Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
The process of wiping a hard drive and starting over is pretty straightforward, albeit time consuming. It can also seem pretty intimidating.
I have an Asus laptop running Vista Home Premium (32 bit) and I would like to know if it is possible for me to wipe my hard drive and reinstall everything myself, without having to take my laptop to a shop and have to pay to have it done. I would like to make my computer like it was when I first had it because I have had it for about 5 years now and the hard drive is almost full. There is nothing wrong with it as it is, but would like to start over so that I can carry on using it as I like it very much. Please let me know if this is possible and how do I do it?
Yes, most people certainly can do exactly what you describe. It's not a terribly difficult process, but does require care and caution along the way so as not to lose anything that you have now and consider important.
It also requires that you collect a few things to prepare, and I'll go over that.
Before we start, though, I do want to point out that a full hard drive by itself is never a reason to wipe your machine and start over.
Before we wipe and reinstall the operating system we need to make sure that we have several things for the process:
Your Windows installation CD or DVD.
Installation CDs or DVDs for all the programs you'll want to reinstall on
- or -
Archived copies of any programs or program installers that you've downloaded and installed on your system.
A backup program - preferably a complete system backup program. Ideally this is something you already have and have been using regularly for some time. (Right?)
For convenience: an external hard drive or some other location to which you can easily copy data (in addition to your backup) can be convenient for the data that you use the most and will want to restore quickly and easily.
It's sooooo tempting to skip this step.
Using some kind of image or full system backup software (I use Acronis, but there are others) take a complete full backup of your system before you begin. No matter how badly anything goes from this point on you'll know that you can always restore your machine from this backup and be no worse off than you started.
If you've not done so before, it's also a good time to make sure that you have whatever it takes (usually a bootable rescue or restore CD) for the backup software to be able to restore to a machine from scratch, and have tested that you can actually boot into that rescue utility and explore your backup.
This is the backup of convenience.
By that I mean that there are typically things you want back Right Away when you've finished reformatting your machine. In my case, for example, it's my email folders and documents.
The process here is pretty simple: just copy them to an external drive, share on some other computer on your network, a network attached storage device, even a USB thumbdrive will do if it's big enough.
This one's meant to be really simple: just use whatever you're use to doing to copy files from one place to another. We'll use the same technique below to restore the data.
Boot from the Windows installation media and simply go through the steps to install Windows.
Make sure to select the appropriate options to format the hard disk as part of the process, thus "wiping" or emptying the drive of everything it contained. How do I reformat and reinstall Windows? has more details on those steps.
Erase everything? Yes, that's the point. Now, aren't you glad you didn't skip the backup step?
Before doing anything else - even installing your first program - visit Windows Update and take any available updates.
In fact, do it repeatedly until there are no more critical or important updates to take.
For optional update, I advise either taking the ones you want as well, or telling Windows Update to ignore the update from now on. Doing so means that you'll know you're done when Windows Update tells you that there are zero updates available for your machine.
One by one, take the installation media or the downloaded programs or installers, and install the programs that were on your machine that are not part of Windows itself. Things like your email program, Microsoft Office, a different browser such as FireFox - whatever it is you had and used on your machine before we started this process.
It's also a good time to not install things that you weren't using. Or at least not install them until you decide you need them - which is exactly what I do. The result is simply that my newly cleaned machine only has software on it that I actually use.
And if the software you install has an update or auto-update facility, enable or use that and see if you can't get that software as up to date as possible as well.
Remember that data you copied to a convenient location when we started?
Copy it back.
In my case that means I copy my mail folders back to the PC (Thunderbird does work that simply), and my documents to the folder in which I keep my documents.
All of a sudden you now have a clean machine, with the applications you use on it, and your most important data back in place.
It's inevitable that immediately after reformatting your machine, or perhaps days or weeks later, you'll realize that something was lost when the hard drive was erased.
No problem. That's why we took a backup.
Using your backup's restore functionality, extract the missing file or files from the backup you took when we started. You shouldn't need to reboot or use that recovery media - that was only for the worst case scenario which we're past; this should be something you can do from within Windows directly.
That's it, really. Those are the basic steps to wiping and reinstalling your machine. I won't say that you've restored it to its original condition - because that implies old and outdated software missing the latest patches. I will say that you've restored it to a clean condition.
The devil, of course, is in the details, and of necessity some details are glossed over.
For example any customizations you may have made to the operating system - say a desktop wallpaper or screen saver, sharing a printer or using a shared printer on your network - you'll need to go through and make again.
Similarly any settings that you've changed in applications or elsewhere will need to be made again as well. I usually just change these as I go when I begin using the newly cleaned machine.
And some programs - Outlook Express is a great example - are very touchy when it comes to their files so that just copying what you think is the right set of files might not actually be enough. Make sure you understand what your program will need if you want to continue using data that you had on your machine before the cleanup.
I honestly can't say. It depends on how much all of the above scares you.
I believe that it's within most people's grasp if they're willing to take their time and simply walk through the process. If you panic easily, or love to make random changes for random reasons, or if you're the kind of person who never follows cooking directions even for things you've never baked before - well, perhaps this isn't for you.
And that's OK too. There's a lot of value (and no shame) in having a trustworthy technician or techie friend do it for you.
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