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Beginner Geek: How to Reinstall Windows on Your Computer

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Reinstalling Windows is one of the easiest ways to fix software problems on your computer, whether it’s running slow or infected by viruses. You should also reinstall Windows before you get rid of an old PC.

Depending on your version of Windows and how you installed it – or whether it came with your computer – there are a number of different ways to reinstall Windows.

Before Reinstalling Windows

The process of reinstalling Windows will erase all the data on your computer. Your files, the programs you’ve installed, and the settings you’ve configured on your computer will be wiped out. (Note that, if you use the Refresh feature in Windows 8, your personal files will be kept.)

Before reinstalling Windows, you should make backup copies of all your personal data – of course, you should always have up-to-date backup copies anyway, because hard drives could fail at any time. However, when you reinstall Windows, these backup copies will be the only copies. Ensure you have up-to-date backups of all your important files before continuing.

Read More: Checklist Guide for Reinstalling Windows

Refreshing and Resetting on Windows 8

If you’re using Windows 8, reinstalling Windows is easier than ever. Instead of installing from a Windows disc or activating a recovery partition, you can use the Refresh your PC or Reset your PC options built into Windows. These options will quickly reinstall Windows for you, automatically saving and restoring your data and not asking any questions during installation.

Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Refreshing and Resetting Your Windows 8 PC

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Your Computer Came With Windows

if your computer came with Windows, the easiest way to get it back to its factory default state is by using its recovery partition. You can also use recovery discs – computers generally don’t come with recovery discs anymore, but you may have been asked to burn the discs when you set up your computer.

To use your computer’s recovery partition, restart your computer and press the key that appears on-screen during the start-up process. If you don’t see this key, consult your computer’s manual (or use Google) to find the necessary key for your specific model of computer.

To use recovery discs, insert the first disc into your computer’s disc drive and restart your computer. You should see the recovery environment appear. (If it doesn’t, you’ll need to change the boot order in your computer’s BIOS so the computer boots from the disc drive.)

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You should now be in the recovery environment. With a few clicks, you can instruct your computer to reset itself back to its factory default state. You’ll have to set up your computer like you did when you first acquired it, providing a username, reinstalling your programs, and configuring it.

You Installed Windows or Upgraded Your Computer’s Version of Windows

If you installed Windows yourself or installed a new version of Windows on a computer that came with an older version of Windows, you’ll have a Windows installation disc lying around. You can use that Windows installation disc to reinstall Windows. (Some geeks also like doing this on computers that come with Windows to perform a fresh installation, getting rid of the junk software preinstalled by computer manufacturers.)

First, insert the Windows installation disc into your computer’s disc drive and restart your computer. You should see the Windows installer appear. (If it doesn’t, you’ll need to change the boot order in your computer’s BIOS so the computer boots from the CD or DVD drive.)

If your computer doesn’t include a physical disc drive, you can use the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool to place the Windows installation files on a USB drive (this method works with both Windows 7 and Windows 8.)

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Complete the installation process, answering all the questions and providing your Windows product key. Once you’re done, you’ll need to install the hardware drivers for your computer’s hardware and all your favorite software.

If you frequently reinstall Windows 7, or install it on many computers, you may want to create a customized Windows 7 installation disc.


Reinstalling Windows used to be scarier, but the days of manually loading SATA drivers and using a text-mode environment to reinstall Windows XP are behind us. Reinstalling Windows – or restoring from a factory partition – is very simple, especially with Windows 8.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/10/13

Comments (11)

  1. Romberry

    Chris, you wrote “The process of reinstalling Windows will erase all the data on your computer. Your files, the programs you’ve installed, and the settings you’ve configured on your computer will be wiped out.” And if you do a reinstall in the way you’ve outlined, that’s correct, But there are other ways. I refer you and HTG readers to Fred Langa, former editor of (long defunct) Windows Magazine, publisher of The Langa List and for several years now part of Windows Secrets.

    It is possible to do a no-reformat, non-destructive total reinstallation of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 without damaging your user accounts, data, installed programs, or system drivers. You keep everything…just with a totally fresh reinstallation of Windows.

    The article Fred first wrote about this method was for Windows XP and appeared in Information Week in June of 2006. See “Langa Letter: XP’s No-Reformat, Nondestructive Total-Rebuild Option” at Information Week here: http://www.informationweek.com/windows/operating-systems/langa-letter-xps-no-reformat-nondestruct/189400897?pgno=1

    There is a later article that covers the procedure for Windows 7 that Fred wrote for Windows Secrets. (Windows Vista works the same way.) See “Win7′s no-reformat, nondestructive reinstall” at Windows Secrets here: http://windowssecrets.com/top-story/win7s-no-reformat-nondestructive-reinstall/

    Users will either need installation media that has the same service pack level as the OS they are reinstalling, or they’ll need to roll back the service packs on the target machines to match their installation media. (You really don’t want to do a reinstall a mismatch between the current OS and the installation media service packs. I tried it once just to see and the results were…well…interesting, and not in a good way.)

    There are some really big advantages to the no-reformat, non-destructive reinstallation method, chief among them the fact that you don’t have to hunt for drivers or spend hours reinstalling all of your programs and customizations. Beginners are often in for a real shock when they find out that reinstalling the OS in the standard way that wipes everything out is just the first step. (I’m sure you’ve heard the “Where did all my file and programs go?” lament from beginners who didn’t understand that a reformat/reinstall wipes everything.)

    Anyway, Langa knows his stuff. I’ve been using these methods for years. A full image backup is my preferred route, but if I’m just looking to reinstall/refresh Windows without a backup available in an effort to cure issues after recovery from viruses/malware or other problems that have left things kind of wonky, this is the method I try first.

  2. MaryEllen

    Thanks so much. I am an “intermediate” (for lack of a better word)IT person at my work. I know the most and am self taught on most things. I love your articles, they have taught me many many things I can do on my own yet have my network company work on our servers. Thank you again.

  3. rmath97

    Hey – I read this somewhere – upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 7. No Kidding. It is really annoying when your PC boots slow and has other problems related to the OS. What I am telling is literally refreshing their Windows 7 PCs, like refreshing Windows 8, but it is much better as it not only re-installs your OS, but also keeps all your files and APPLICATIONS intact. But this trick only works on PCs upgraded to Windows 7 or a clean installed PC.

    You need to have the disk of Windows 7 setup. On inserting the disk, close the setup program (if you have auto-run enabled) and then go to the disk files in Windows Explorer. Go to properties of the Setup.exe, and on the compatibility tab select “Run this program in compatibility mode for: ” and select Windows Vista (service pack 2). Then click Apply/OK, close all programs and run the Setup.exe. You will notice that further in the setup, you will have the option to upgrade the OS, but obviously with the prompt of features changed in Windows 7 from Windows Vista. But the process will go without hiccups and you will have a brand new, clean windows 7 with all your things in place.

    This trick work only because Windows Vista and Windows 7 have the same file structure (program files, user files, settings, etc.). And @The_Geek, please try it yourself verify, so that you include this in this article. I feel this is much better than a full clean install.

  4. Rizzoli

    I’d like to reinstall Windows 7 64-bit on my laptop with Langa’s method (to avoid reinstalling all programs/settings), but am not confident I know what to do if something goes wrong. The PC came with a “system recovery with Win 7 Home Prem 64-bit” DVD. Is this the same as the installation disk? If this rolls back to the original ‘factory’ settings, does anyone know if this could work with Langa’s method?

  5. LadyFitzgerald

    @ Rizzolli. Before starting Langa’s method, do a couple of backups: one with an image so you can restore your system to the state it was before you started and the other that is just a copy of all your data. That way, if there is a problem, you can either return to the last known working state or just do a clean reinstall as described in the original article.

  6. john3347

    “The process of reinstalling Windows will erase all the data on your computer. Your files, the programs you’ve installed, and the settings you’ve configured on your computer will be wiped out.”

    This statement is simply not accurate. You can reinstall the operating system without destroying your installed applications, personal data, etc. The process is basically upgrading to the same OS as you currently have installed. I am not sure how far back this process works. I have done it in Windows 7 and in Windows Vista. I believe it also works with Windows XP and possibly Windows 2000. You do lose some configuration settings just as you lose configuration settings when upgrading, for instance, from Windows Vista to Windows 7, but you may or may not choose to format the harddrive before reinstalling the operating system. Just “upgrade” to the same OS as is currently installed if you want to retain all your saved applications and files. I don’t know if this procedure works on Windows 8 (Windows Hate) or not because I have not installed Windows Hate on any of my computers and never intend to. Windows 7 gives me enough reliability headaches.

    Romberry has outlined this procedure in better detail than I have here so follow his instructions if you want to reinstall your OS but save your information. It is a routine procedure. Just know that you MUST reinstall exactly the same OS version as currently installed for this procedure to work.

  7. stanley wright

    I am glad that my computer came with 3 choices! I like cleaning things up while leaving my software and settings just like I had them; life has came a long way since reformatting and using all those disk for a clean install; if one wants their computer to be unbroke then that is what it takes, a clean install; If the Geek writes it on this site then I take it to the bank! Thanks for all the help over the years with the research hard work helping and never giving the wron answers

  8. Pettros

    A reinstall of XP pro which worked very well and no files lost was this cmd.
    Drive:\I386winnit32 /unattend
    This does complete OS install only and have used many times.
    Anyone know of a similar for Win7?

  9. David Leary

    I have a strange case. I have a Gateway laptop with WinXP on it that got hit with a virus and is unbootable, as far as I’ve been able to determine. I need to wipe the drive and reinstall XP but here’s the rub, it was a vendor install with no MS disks. Now, I have the authorized XP install disk I used for my PC but can I install with this after it was used on another, and different type of, machine? I know with XP they started making the number based on the hardware onboard and this hardware won’t be even close to what they have on record for this disk. Or do I have to buy, if I can find it, a new copy of XP. This will only be used for multimedia and nothing much more than that. I just want to get this laptop bootable to use for notes, spread sheets, watching DVD’s , etc. I, also, have no experience with Linux if that was a thought. Any thoughts, directions, or comforting thoughts on the demise of this laptop are greatly appreciated.

  10. john3347

    David Leary, you can reinstall with any copy of the exact same version of XP (or other Windows version) as on your current machine. Understand, it must be the exact same XP version – Home, Professional, etc. – same SP# – full install CD (not upgrade), etc. You just use the installation code that is on your computer certificate of origin sticker on the bottom or back of your current computer. (Your specific hardware information is connected with this 25 digit installation number on Microsoft server somewhere and not on the installation disc itself.)

  11. johnq

    I always unhook all standard HDD and just leave the ssd hooked up when reinstalling windows. I always remember win7 doing stupid things like putting the boot partition on the non-ssd drives. I installed win8 the other day and had a real brain-fart moment. I had my sata disc drives set as AHCI (as well as all sata port on my mobo). Windows would not install from the disk. Long story short. I had to make sure the optical drives were sate as native IDE mode (all other sata ports AHCI) in order for the win8 installation to work!

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