Why would anyone want to go through the painful process of reinstalling Windows? Surely it's a lot of fuss and bother, plus all that worrying about things going wrong? And what do you really gain from the procedure?

Well firstly, a Windows reinstall is not as painful as it might seem, although it is time-consuming and does require a measure of preparation before taking the plunge.

Second, if your PC has started to show signs of age – if it takes longer to start up, programs are sluggish in operation and you're beset with problems such as unexpected crashes and error messages – then it's time to clean things out and start again.

A fresh Windows installation puts you back in charge of your computer, but every time you perform it – which should be at least once every two years in our opinion – you'll have to put aside a few hours or even an entire weekend to do the job properly.

That's because the actual reinstall process, which takes less than an hour, is only a small part of the whole job. You can't just step in, reinstall and continue on your merry way: you need to back up your files and settings so you don't lose anything as you go, source program installation discs and product keys and make sure you have access to the drivers you need.

And once you're done with that, you need to restore your programs, files and settings, as well as download outstanding updates and set up Windows the way you like it.

In this tutorial, we'll take you through the entire process for one last time. Give yourself plenty of time now to get things set up exactly to your satisfaction because you'll be taking a snapshot of your PC in this perfect state. Then, in future, instead of going through the whole process again, you simply restore this image, taking a fraction of the time.

Don't believe it's possible? Read on to see how easy it is to make reinstalls a thing of the past.

Step 1: Get backed up

Everyone should have a backup plan for their computer, whereby important or irreplaceable files, documents, photos, emails and more are backed up to an external device, such as a USB or network hard drive.

But if you've so far resisted the urge to protect your data and settings, now is the time to bite the bullet and make sure you're fully backed up. This is because the process of reinstalling Windows is a destructive one, wiping all data from your hard drive and putting in a shiny new Windows installation. You need to make sure you've got copies of everything that's important to you, or you'll lose it all.

There are two types of backup you can choose: file-based, whereby specific files and settings are selected for backup, and image-based, which takes an exact copy of your drive, ensuring that nothing is lost.

We recommend you take one of each kind of backup for extra security, with the image-based backup giving you a fail-safe in case you forget a specific important file or setting. This fail-safe can also restore your computer should something go wrong with the installation process.

Tools of the trade

There are perfectly adequate backup tools built into Windows itself, but they're not universal to all versions of Windows, so we've picked two of the best free backup tools: GFI Backup Home Edition for files and settings, and Macrium Reflect Free, which you'll use to create both your fail-safe backup now and your perfect computer snapshot later on.

GFI backup

Start by installing Macrium. Once done, launch the program and let it register itself over the internet. When the main screen appears, click Create a backup image of an entire disk or selected partition(s) under Backup Tasks. Click Next, then select the hard drive or partition that your copy of Windows is installed on before clicking on Next again.

Choose your backup device – local hard disk, network drive or CD/DVD burner (not recommend for backups with Windows Vista or Windows 7) – and then click on Next followed by Finish and then OK to start the backup. Once complete, open the Other Tasks menu and click Verify to check your backup isn't corrupt, then pop a blank CD or DVD into your drive and choose Other Tasks > Create Rescue CD.

Leave the default Linux option selected, click Advanced, tick Compatibility Mode and click Finish to create the rescue CD. Label this and store it in a safe place. You'll need to boot from the rescue CD whenever you want to restore a drive image – should something go wrong with the reinstall process, for example, or when you want to recover your perfect PC setup in the future.

Back up files and settings

It's time to back up your files and settings. People running Windows 7 and Windows Vista can use the built-in Windows Backup tool: click Start, type "backup" and launch the Backup and Restore tool when it appears in the list. Follow the prompts to create a backup.

Windows Vista users get more choice over what exactly they're backing up, but Windows 7 users should make sure they select Let me choose when prompted to avoid taking a system image – this will simply replicate what you've already done with Macrium Reflect Free.

Once the backup has been taken, you're ready to move on to the next step. Windows XP users don't have this user-friendly backup option; instead, take a look at GFI Backup Home Edition.

This enables you to choose exactly what to include in your backup – files, settings, email and even Registry keys. It's something more advanced Windows 7 and Windows Vista users might also like to check out, but it's not as user-friendly or as easy as the Windows Backup option.

Step 2: Save settings

Your data and settings are backed up, and you have a fail-safe backup in case you forget an important file or the reinstall process doesn't go to plan. But don't reach for your Windows installation disc just yet. There are some further steps you still need to take.

First, make sure you'll have internet access after you've reinstalled Windows, so you can download all outstanding drivers and updates quickly and easily. If your computer is directly connected to the modem via a USB cable, you'll need to source the drivers from the modem manufacturer or internet provider, plus make a note of the settings you need to connect to the internet (do check with your provider though – they may provide a program that does all the hard work for you).

If you connect to the internet through a router or via Ethernet cable, you'll need network drivers – if you're restoring Windows from a recovery partition or disc, these will be included; if you're using a Windows installation or upgrade disc, download the drivers you need now from either your computer manufacturer or the manufacturer of your wireless adapter.

Belarc advisor

Next, check you have any program discs and product keys or serial numbers you might need – check your email for product keys purchased over the internet and write them down. If you can't find certain product keys, enlist the help of third-party software: Belarc Advisor is free, but if it can't help, download the demo of Recover Keys from http://recover-keys.com – if it's able to locate the product key you're looking for, you'll need to pay US$29.95 to access it.