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

Reformatting a computer is still the best way to get it back to like-new condition, but there are a few useful habits and software choices that can help keep a system clean.

Ever since I got my first computer, I've always been a proponent of erasing the computer, bringing it back to factory settings, and reinstalling programs every year to get it running like new. Now that I'm no longer a geeky teen with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon, I want to find a way to get my Windows Vista machine running smoothly without sacrificing hours of my day. Are there any good techniques/programs to help with that other than CCleaner?

In this excerpt from Answercast #9, I explore the various things that can cause a computer to have problems, ways to run a clean machine, and how often you might want to reformat.

Reformat and Reinstall

So, my philosophy (still) is that for most people, one of the best things you can do for your computer, to clean up your computer, is every so often (and I'll define so "often" in a minute) back up, reformat, reinstall.

In other words, exactly what you described: bring it back to factory settings and reinstall all your programs every year.

There's often no substitute for that. There's nothing that gets it as clean as that kind of reinstallation.

How often should I reformat?

Now, I want to define "every so often."

The problem is: how often you need to do this really depends on how you use your computer.

In my case, I do it every year or two. It's usually just that things are slow. Maybe I'm experiencing a crash that's just gotten too annoying, that I can't track down.

I'll just say, "OK. Fine, I'll set aside the afternoon and I'll rebuild my machine."

I do that maybe every two years on my more active machines. That's because I'm someone who tends to download software, try things out, uninstall things. I use my computer for a tremendous number of different things.

CCleaner can help

Now, if you are someone who knows to play safe (you're not downloading lots of things off the internet, you've got good, basic security and maintenance techniques, you're backing up regularly, etc), then CCleaner is a great tool to be running periodically. You may get away with never reformatting simply because it will be time for a new machine before you really end up needing to do something like that.

So, it really, it depends on how you use your computer. If all you do is read email and surf the web, you never download any programs, that kind of stuff, you could go for a really, really long and never have to do this.

Anything other than CCleaner?

Are there additional tools besides CCleaner that you should be running periodically?

CCleaner is actually a very good one.

I've become more enamored with it the more time I've spent with it in recent years. It's a good tool if you know how to drive it. It will clean up a lot of stuff.

I don't typically recommend running registry cleaners unless you're actually facing a problem; unless you're trying to actively resolve some kind of an issue that your machine is experiencing.

Other programs:

  • ChkDsk, Defrag, those kinds of tools should be run periodically.
  • Keeping your system up-to-date is always important.
  • Keeping your anti-malware tools up-to-date is always important.

But by and large, the most important thing you can do to keep your computer running well is just not to abuse it. Keep yourself safe. Don't download lots of stuff just because you want to try it off the internet. Stay away from malicious websites. Those kinds of things.

Next - Why do I get a shutdown error message on Outlook when I am not running Outlook?

Article C5208 - April 14, 2012 « »

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?

April 14, 2012 9:55 PM

Perhaps the easiest way to get a computer to a like-new condition is by making a system image. I'll make an image right after I've installed all my programs, updated everything, tweaked my settings, etc. Some free tools to accomplish that are Macrium Reflect, EaseUS Todo, and Paragon.

Jim in Boondocks
April 17, 2012 1:00 PM

I may never get an answer to this, but it deserves one for all of us who don't understand much of what is written here. I'm 70 years old, and I can do a lot of skilled things, but I can't understand much about computers. However, I want to get email and be able to do research, but everytime I turn around, this damned hateful thing screws up, and I have to pay someone to fix or live with the problem. I hate these primitive computers. Yes, they are primitive in that they are like a car that has to be in the shop every month. Does anyone make anything (affordable) that doesn't require a high aptitude or dealing with one problem after another?

Mark J
April 17, 2012 1:07 PM

If all you want to do is send and receive email and do research on the web, you might consider getting an iPad or other tablet, which due to the fact that it has limited capabilities, tends to have fewer problems. Some tablets allow you to attach a removable keyboard which make typing much easier.

April 17, 2012 4:24 PM

I have reformatted with a VLK Windows XP Pro disk, which has a setup function I can use, if nothing else. It lets me format the disk (NTSF) and also choose to delete the partition. I keep a fresh image on an external drive, and find that deleting the partition works as well as a reformat when installing a backup and is a real time saver. I have been keeping the system clean with Piriform software (CCleaner, etc.) and other reliable software programs, and it runs like new. Fast and efficient. I have never had to to a re-install from scratch. Of course it may help that I have been maintaining the drive from installation, rather than clean up a poorly maintained system.

April 17, 2012 9:39 PM

You do not need to do it every year. I've done it approx. every three years, i.e. typically after every major hardware/OS update. The key to success here is HOW you maintain your computer's software environment. I have a good piece of security software, run 1-2 times a month HD defrag, registry error checking, registry defrag, and CCleaner. Maybe most importantly I keep my software updated with the aid of Secunia PSI and automated MS updates. I do also backup my data.

I do work with my computer a lot with a wide variety of programs and medias, including office file formats, binary and text data, photos, video, e-mail and internet. And I have never (so far) had any major issues with software. No malware, no data lost, no hang-ons, etc. I guess the only way to improve significantly would be using HD images to clean the HD every month or so, but my way has worked for me so far fine.

Bernard W
April 18, 2012 5:53 PM

There are programs (notably RollbackRX and Comodo Time Machine) which act as superior System Restores and enable the system state to be quickly restored to an earlier "snap-shot", even when a machine cannot boot. However the data will also be rolled back unless it is kept on a different "unprotected" drive or partition or recovered from a later snapshot.
Many computers also store their original system on a hidden partition which can be accessed by the right key combination during booting: I recently saw a computer clean itself at a near-miraculous speed after pressing Ctrl + F7 just before Windows started! This method is like a reformat, though, as all data and later programs will be lost.

April 19, 2012 11:17 AM

suddenly I lost 100+ emails from my account. How do I get them back. Happened over several days about 50 at a time

May 4, 2012 8:38 PM

Re: Jack's April 17th comment

Jack pointed out Secunia PSI for software [and security] updates. Although I can't recall who suggested this to me, I've found this 24/7 utility to be the simplest, most unobtrusive, and comprehensive program to date. Especially these days with security issues related to some Adobe products.

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