the process goes as smooth as possible.

  • First, make sure that you have good backups of any and all information that you will need.  I cannot stress enough that by doing a clean installation of your operating system you will loose everything on your computer’s hard drive. If you have previous backups in place, such as in a Time Capsule or an external hard drive, this process should be trivial, as you should already have all of your data backed up.  However, I strongly recommend that you double-check your backups to ensure that you have all of the data that you will need, as once you re-format, the chances of being able to recover lost data are slim to none, and if you are able to do so, it is going to be a costly and time consuming process.
  • Next, you need to know the ins and outs of your system.  This means you need to look at the hardware you have and hunt down the necessary drivers for it ahead of time.  This saves a great deal of agony down the road, as it allows you to be ready to get up and running as soon as your reformat is completeThis hunting down of drivers is especially important for network cards, as if you cannot access the internet and do not have access to another computer to get the drivers, you are going to have a very difficult time getting the necessary drivers and ultimately getting the computer to work.
  • If you are a person who re-installs often, you should consider using nLite to slipstream the drivers and pre-configure your settings onto a Windows CD.  This will allow your re-installations to go much smoother, and allow you to reduce the hassle of clean installs.
  • After you re-install your operating system, you are likely going to want to install third-party software.  Many shareware software titles require one form or another of activation or licensing to ensure that your product is not pirated.  Because of this, I recommend that you make sure you have all of your software licenses (serial numbers, CD keys, vendor account numbers, etc) written down in one place.  If you do not remember or cannot find your software license codes, try a product such as the Magic Jellybean Key Finder, which scans your registry entries to find the software serial numbers of applications installed on your system.For products that require server-side activation (Adobe Photoshop, etc), you may need to “de-activate” the product before re-formatting and re-installing.  Failure to do so may lead to your being unable to re-activate the software post re-installation.
  • Like with software licenses, it is important to double check to make sure that you have access to the installation media, and will be able to reinstall all the necessary programs back onto your computer.  Without the installation media, the serial numbers and licenses are somewhat useless.
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While some computer manufactures include “recovery partitions” on their hard drives, most of them simply revert the computer back to it’s original out-of-box state, including any and all pre-bundled software (bloatware) and drivers.  While these system restores are very easy to do, the fact of the matter remains that they are not as effective as re-installing the operating system using a retail CD/DVD media.

With these tips in mind, re-installing your operating system should be a snap.  If you have any questions (it’s best to ask before you begin the process), feel free to leave a comment, or for a quicker more interactive response, drop into the chat room or forums.

  • Why not just do a clean install once, install all your drivers, main software etc and then make a image of the drive to a external hard drive or NAS? its much easier.

  • Or you can just avoid having to do this by maintaining your computer, like once a month use the Windows space cleaning tool to get rid of junk, run de-fragmentation while you’re sleeping, go trough your programs list and remove crap you dont use anymore, same with the documents folder and yada yada.  Overall this is a much better way than wiping your installation, especially on Windows where some programs depend on registry entries which means you have to reinstall every program, you cant “back them up” because the programs will be broken without its registry entries.

  • Don’t get me wrong, proper computer maintinance is definately important.  But the fact of the matter remains that there are some cases where a clean installation is a much easier method.  These same tips can be applied when a user decideds to do a clean install as apposed to an upgrade (e.g. moving from XP/Vista to 7).

    As for applications, I did not mean to imply that they can be simply backed up; I tried to explain that it is important to have the installation media and licensing available to re-install the application after doing a re-format.

    As for the disk imaging, using a product such as CloneZilla is definately useful, but the fact of the matter remains that in order to get to the state that you make the image from, you must first do a clean install.


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