What does it take to re-install a Windows computer?

Keep calm and Reinstall WindowsIf a mis-behaving computer can’t be fixed by narrowing down the problem and applying a specific solution, then you would expect any software problem to be sorted by applying the most drastic action – re-installing everything.

I’ve been asked the question so often – “what would it take to re-install it from scratch?” – that I’m surprised that it’s never occurred to me before to set out the major steps in a blog, so here goes..

It’s very likely that you do not have master Windows discs for your system, or essential driver files for things such as the graphics card, wireless adapter etc. However, there is almost certainly a “recovery partition” on the hard drive which can be used to take the computer back to the state in which it left the factory. This is a destructive process that will lose your programs and data. It also needs the hard drive to be working.

Assuming the drive is ok and there is a recovery partition, then we can proceed as follows:

  • If possible, take photos of your Windows desktop (eg with a smartphone) before beginning work. This can be used as a “list” of things to re-install later. A more thorough step is to go into Control Panel and “Programs and Features” (or “Add or Remove Programs” in older versions of Windows) to take pictures of the entire list of installed programs. You may not need to re-install them all, but this acts as a good list to work from when re-installing everything.
  • You will need the password (passkey) for your wifi as well as knowing what your router is called as far as your computer is concerned – this is known as the SSID. It may be written on your router. If you connect to the router by an ethernet cable, then no SSID or password is needed.
  • Back up your data. As well as normal files (documents, music, spreadsheets, photos, etc), it’s important to consider your email data. If you are using one of the Microsoft email “clients” (Windows Live Mail or Microsoft Outlook) then your data is quite possibly not being backed up in the normal course of events. This is because Microsoft sometimes “hides” your email data so that you won’t break it. If using an email client (as opposed to webmail), copy all your email account settings for use when re-installing (but you will also need to know your email password, and that isn’t revealed in your email settings).
  • In order to re-install your programs, you will need the original master discs (if provided), or a copy of the downloaded installation files, or the account details (almost certainly the username and password) on the software publishers’ websites from where the downloads can be repeated. A lot of the software we use is, of course, nominally free and can be downloaded again – eg browsers (Chrome, Firefox etc), iTunes, Skype, Adobe Reader, Adobe Flashplayer, Malwarebytes.
  • Your antivirus program could have been sourced in several ways:
    (a) It may have been provided with the computer – in which case it should be re-installed if the computer is taken back to factory settings. It may then need program updates to be applied and it will certainly need the virus definition files to be updated.
    (b) It may have been sourced separately, either from a disc or downloaded from the internet. Again, program updates are likely and virus definition updates are inevitable.
    (c) You may be using Microsoft’s own, free, antivirus. Depending on your operating system, this may need to be downloaded again (no account name or password required) or re-enabled in the Windows Control Panel. Once more, virus definition files will definitely need to be updated.
  • When Windows has been restored, there will be many updates that it needs to do to bring it up to date with security patches, bug fixes, etc. This will almost certainly require several re-boots and two or three checks of “Microsoft Update” before all updates are installed. This is because some updates can not be installed until after earlier ones have been installed. It is tempting to leave the Microsoft updates until later, on the basis that the updates can happen automatically and in their own good time. This is fine, except that if something doesn’t work it could be because you currently have outdated Windows files. It’s better, therefore, to update Windows as soon as possible – and definitely as part of troubleshooting (should any be needed).
  • Drivers and software for peripherals may need to be installed. If the software needs to be downloaded then no account name or password will usually be needed. Peripherals you may need to consider include printers, cameras, mobile phones. Drivers for things like mice, USB flash drives, external CD/DVD players, are usually automatically installed when they are first connected after a re-installation.
  • Programs need to be re-installed and your data files replaced.

Keep Calm and Call DavidThis may not be a full list of the things that need to be done to re-install a Windows system from factory settings, but it should give you an idea of why it takes 3-7 hours (or more) to carry out.

It is very tempting to say “why not start again with a new computer?” Indeed. It is a question you definitely should ask yourself. However, apart from the re-installation of the Windows files as they were originally supplied, all of the other steps will probably be required whether you are setting up a new computer or re-installing an old one. It could well be that a new computer is indicated as this will save repeating the process when the computer would otherwise have been replaced.

It’s not easy to weigh these options against each other, but I would certainly suggest that if a computer is more than three years old then you should give serious consideration to replacing it rather than re-installing, and if it is more than five years old then it is almost certain that it is better to replace it than re-install it. All of these judgements are based on the assumption that you need to pay a professional (hopefully me!) to carry this out for you.

Is It Gonna Blow Cartoon

If you do it yourself (with little or no obvious financial outlay) then re-installation of an existing machine becomes a more favourable option. Re-installing a five year old machine can be very satisfying as all of the software crud and rubbish that’s accrued over the years will have disappeared and your system will probably run much better than it has for some time. Do bear in mind, however, that if it would take me (say) six hours to re-install for you, it might take you two to three times as long, and it can be a long and stressful journey.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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