Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

To completely restore your computer you'll need a good backup, your installation media, and some time. I'll walk you through the restore process .

How can I bring my computer back to how it was when I first got it? It runs very slow. My computer is Dell XP operating system. I was told that I would lose everything that I have on it but I just want my computer back running right.

What you want is very common, and the approach you're suggesting is a very common solution.

Depending on what you already have in place, and what you were given with the computer this can be a very easy job, or a very difficult one.

You may lose various customizations that you've made along the way, but there's absolutely no reason to lose data. In fact, making sure that you don't is the first step.


Before restoring your computer to any previous state you should back it up as it is today.

Most think that's simply copying a few files to a USB stick or writing them to a CD or DVD. While that can be helpful and speed up the recovery process, that's not really what I mean here.

"A proper system backup represents a 'can't get any worse than this' point ..."

By backup, I mean a full system backup of all files, folders and "whatnot" on the machine including the stuff you think you don't use. A proper system backup represents a "can't get any worse than this" point, because if things do get worse you can always revert to the backup image of your system and be right back where you started, no worse off except for the time spent.

That backup later also allows you to recover any and all of your data files that were on the machine - even those that you forgot to write to your USB stick or CD-ROM.

Locate Your Installation Media

To completely reset your machine to its original settings we may well have to reinstall everything from scratch - that means Windows as well as all the applications you have running on it. Before you begin make sure to locate all the:

  • CDs or DVDs that contained Windows itself.

  • Recovery or Reinstallation CDs or DVD provided by your computer manufacturer.

  • Driver CDs or DVDs provided by your computer manufacturer.

  • Application install CDs or DVDs provided for each of the applications you've installed on your system since you got it.

  • Downloads of any applications tools or utilities that you've installed on your system since you got it. (Many people overlook this. Make sure to copy them to a safe place so that when your machine is erased completely you'll still have these.

  • Product keys - the labels with assorted codes you need to type in to activate products once installed. You'll need your original keys that you should have received with the machine or applications. (Belarc Advisor may be able to show you the product keys for much of your installed software.)

You may not have everything listed; some manufacturers skimp on the actual physical disks they send you - I'll try to address that below.

You may have everything, just not on as many discs. Quite often, particularly when we're talking about pre-installed software, some or all of what's listed above may be combined onto fewer discs.

Using Windows Installation Media

This is the preferred solution in my opinion.

If you have an actual Windows Installation Disc (not a recovery or repair disk, an installation disk) you should now boot from that and begin the setup process. The important steps to take are to select the same hard drive as your current Windows is installed on and to make sure to select "format" to erase everything on that disk. (You took a backup, right? Smile).

How do I reformat and reinstall Windows? has a step-by-step guide.

Using Manufacturer Restore Media or Partitions

This is where things get iffy. Unfortunately, as manufacturers try to save costs, rather than including an actual Windows installation CD, they opt instead to include a combined driver/recovery disc and a recovery partition on the hard drive. While this fails to adequately cover the case of a hard drive failure (where the recovery partition is lost), in our case it can still work well.

This is also where things get non-standard. How you actually use a recovery disk or partition, and even whether or not you have one, will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

There are two basic approaches:

  • Recovery CD: simply boot from the CD that was provided by your manufacturer to enter their recovery utilities.

  • Recovery Partition: if you have no CD to boot from many manufacturers provide a bootable recovery partition - at boot time you press a particular key to make the boot options visible, and choose the recovery or reset to factory original options.

But it could be something else. If none of these options apply to your machine check with your computer's manufacturer to see what options they've provided, and what steps you need to take to restore your computer at this point.

Sadly, it is entirely possible that you have no manufacturer-provided recovery options. At this point, the only recourse is to purchase a Windows edition with media yourself and use it to install.

Update Windows

Regardless of whether you installed Windows from scratch, or use some form of recovery procedure to reset it to its original configuration, you now want to make sure to let Windows Update do its thing.

The problem is that the original media you have, or the original condition that recovery restored to, is old. Certainly old in internet terms - Windows will have taken many security and other updates since that copy of Windows was created. It's well worth your time right now to simply visit Windows Update and take all the critical, important and security fixes that are offered. This might even include a service pack or two. Make sure to keep revisiting Windows Update until there are no longer any updates for your computer.

Install Your Applications

Install the applications you use from their original media or downloads.

This is also a great time to pare down the number of applications to what you actually use. My approach after a reinstall of this form is to install the bare necessities, and then install what I need only as I encounter that need. That avoids installing software on your machine "just in case" you need it, potentially impacting your computer's performance as a result.

Restore Your Data

Copy your data back - either from your USB stick or burned CD or DVD, or from the backup you took when we started this process.

Once again, my approach has been to only copy back what I need as I need it, simply to keep on my computer only those things I really need.

Prepare For Next Time

Everyone will want to skip this step, but I consider it quite important.

The fact is you will be here again. Not, perhaps, for the same reason, but for some reason - you'll need to reinstall or reset your machine.

Let's set up a few things now to make that easier next time.

  • Make a backup right now. Now that you've got your machine back clean and running smooth, take a complete system snapshot of it right now. Then next time, rather than jumping through the various hoops you may have above, you can simply restore to this backup image, update things and move on. Much easier.

  • Set up regular backups. Perhaps you won't have to resort to this drastic start-over as soon if instead you have current backups to rely on, and perhaps restore to, as system problems arise.

  • Get the media. For any software, including Windows itself, make sure to always get the installation media, or safely save a copy of downloaded software, for use when it's time to reinstall.

  • Save the keys. Save the product keys that activate your software. Even if you have the original disks somewhere, much software is useless until it's been activated with those keys.

Article C4614 - November 19, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

November 23, 2010 1:43 PM

I keep several versions of Windows install discs in case I have to reinstall Windows and the machine's original media is missing. I install using a disc that matches the version on the machine, using the license key on the sticker on the machine. I then burn a copy of the install disc, and send with the machine for future use. I don't feel this is infringing on Microsoft, since all I have done is re-create the missing installation media for a given preexisting license. Am I right?

Technically that might be in violation of the license, but I'm with you - it feels "morally" right.

T H Wesner
November 23, 2010 4:08 PM

Hi Leo,

I always read your emails an usually click on one or more topics. An unusual thing has started to happen when I read an article that I have clicked on. As I scroll down the page, when I get to the point where the "f Share" link appears, all of the text disappears except for the pop up links.

If I scroll back up, the text reappears. All of the text and comments below the "f Share" link does not disappear.

I am running Windows Home Premium on a Dell Studio XPS. I have not run into this on any other site, and I have learned to scroll slowly when I get near the "f Share" link.

Just thought you would like to know, Terry

T H Wesner
November 23, 2010 4:14 PM

Hi Leo,

I clicked on the link to your article about reformatting, and the text disappeared as usual, but the screen shot images did not. This as before happens when I get to the point where the "f Share" link appears.

Curiously interesting, Terry

Bob Stromberg
November 23, 2010 5:18 PM

When I reinstall Windows, I first back up the user data that will be wanted later, then I use DBAN (autonuke option) to wipe the hard drive. Malware can lurk even on a reformatted drive, for example in the MBR. This wipes off any recovery partition, but then I think that hackers might have infected the recovery partition as well.

November 23, 2010 6:54 PM

Yes,when ever you or I call Dell for problem,if you don't want to pay there $120.00 fee,they take you back to your original programs.
You need a Out side Back Up hard drive and use it weekly-"OR" Else!!!!!!

November 24, 2010 6:18 PM

while I understand the question and empathize with it and understand the answer, unfortunately, all too often folk assume this is the only method of repairing the situation.
More often than not, the problem is that the user either is not using or has not updated his AV scanner software or has not run any spyware/malware/rogueware solutions.

We, in PC Tech (PalTalk) deal with these situations many times a day and seldom is the factory recovery necessary. Sometimes it takes a bit of time but often the user will learn more about how to use his system and maintain a secure system.

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