How to reinstall Windows

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One of the biggest hassles when it comes to reinstalling Windows is having to back up and restore data and certain settings each time, because there's always a danger you'll be caught short and miss something, which will never be seen again.

Our recommended – but most complicated – procedure for reinstalling Windows therefore involves splitting off your documents, photographs and other files from Windows by storing them on a separate partition or hard drive.

An increasing number of computers come with the hard drive already split into two partitions, but if you only have a single hard drive visible in Windows you'll need to divide it in two by a process called partitioning.

Partitioning simply consists of a virtual marker being placed somewhere on the drive – on one side it's treated like one virtual disk, on the other, it's another disk.

Keep things separate

Storing your files on the second 'data' partition rather than on the same partition as the operating system insulates them from problems with Windows. Then if Windows goes belly up, you can format your Windows partition and reinstall without worrying about your data, which is kept safe on the data partition.

Note that partitioning your drive isn't a substitute for backing up – you still need to protect your data by storing a separate copy elsewhere, either on a backup drive or online.

Once your hard drive is partitioned, you need to move all your files to your newly created data drive – and although many manufacturers provide a second partition, they often continue to store your data on the same partition as Windows by default, so even if your drive came ready-partitioned, if there's no trace of your data on the D drive, read on.

Transferring your files to your newly created data partition is a pretty simple process. Start by creating a suitably named folder, such as your name or 'My Files' on the new drive. Next, click Start and select your username to open your personal user folder.

Assuming all your key files and settings are stored in these folders, just drag each one across to the folder you've just created on your data drive, where they'll be duplicated. It's possible to store other files and settings here on your new data partition too, including your all-important email messages. If you're running Outlook Express (Windows XP), Windows Mail (Windows Vista) or Windows Live Mail, the process is practically identical.

People running Outlook Express and Windows Mail should choose the Tools > Options > Maintenance tab; Windows Live Mail users should click on the menu button and choose the Options > Mail > Advanced tab, and then click Maintenance.

Next, select Store Folder, click on Change and then browse to and select a suitable folder – such as Email – inside the folder you created earlier. Follow the prompts to move your email messages across, and verify that the messages have moved after you restarted your email program by checking the contents of the Email folder on your data partition, which should no longer be empty.

You should also be able to move your email folders in other email applications too – just check the program's website for details on how to go about moving its data folders to a new location.

Reinstall Windows

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Once your data and key settings have been moved to the data partition (usually the D drive), we'd still recommend taking a fail-safe drive image of your Windows partition to ensure no files are lost. You can then reinstall Windows proper following the guide outlined above.

After reinstalling Windows, your drivers and any outstanding updates, the next step is to reinstall your email program if necessary, set it up and repeat the procedure you followed earlier to point it towards the Email folder on your data partition, at which point you should have access to all your email messages again.

Next, open your User folder. People running Windows XP should now right-click on My Documents and select Properties; Windows Vista and Windows 7 users should right-click on Documents and select Properties > Location tab. Click the Move button and browse to your newly created partition or data drive. When prompted, click Yes to transfer your data to this new drive.

Now click OK and double-click on the Documents folder – you should see all the files that you've transferred to the data partition appear, indicating the process has been successful. Windows 7 and Windows Vista users should now repeat the process for other folders, including Pictures, Music and Videos.

With these changes in place, take a drive image of your finished set-up – when you next want to reinstall Windows from scratch, simply restore this drive image instead. It'll speed up the reinstallation process considerably – once that's done, all you have to do is download any Windows and driver updates released since the drive image was taken – plus it will ensure you never have to worry about taking a fresh backup of your data or key settings prior to reinstalling Windows again.