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.

Check out My hard disk is filling up, what should I do?

Prepare

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 your system.
    - 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.

"I believe that it's within most people's grasp if they're willing to take their time and simply walk through the process."

Backup

It's sooooo tempting to skip this step.

Don't.

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.

Backup Again (Sort Of)

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.

Install Windows

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?

Update Windows

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.

Install Your Applications

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.

Restore Your Data: Convenient Data First

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.

Restore Your Data: The Stuff You Forgot

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.

Things Glossed Over

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.

Should You Have Someone Else Do It?

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. Smile

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.

Article C4676 - December 10, 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.

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12 Comments
David
December 14, 2010 8:49 AM

I have "started over" many, many times in the past, yet I still manage to forget about drivers when dealing with Windows. Some laptops come with driver discs (all of them should, in my opinion). If you have that, certainly use it.

Windows may identify your drivers automatically if you allow it to search the disc upon device detection. Other times, it may not find what it needs on the disc. Usually drives discs have standalone programs that can be run which will guide you through driver installation. If, for some reason, you cannot find a driver on the disc, you should always be able to find it on the manufacturer's website, usually by searching for your machine's model number.

Drivers may not be a problem for you if you are starting over, but in the event that they are, try using the driver disc that (hopefully) came with your computer. If all else fails, check the manufacturer's website.

Oliver Jenner
December 14, 2010 9:09 AM

Interesting piece - but personally think 'erase' would have been the better word to use, as 'wipe' is what I need (unremovable without shop assistance) 'after' hard drive 'infection'.

Is there a way to do this 'too' (oneself) Leo?

Computer Jonny
December 14, 2010 9:33 AM

I don't know why you would not tell these people that Vista takes up a whole bunch of space for restore. If the person just wanted to free up space all she would of had to do is kill all restore points. This suggestion I did not find on any of your suggestions. Heck, the other day I turned off restore on a Vista machine and it freed up 27GB of hard drive space. I then ran Smart Defrag and then put the restore points back in commission.
So why in the world did you not tell them about this instead of putting them in a position where they had to spend four hours redoing their whole computer? Do you like torturing people?

I'm glad deleting restore points worked for you, but you must realize that it's not an answer for everyone. And this person very specifically asked how to wipe and start over.
Leo
15-Dec-2010

CSR
December 14, 2010 11:18 AM

Leo, good article as usual. Computer Jonny, You should go back and read the question and beginning of the article again! Your comments covered in the second paragraph. As Leo says, the details are not all covered, but the basic procedure is there for people to see what is involved.

Steve
December 14, 2010 11:57 AM

One of the issues you mention is when saving and restoring data is not as straightforward as just copying your files. This is true for Kodak Easyshare and what I call "proprietary" software. Using Vista, I have all my photos on Public\Pictures\bunchofdifferentfolders that I have uploaded from my camera. And yes these are backed-up "as is". But in addition, nearly all of my photos have been added to Kodak Easyshare which determines the location of the picture and stores it (catalogs it) in an Easyshare Album. In addition, one can also upload pics onto the online Kodak Gallery -- where you can share them (and do other things which cost $$). Pics online in the Gallery are safe and have nothing to do with files on your computer or whether you are installing your OS or have a new computer etc.

But in the case of pics on your PC, things are more complicated. Although the Easyshare software has an internal backup/restore tool, I have not used it to restore (but I have used it to make a back-up).

A few years ago I completely reinstalled Vista. Before I reinstalled Vista, I copied a bunch of files from the Easyshare program folder (the bin folder, catalog folder, and as I recall, somewhere there were 2 files named ESB*.* that were elsewhere on C:) and copied them to a USB external drive. I also copied my original pics from Public to a back up location.

So after reinstalling Vista, copying the Public folders back, and reinstalling Easyshare, I just copied the bin folders back over what had been installed and voila everything was intact, i.e., the Album names were preserved, dates were intact, and pictures were fine.

I do not know if my Public folders had to be arranged exactly as before or not for the Easyshare catalog to "find" them but, that's the way I treated things anyway.

So, not to complicate life for anyone but with things like Easyshare, Itunes, and Outlook the proprietary format/method of storing your stuff is something to be very careful about.

Comments, anyone?

Jim de Graff
December 14, 2010 12:50 PM

I would add one more step. After you finish rebuilding, reinstalling all your applications and applying all updates (windows, anti-virus, etc), make a system image. At some point down the road you will decide that it is time for another rebuild. Perhaps it is because you have installed/removed many applications that left pieces of themselves behind; perhaps you got infected with a virus or maybe your hard drive died. No matter the reason, it takes only a few minutes to restore an image compared with the hours it takes to rebuild from scratch.

And another thing, when you restore that image months from now, apply all outstanding updates and take another image.

Richard in Dallas
December 14, 2010 4:33 PM

If you keep all your data on a separate physical hard drive all you have to do is unplug the slave drive and reformat the C: drive.

I use both Carbonite to back up my data and I also keep my data on a separate physical hard drive.

I also use FDISK to reformat my hard drives. The FDISK I use is on the Windows 98SE Emergency Startup Disk.

It takes longer to use FDISK than to have Windows reformat the drive, it seems that I have more control over what is going on with FDISK.

Steve Clairman
December 14, 2010 4:43 PM

"Restore Your Data: Convenient Data First

Copy it back.

In my case that means I copy my mail folders back to the PC (Thunderbird does work that simply), ..."

I must be missing something! Everytime I have to reinstall Thunderbird, it takes innumerable attemps to get my existing mail back" I've tried just copying profiles and "Mozbackup" and I end up pulling my hair out. Is there an easy way to recover Thunderbird mail?

I've done this many times without a problem: How do I move my Thunderbird-based email from one machine to another?
Leo
15-Dec-2010

steven
December 14, 2010 7:24 PM

Why does this site constantly mention a Windows installation CD/DVD? Only my aunt in 1998 got a real Windows 98 CD from Gateway. My first Aptiva did came with a recovery cd already made, keyed to the BIOS in 1997. Everyone else after that year got a recovery partition that nags the owner to burn recovery media using their own CD-R or DVD-R's( I did make them for my family). The others didn't even bother. 6 years later my co worker's hard drive went. I kept telling him to make the disks, he didn't. His recovery was to simply buy another computer and dump the dead machine into his computer graveyard(AKA his basement) where it sits today. On his new windows 7 computer, he probably didn't make those either. The burning process does take several hours. I do not know why it burned at 1X speed.

Ron
December 14, 2010 8:27 PM

You mention collecting the installation disks. As well, you need to collect the Product ID's/Product Keys / Passwords / Activation keys required to make the products work. If you do not have a written/printed record you may be able to find a tool from the vendor or on the internet that will allow you to extract/regenerate the key.

Second thing, one of the comments suggest an internet based storage service to keep your data files. That is a good idea. Another, is during your re-installation process you create a new "Data" partition that you define as a separate logical drive on your HD. I have my "Documents" folder, desktop and roaming profiles remapped to point at my data drive. That leaves very few "data" or configuration files on the C: drive.

You mention extracting missing files from backup. Not all backup software supports that function so they should be sure to verify that their backup tool does. One freeware package that does is XML Backup.

Jen
December 14, 2010 9:55 PM

@Steve Clairman, all you have to do is copy the default file in the Thunderbird profile folder. It's obscure... will be something like C:\Users\YourUserName\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\Profiles. The file itself will also have an obscure name with letters and numbers.

Don Mitchell
December 19, 2010 8:52 AM

Hi Leo,i just read your answer to, ( is it possible to wipe my hard drive and start over ? ), as always, your response was great but i have one complaint, its hard to remember all the things one needs to do in order to follow your instructions.
It would be a BIG help if you had a (PRINT) button on your help page. Thanks, Don M.

Just use the Print function in your web browser. You'll find that the articles print pretty cleanly. (No ads, no menus, etc.)
Leo
20-Dec-2010

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