You Don't Need To Regularly Reinstall Windows; Here's Why

One of the most persistent myths about Windows is that you need to reinstall the operating system regularly to keep it running at top performance. Let's take a look at the real problem and how to fix it.

Today we're talking about the myth that Windows slows down over time, and how to solve the problem. The reality is that Windows doesn't slow down if you just take care of your PC a little more. Follow these procedures, and you won't have to wonder if spending hours backing up data, installing from disc, and re-installing your essential applications is really necessary.

What Does Slow Windows Down Over Time?

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that your Windows PC will never slow down — because for many people, they almost always do. What actually slows your PC down are too many poorly written applications that stay resident in memory and waste CPU cycles, having too many badly written low-level applications that hook into Windows, or running more than one antivirus application at a time. And of course, if you've run your PC's hard drive out of space, you can hardly blame Windows for that.

If you aren't getting the picture, the problem is usually the person behind the keyboard that installed too many junk applications in the first place. More gently put, it's often that (very well-meaning) person's gradual easing of their safeguards and cleaning regimens as time goes by.

Stop Installing Junk Applications

Installing software should be thought of like feeding your PC. If you constantly feed your PC garbage apps, it's going to get sick and won't be able to run fast anymore. These poorly written applications clutter your drive with unnecessary DLL files, add always-resident Windows services when they don't need to, bloat up your registry, and add useless icons to your system tray that waste even more memory and CPU cycles. Usually you can get away with using a few terrible applications, but as you continue to install more and more of them, your PC will slow down to a crawl.

Be Smarter About What You Do Install

We feature and recommend a lot of software applications around here, but you should keep in mind that we aren't trying to tell you to install every single one of them at the same time-just install the applications that you actually need and you'll generally prevent the dreaded format and reinstall.

Here's a few tips to help you know what applications you should be careful with:

  • Apps that function as an Explorer plug-in, because they directly hook into the shell and any problem will make your entire PC slow or in the worst case, crash repeatedly.
  • Antivirus applications are notorious for slowing your PC down, and you should never, ever, ever use more than one real-time antivirus application at a time. We recommend Microsoft Security Essentials as a free, fast and awesome antivirus tool.
  • Anything that says it will "Speed Up Your PC" or "Optimise Your RAM" will most likely slow it down, or best case, do nothing at all. Avoid these like the plague.
  • Make sure to install official system drivers from the manufacturer website. Drivers have a huge impact on performance, and you want to have stable, updated drivers.
  • Registry cleaners are a mixed bag, and really aren't going to speed up your PC in most cases. The biggest problem, however, is that too many of the commercial registry cleaners set themselves to run at startup in the system tray, wasting your memory and CPU cycles.
  • You should strongly consider the idea of using portable applications wherever possible, since their self-contained nature means they won't clutter up the rest of your PC with things you don't need.

Keep Your Computer Clean And Trim

Once you've rid yourself of your junk application habit and resolved to only use healthy, useful applications, you'll want to make sure to keep your PC clean of any remaining clutter that doesn't need to be there. You can set up a shortcut to manually run CCleaner silently with the push of a button, but your best bet is to set up CCleaner to run automatically on a schedule, so you don't have to remember to do it.

Since CCleaner is only going to clean up temporary files, you'll still need a good solution for keeping the rest of your PC clean-and Lifehacker's own Belvedere can help you automate your self-cleaning PC or automatically clean up your download folder.

With all of this automated file deletion going on, your hard drive is likely to get a bit fragmented. If you're already running Windows 7 or Vista, automatic defrag comes out of the box and probably shouldn't be messed with, but Windows XP users will need to use Windows Tasks to setup a schedule and automatically defrag their drives.

Use A Virtual Machine Or Sandbox To Test Software

If you still want to test out all of the latest software, including apps that look a bit rough around the edges, your best bet is to use a virtual machine to test out anything before putting it onto your primary operating system. You can install all of your software in an XP or Windows 7 VM just like it was a real PC, and with the latest VMWare player releases, you can even enable Windows Aero in a guest VM. If you are new to the idea and need some more help, you should check out our beginner's guide to creating virtual machines in VirtualBox, or Windows 7 users can check out our guide to using XP Mode. If you don't want to go the virtual machine route, Windows XP and Vista users can alternatively use Windows SteadyState to protect their PC and roll back all of the changes on a reboot.

So what about you? Do you always take the reinstall route, or have you devised your own best maintenance practices? Share your experience in the comments.

The How-To Geek reinstalls Windows only every few years and has no speed problems at all. His geeky articles can be found daily here on Lifehacker, How-To Geek, and Twitter.


Comments

    Install Ubuntu :P

    Or get a Mac... Never had this problem using the same 2 year old installation over three computers and a Snow Leopard upgrade. It was a clear benefit to making the switch for me.

      Typical reply. I have seen plenty of Macs that seem to have a half-life just like WinX

        I agree, I have fixed my fair share of macs that people were about to throw out due to their speed, re-installed, installed only the apps they needed and suddenly they were asking me if I had upgraded processors or memory.

        I have run a small digital media company for about 6 yrs now. My various workflows rely on both Vista and OSX (a combo of 10.5 and 10.6) workstations and I have had very few problems with either OS. I am able to enjoy both systems since I do not install a bunch of crap on these machines (I have another workstation dedicated to trial software) and I don't run anti-virus software on either OS. I also very rarely take my Vista workstations online because of the security risk, particularly without anti-virus software. That said, my situation is somewhat unique, as I would wager is the situation of most geeks here.

        For the average non-supergeek user though, "get a Mac" is usually bloody good advice (depending on their personal interoperability environment). You do not need to run anti-virus software at all and the Unix-based system file management is superior - in my experience - than that employed by Windows (I still would recommend Hazel or AppTrap to delete preference files that can remain on an OSX system after an app has been deleted). Of course, Macs can occasionally get sluggish, but it's usually not the sort of slow-to-a-crawl experience that a slightly crook Windows machine will get. On a Mac, it's usually a browser plug-in or other poorly-written app with a serious memory leak. On a Windows machine, the problem is usually that they're running Norton (or sim. system hog antivirus), they have damaged or fragmented system files, or their machine is infected with a virus or trojan (I find this is the main offender, particularly if teenagers are in the user mix). The last 2 points are the main reasons people reinstall Windows…and ultimately why this article is written about Windows slowing down and not OSX.

        Let's stop the Mac v. PC crap. It serves no-one. If I was overseeing IT for an accounting firm, you'd very likely not see a single Mac in the config. However, my Mum running any version of Windows is a nightmare waiting to happen (for the record, my Mum's using Ubuntu on her EeePC).

      My wife has a mac. It doesn't seem any more immune to slowdown then any other computer if you treat it badly (eg install junk). Given I have to support it, I always shake my head whenever someone says 'get a mac' at every opportunity. It doesn't seem any better or worse then any other machine I have to work on.

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted

    After I've cleaned up all my unneeded files/apps, I find its really good to create a new windows profile, and migrate over to it.
    A new profile is alot cleaner and faster and I've seen the most improvement doing it under XP, but it's still helpful for vista and 7.

    Definitely worth a try.

    No, it IS a Windows problem. Windows registry's problem, specifically.

    It's nothing to do with the programmer's abilities, it's because Microsoft forces you to pepper new registry entries all over the place for your program to, for example, show up in the taskbar, or handle X filetype by default. When said programs are uninstalled, there are ALWAYS -- with no exceptions I've ever encountered -- pieces left behind.

    Microsoft's own updates do this, and it'll all be no surprise to anybody who uses Revo Uninstaller (WHICH EVERYBODY SHOULD, as it's what'll REALLY keep your Windows going for a while)

    Now, as your registry gets bigger and bigger, and that registry gets more and more fragmented on the Hard Disk, your computer, no matter what, is gonna slow down. Simple.

    So there, dont just stop installing applications -- what the fuck are you using a computer for if you're scared of INSTALLING something on it -- just download and use Revo.

    Also viruses, which are pretty much unavoidable unless you get a good Virus Scanner and end up slowing your PC down just as much to run it.

    Mac and Linux don't slow down from general use like Windows, since their configuration files are stored as plain text files basically, and they don't fragment over time in any noticible sense because their file systems kick all kinds of ass.

    Unless my information is surprisingly flawed that is.

    this is totally a windows problem. I've never run another OS where after 2 weeks you can notice a significant increase in boot up time and things just don't feel "snappy". after a lifetime on windows I know what apps I need. After 'normal' system use, any machine slows down a lot. I can't explain why. All I've done is pulled down more email, browsed more sites or added more media to my HDD... Is it so much to ask that my expensive new machine isn't weighed down by such trivial things?

    using a VM is probably the best option if you want a forever-fast machine... but also the last option any sane person is going to choose.

    yet-another-article-linking-to-other-life-hacker-articles-for-seo.

    sorry tis the truth. this article needn't have been written.

      If this or any other article about this type of stuff wasn't written, the people among us who are not as computersavvy as others, would still have very slow PC's. This helps them remind them :)

    so right about junk apps I downloaded the matrix screensaver off PC World and all hell broke loose cost me $80+ to get back online.

    Actually most times there is no need to rebuild or reinstalled your PC windows system, what you need is Tuneup360. You just need to click one big “fix now” button and get your computer fixed at once.

    Funny how people's memories don't change "I remember when I used to Windows, 95 or something, it totally sucked!".
    Apple right now is the Microsoft of the 90's and it's only a matter of time before people get sick of it and move to something else when they've had enough. Ever seen how many people are queueing up at the Genius bar? Or how many Mac service shops are opening? *ALL* computers have problems.

    There hasn't been a faultless car released in the last century so I highly doubt PC's will be trouble free anytime soon.

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