How-To Geek

Checklist Guide for Reinstalling Windows

Do you need to reinstall Windows on your computer?  Here’s a checklist of the things you should do before you make the leap and reinstall.

Whether you’re replacing a dying hard drive in your computer or want to upgrade from XP to Windows 7, there are many reasons you may want to reinstall Windows.  Vista and Windows 7 are much less prone to major OS issues that require you to reinstall Windows, but there are many things that can make a reinstall needed.  Many people are worried about losing data when reinstalling Windows.  However, if you make sure you cover all the things in this list, you should be certain to have your new install of Windows running great with all of your data and programs running as before.


Back up Your Files

As more and more of our lives and memories are stored on computers, losing your files is not an option.  We strongly urge everyone to always have complete backups of their data, but even still, you may have many files you need to move when installing Windows.  You’ll want to have a copy of your documents, music, videos, pictures, and more copied to another hard drive or disk before you reinstall.  If you’ve never changed the default storage locations, most of your files should be stored in your User folder, which you can access by entering %UserProfile% in the address bar in Explorer.

You can copy the files to an external hard drive, flash drive, DVD, Cloud Storage, or even another partition on your primary hard drive; just make sure not to delete the files during the upgrade.  One of the easiest ways to copy your files would be to use SyncToy; check out our review for more info.

Backup Email

Many programs such as Outlook save data on your computer as well, and if you forget to backup Outlook data you can lose years of work.  Here’s how you can copy your PST files from Outlook to your backup drive so you can easily add them to Outlook again once you reinstall Windows.


If you’ve been using Windows Mail in Vista, here’s instructions for backing up your data.


Find Your Programs to Reinstall

Windows without programs doesn’t let you do much with your computer, so you’ll want to make sure you can easily install all of your programs again once you’ve reinstalled.  You could make a list of all your installed programs from your All Programs menu in the Start menu, or you could look through your Program files folders to see what you currently have installed.  Then, you’ll need to locate product keys for commercial programs.


This can be difficult and time consuming, so thankfully there’s easier tools to help you find all your programs.  System Information for Windows is free for personal use and a great tool that will list the programs you have installed on your computer, as well as the product keys you’ve used to activate them.  It will also list all of your hardware, so you can download drivers if Windows doesn’t automatically find them with Windows update.

Check out our article on how to get detailed information about your PC.


If you have lost the installer disks for your programs, a quick web search can often turn up trial downloads that you can activate with your existing product keys that you may have found with SIW.  Or, you could try out some alternates to the programs you’ve been using for years.

Great Free Alternatives to Popular Programs

If you’ve been using your computer for many years, you may have a variety of old for-pay and shareware programs installed on your computer.  When you look through your list of applications, you might want to consider trying out some newer, free alternatives to other programs.  Here’s some we like:

  • Antivirus Microsoft Security Essentials is a great, free antivirus and antimalware application, which you can use instead of Norton, MacAfee, or other expensive antivirus solutions.  Check our overview of the new MSE 2.0 beta, too.
  • Archiving Files – Were you using an older version of WinZip or WinRAR before?  Try out 7-zip; it’s an excellent free alternative that works with most file archival formats such as zip, rar, cab, and more.
  • CD/DVD Burning – Windows 7 can burn ISO files to disks without extra software, but if you need extra features, try out the free ImgBurn instead of reinstalling the copy of Roxio or Nero that came with your computer.
  • Windows Live Essentials includes Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Messenger, and Writer, all of which are great tools that can replace many other for-pay programs.  The new Beta edition includes even more features, including advanced photo merge and touchup tools in Photo Gallery that previously were only available in tools like Photoshop Elements.  For more photo tools, try out Paint.NET or Picasa.
  • Music and Video Tools – Most of us don’t pay for media player programs, but while you’re reinstalling, why not try out new programs such as Zune for Windows or the fully customizable Foobar2000 music player.
  • If you’re looking for replacements for other applications, check out the AlternativeTo website.  This site lists for-pay and free alternatives to many popular programs, and you might even discover some you’ve never heard of.

Cloud Applications

This could also be a good opportunity to try out more online applications.  From Google Apps and the new Office Web Apps to and Picnik, there are web apps that can replace many standard desktop applications today.  If you have broadband internet connection, web apps can often be a great way to use newer applications for free. 


You may still want to keep Microsoft Office installed for the times you need to work offline, the service goes down, or you lose your web connection. Even if you use an older version of Office, you might want to keep it incase you’re not comfortable putting all your documents online.


Installing Windows

When you’ve got all your data and programs backed up, you’re ready to install Windows.  You can install it from a DVD as normal, or if you have USB flash drive you could install Windows directly from it.  We’ve recently installed Windows 7 on a new hard drive in only 15 minutes from a flash drive; it’s amazingly quick.  Here’s how you can Setup a USB Flash Drive to Install Windows 7.

Once you’ve got Windows installed again, you’ve got 30 days to activate it.  But, if you’d like more time to make sure everything’s working properly, here’s yow you can extend the trial to 120 days so you can use it for nearly 4 months without activating.  That should be more than enough time to make sure everything’s working perfectly!

Quickly and Automatically Reinstall Apps

You can now copy your files back from your backups and get your programs reinstalled.  No one likes clicking through dozens of installers, so we recommend you try out Ninite, a great tool that makes it a snap to install a lot of free and trial programs in a couple clicks.  Check out our review of Ninite for more info.


Don’t forget to keep your clean install of Windows up to date with Microsoft Update and protected with Security Essentials!  Also, make sure to setup a good backup solution such as Windows Backup and Restore to make sure you don’t lose any of your data if your new hard drive suddenly dies.

Do you have any more tips or tricks for making sure you get Windows reinstalled quickly and easily?  Share your wisdom in the comments below and help us all out!

Matthew digs up tasty bytes about Windows, Virtualization, and the cloud, and serves them up for all to enjoy!

  • Published 08/2/10

Comments (13)

  1. Christine

    I just reinstalled Windows last week, and I’m kicking myself for not deauthorizing *both* iTunes accounts that were linked to my computer. The article on how to deauthorize all computers associated with an iTunes account really could not have come at a better time, since apparently that last computer was #5 for me.

    I also always make sure to use Xmarks to backup all my bookmarks and open tabs.

  2. tom

    Wow, really awsome. I’ll use this at Windows Eight :]

    A great list of software too, /me installs :p

  3. MiezeKater33

    >Do you have any more tips or tricks for making sure you get Windows reinstalled quickly and easily?

    A checklist for reinstalling Windows should mention “Easy Transfer” ;-) It’s included in Vista/Win7 and is downloadable for XP. It’s a real good and easy program to copy settings and files from one computer to another. Especially for MS Office and of course Outlook (account settings, Outlook settings (signatures), PST files).

  4. Matthew Guay

    @MiezeKater33 – Great point, and we’ve covered how you can use it to migrate from XP to Windows 7 with a flash drive ( or over a local network ( Thanks for commenting!

  5. Fred Beiderbecke

    I like to run Belarc Advisor right before a reinstall. Copy the text for the installed programs and paste it into a text file. I do some search and replace to have it be a csv to load into excel.

    Then install it right after completing the reintsall. Install the programs, run Belarc, check to make sure you are reinstalling what you want. It gives a checklist for the rebuild.

  6. John Wills

    The best way to save the hassle of transferring data is to make multiple partitions on your hard drive and redirect all of your data to the secondary partition. Not only is this good for an upgrade of the OS, but if the OS install fails or is corrupt at any point, you can easily reinstall the OS and not touch your data.

    Of course, backup your data to a 3-2-1 plan. 3 copies of the same data 2 on different media types 1 copy off site.

  7. Shannon Lynch

    You also need to deactivate your Adobe CS3/CS4 software so that you can reinstall it later if upgrading from XP…

  8. nrue

    Is there any application like ninite. That just lets you choose the installer of the applications they have on their list. So that you won’t have to download everytime you reinstall windows

  9. Matthew Guay

    @Shannon Lynch – Good point. If you have Photoshop or Premiere Elements, you’ll need to de-activate them as well.

  10. Anon

    Okay, you posted some good freeware. Let me tell you some more, most of these I use myself. With this is you can set up a complete freeware PC and for some parts, based on open-source software! Geeky!

    Of course whats to install first:
    Flash, Java, Silverlight, all that basic stuff. Maybe Shockwave for who needs it.

    Browser: I use Firefox with many usefull Addons (NoScript, ABP, Flagfox, Greasemonkey, SkipScreen, BetterPrivacy, FireGestures, SmoothWeel), because Firefox is jsut the most customizeable browser. Some will like Google Chrome even more because of its speed.

    Media Player: AIMP2! Yes, not many people have heard of this, but its the best media player ever. Its a modded Winamp, using about 5% of the ressources Winamp uses. For video files of course the well-known VLC Media Player.

    Graphics editing: Paint.NET plus loads of addons.

    Audio editing: Very rare I use this, but then I use Audacity.

    Security: MSE and Malwarebytes AntiMalware is the only protection one needs. For suspicious files you want to run either way, use Sandboxie.

    Instant Messenger: QIP Infium. Forget about ICQ-rubbish. Some also use Pidgin, but I dont like it.

    Caring: Defraggler is great for defragging, and CCleaner is useful if you need some place on your HDD. Also used as an uninstaller. You better dont use the registry cleaning feature of CCleaner, since its useless (do some research if you dont believe me).

    E-Mail: Thunderbird. No comment.

    Virtualization: Sun VirtualBox running Ubuntu10.04 for sure. Also great for downloading warez ;)

    Other: For downloading YouTube videos, I dont recommend the famous Firefox addon “Video DownloadHelper” since its complicated to download & also convert the files. Better use VDownloader VERSION 1.12 (google for it), dont use the newer versions (2.0 and newer).
    IF you need to convert some files, the best choice will be XMediaRecode, which is just as good as the infamous SUPER (c), but is not spying on your PC.

    Yeah, thats all for the moment. I hope somebody finds this list useful. Please tell me your thoughts or better programms of your choice!

  11. John McFarlane

    You have completely ruined the top header in your download pages! I can no longer download the top of the page and save it and print it as a part of the document. Please return it to the old format. JM

  12. Jon

    Best idea is to get the OS installed, install all patches/updates and then install all the programs you use. Then use a program like Acronis TrueImage to make an image of that. No more worry about having to reinstall the OS, reactivate Windows or reinstall all your programs.

  13. raymond

    cannot find product key for my hp pavilion dv6000

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