Reinstalling Windows was once a regular part of being a Windows user. With newer versions of Windows, the frequency of a complete reinstall decreased greatly. While reinstalling Windows leaves you with a clean slate, it also removes the setting for Windows you’ve customized along with the settings for your programs. Your documents and files also must be stored and restored once you finish the reinstall.
Thankfully, Windows 7 comes with two tools that will allow you to reinstall your computer without losing the settings for your applications and system.
Step One: Backup Your Computer
Since reinstalling Windows requires erasing your computer and installing from scratch, you should first make a copy of everything on your computer. This backup gives you the security of knowing that any files or documents you forget to move can be restored later. If anything goes wrong during your reinstall, you can also use this backup to get your old computer working either on other hardware or as a virtual machine.
Windows 7 includes a very capable backup and recovery software for creating this backup. To start the built in backup, go into the Control Panel and select “System and Security.” Then “Backup your Computer” under Backup and Restore. Click “Setup a Backup” and wait while Windows initializes the backup program.
You will be asked to select a destination for the backup. An external hard drive or large USB key will work best. The drive must contain enough free space to store the files on your computer.
By default, Windows will have selected to back up your data files only. We want to include all files on our computer for future reference. To create a backup with all files, first uncheck all checked items under data files. Next, check the box next to each hard drive on your computer. You may also want to check the option to “Include a system image.” Doing so will make it easier to restore the computer at a later time. If you just want the files for later access, you can leave this unchecked.
You’ll need to choose a backup schedule next. Normally backups are run on a regular schedule to protect the data on your computer. In this case we only want to create a single backup to use later. So click “Change Schedule” and uncheck the option to “Run backup on a schedule.” This will tell Windows to create a backup right now, but not attempt to do so in the future.
Depending on the amount of data on your computer and the speed of the disk you are copying the data to it can take minutes to hours to create this backup. Once completed, you will have a full copy of your computer you can access later.
Step Two: Save Your Current Computer Information
The backup you’ve created contains all the files on your computer. This will give you access to any file later, but to make moving your accounts and documents easier Windows 7 includes Windows Easy Transfer. Windows Easy Transfer can also be used to move your settings if you are moving from a previous version of Windows to Windows 7. Versions for older versions of Windows can be downloaded for free from Microsoft.
Windows Easy Transfer creates a file that contains the information on your current computer. You can then use this file to bring those settings into your reinstalled Windows. As with your backup, this file should be stored on an external hard drive or USB flash drive.
Windows Easy Transfer will be ask if this is the old computer or new computer. Choose this is your old computer.
Windows Easy Transfer will scan all computer accounts and shared folders on your computer to find everything it can transfer. The program will also show you the amount of free space needed on your external drive or USB key to store the data.
You can uncheck any accounts that you do no want to copy to your new computer. If you only want to move parts of an account, you can select “Customize” and choose only the items that you want to copy to your reinstalled computer.
Since the migration file can contain private data such as passwords, Windows will ask you to enter a password to protect the data file. Make sure to pick a password you can remember as you will need this password later when you restore the information to your reinstalled computer.
Last, you should choose where to store the file. Depending on the amount of data and speed of your disk it can take several minutes to create the file. Once the file is created, remove the external disk and place it somewhere safe while you reinstall Windows.
Step Three: Restoring Your Old Computer’s Settings
After you have reinstalled Windows, you can restore the accounts and settings from your previous installation. Plug in the USB key or external hard drive containing the file your created in the previous step to your computer. Again, run the Windows Easy Transfer and choose that you are using an external hard drive or USB key. This time select “This is my New Computer.” You will be asked if you have already saved your data to an external drive or USB key. Since we did this earlier and have connected the drive containing this file, Select Yes.
Choose the file that was created earlier. You will be asked for the password you entered when you created the file. Windows will then scan the file to read the information it contains. When completed you will be shown a list of the same files and accounts you stored earlier. Select the accounts and data that you wish to move to your new computer. As before, you can move only part on an account by clicking Customize.
As when you created the file, the transfer of your settings to your computer can take several minutes. Be sure not to use your computer during this process.
You will be given the option to view two reports after the transfer completes. The first provides details on what files were added during the transfer. The second gives a list of programs for which you transferred data. This gives you a list of applications that you will need to install on the new PC.
You can access these reports later by starting Easy Transfer Wizard Reports. Once you close the Windows Easy Transfer program, you will be asked to restart your computer to allow the new settings that you’ve transferred to take effect.
Restoring Files from Your Backup
While using your newly reinstalled computer, you may discover a file that didn’t get transferred to your new computer. The backup you made earlier will let you restore the file. First connect the external hard drive or USB key where you stored your backup. As before the Windows Backup program can be started by going into Control Panel and selecting System and Security. Now choose “Restore files from backup” under Backup and Restore.
At the bottom of the window click the “Restore my files” button. Windows should automatically find the backup on your external hard drive or USB key. If not, ensure the drive is connected and click Refresh to have Windows search again.
You will now create a list of files that you want to restore from this backup. There are several ways to find the file you want to restore. Click the Search button to enter all or part of the name of a file. Windows will then show you every file in the backup that contains all or part of the name you enter. Check the files you want to restore and click OK to add them to the list of files to restore.
If you know exactly where the file or folder you wish to restore is located, then you can choose “Browse for files” or “Browse for folders” to view the backup much like the original layout of your hard drive. You can select a file or folder (depending on which button you clicked) and it will be added to the list of items to restore from the backup.
Once you have found the missing files, click on the Next button. You will be given the option to either restore the file to the original location, that is to the same location where it existed on your original computer. You can also choose to restore the files to a new location.
Since we are restoring from a backup created from your old installation, we will restore to a new location. This allows you to examine the file and move it to where it needs to be on your new installation. When you click this option, you also get the choice if you want to restore all files to that folder, or if the files should be placed in sub folders to match the original location.
Windows helpfully provides and example to show the difference. Unless you are reinstalling a large number of files, you will normally install to that folder.
After you click Next, Windows will read the backup and restore the files you requested. Unless you’ve chosen to restore a large number of files or restore a large file, this should only take a few seconds. You will then see the notification that your files have been restored along with a link that will open Explorer in the folder where the files were restored to.
Click Finish to close the restore wizard. You can now examine your restored files and move them to the appropriate location.