The Ultimate Guide To Reinstalling Windows From Scratch

Photo: Microsoft

There comes a time in every Windows user’s life when things start to feel slower. Perhaps you’ve been installing and uninstalling a ton of applications, or you’ve been mucking around with obscure Windows settings (or worse, the registry). Maybe you even decided to live life on the wild side, like me, and signed up for Microsoft’s Windows Insider program, which recently caused my desktop system to screech to a halt. Whoops.

No matter the reason, it never hurts to give Windows 10 a top-to-bottom refresh—a new, clean installation of the OS, that is. Yes, you’ll have to reinstall your apps and set up your accounts again, but that doesn’t take as much time as you think. And there are plenty of ways to make this process as painless as possible.

If you’re forgetful, make a list of your installed programs

My annual (or whenever) Windows 10 reinstall is a great time to clean house. I tend to avoid writing down or generating lists of the programs I’ve installed on my system prior to the wipe-and-reinstall. Why? If I can’t remember to install an app when I’m staring at a fresh copy of Windows 10, I probably didn’t need it that badly—or forgot it even existed.

If you know you’ve installed some obscure programs that you don’t need that often, but you’d rather not say goodbye to them forever, that’s fine. It’s easy to generate a list of everything you’ve previously put on your PC. Pull up Powershell by clicking on the Start button and typing that in, and then copy and paste this into the prompt:

Get-ItemProperty HKLM:\Software\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Uninstall\* | Select-Object DisplayName, DisplayVersion, Publisher, InstallDate | Format-Table –AutoSize

You can copy and paste the result into a text file, or you can have Powershell generate one itself via this command:

Get-ItemProperty HKLM:\Software\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Uninstall\* | Select-Object DisplayName, DisplayVersion, Publisher, InstallDate | Format-Table –AutoSize & *****

You’ll want to replace the ***** with a location for the text file, like:c:\Users\David\Desktop\Stuff.txt

You can also export a list of your installed applications via the Command Prompt. Pull that up, similar to how you loaded Powershell, and type in “wmic” and hit Enter. Then, enter this string:

output:C:\Users\Davem\Desktop\InstalledProgramsWMIC.txt product get name,version

Obviously, you’ll want to replace my location with yours. You’ll get a prompt that you messed this up if you copy and paste that line of code (unless you happen to also use “davem” as your folder name).

Back up your stuff

I’m not you, so I can’t give you precise instructions for what you do need to save on your system before reinstalling Windows 10. If you’re nervous about any kind of data loss, you could go the hardcore route and clone (or make an image of) your primary drive before you delete anything. You can then take all the time you need to analyse the contents of your old drive and copy over everything you want to preserve before you delete that clone or image.

Most people probably don’t need to go to those lengths, however. When I have to reinstall Windows 10, I usually copy the entire contents of my system’s User folder (normally found in C:\Users\) to a separate drive. That usually takes care of everything I care about, although I’ll do a quick run through any major folders on C:\ to make sure I haven’t accidentally stored data somewhere else, like one of my virtual machine’s hard drives or something.

If you don’t have a spare drive, even a portable one, I’d really recommend investing in something right now. Whether you buy another hard drive, an SSD, a portable drive, or a NAS box, it will be useful for instances like these and you’ll have another place to store backups of your data — assuming, of course, that you’re already sending it to the cloud via whatever service you prefer. You can never have too many backups. Or, at least, that’s what you’ll be thinking when your single backup solution fails.

If you only have a single hard drive, but it’s a biggie, you could also cheap out and partition part of it to hold a clone or image of your primary partition’s contents. It’s an inelegant solution, but it works.

Deauthorize your apps

In case you have a few apps that you have to authorise and can only use on a limited number of systems—CalMAN calibration software comes to mind, as does Office 365 and, of course, iTunes—you’ll want to make sure you deauthorize these before you wipe your system and reinstall Windows 10. (You don’t actually need to do this in advance for Office 365, I just wanted to mention it as an example of authorizations and use limits.)

Screenshot: David Murphy

In my case, iTunes is the only app I ever have to mess with, and only because I’d rather not use the option to deauthorize all of my systems if I can avoid it. You only get one of those “nukes” per year, after all.

You’ll probably know of any other limited apps on your system, but it’s worth scrolling through the Start menu to refresh your memory.

Preserve whatever you don’t want to download later

I’m lucky, in that I can dump most of my critical files (my games) across a few secondary hard disk drives and SSDs on my desktop PC. I don’t do this for the speed or capacity boosts (my primary drive, a 500GB SSD, would be overwhelmed by my Steam collection, whereas my secondary 2TB drive is perfect for my pile o’ games). I also do it because it’s a lot easier to reinstall Windows 10 when I don’t have to worry about reinstalling hundreds of gigabytes worth of games, too.

If you can, I recommend keeping your games off your primary hard drive whenever possible. In my case, I dump everything I can easily redownload onto separate drives. That includes games on Steam, Battle.net, Origin, Epic Games, GoG, et cetera.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Because of this, I don’t need to make a backup of anything game-related before I reinstall Windows 10 (unless some game stupidly dumped a save game in My Documents, which I haven’t often found to be the case). It’s all there, right on my other drives. When facing a new, clean version of Windows 10 that doesn’t have any of my gaming services, I download and install them right on top of where they are already located.

If all goes well, I then won’t have to re-download or reinstall any games. While I usually have to reset my settings for each gaming service’s app, and sometimes have to gently let the app know where the previously downloaded games are (cough Battle.net cough), that’s a fraction of the time it would take to find and re-download everything I previously installed—or, rather, everything that’s already installed and waiting for me to play it.

The Best Chrome Extensions For Browser Management

Read more

Save your open browser tabs

If you don’t feel like bookmarking all of your open browser tabs before wiping your drive and reinstalling Windows 10, there’s an easier way to save everything you’ve been viewing (or swearing you’ll get to). Grab the OneTab extension for Chrome or Firefox, and you’ll be able to export everything that’s open or save it as a more easily clickable webpage of links.

Screenshot: David Murphy

This step is one that’s easily forgotten in the pre-installation chaos, but if you don’t do it, you’ll have to sift through your (cloud-based) browser history to find everything you lost. It’s not the hardest task, especially since your browser will likely show you all of your previously closed tabs en masse at some point in your history, but it’s a little annoying to deal with.

Install the Windows 10 ISO onto a USB flash drive

Discs? Pffft. Does your desktop or laptop even have an optical drive anymore? The fastest and easiest way to reinstall Windows 10 is to do it from a USB flash drive. (If you don’t have one sitting around that’s at least 4GB big, now’s a great time to pick one up.)

Download Microsoft’s media creation tool, and then use that to grab the latest Windows 10 ISO directly from Microsoft. While your download is chugging along, go grab a utility called “Rufus” as well. You’ll use this to “burn” your ISO file to a USB flash drive instead of a disc, for lack of a better way to describe the process.

Once you’ve downloaded your ISO, launch Rufus and click on the little image of a disc, which looks like this:

Screenshot: David Murphy

Select the Windows.ISO file you downloaded, and then click the “Start” button to begin creating your bootable USB drive. Once done, you can begin reinstalling Windows (when you’re ready) by pulling up the drive in File Explorer and double-clicking on “setup.exe.” Otherwise, you can also reboot your system and mash whatever key configuration you need to press to boot from a secondary source (your USB flash drive). You might also have to go into your system’s BIOS to boot from your USB flash drive or, barring that, to change the boot order and prioritise your flash drive above your hard drive.

Save any other settings you don’t want to look up later

This is a quick catch-all, but don’t forget to copy and paste any other application settings that you don’t want to deal with figuring out later. In my case, I always export my VPN profiles or write down their settings, at minimum, so I can quickly get them up and working again once I’ve reinstalled Windows 10. I also make sure to find the colour profile I previously created when calibrating my monitor. (This also ensures I don’t forget to set that up on a new version of Windows, which my absentminded self has definitely missed sometimes.)

Consider using a Microsoft account

While most people probably set up a Microsoft account to use with Windows 10 (which makes it incredibly easy to authenticate your copy of the OS, among other things), a few of you might still be running local accounts for whatever reason. It’s easy to switch from a local account to a Microsoft account within Windows 10 itself, and you might want to do this before you reinstall the OS so you can quickly synchronise your settings from your old copy of Windows to your new one.

If not, you’ll be prompted to use one to log into your system during Windows 10's setup process. You can still use a local account if you must, but authenticating with a Microsoft account is pretty convenient. (Don’t forget, you can also log into windows using a PIN, rather than your Microsoft account’s password, if you don’t want to type in something huge and complicated each time your computer boots.)

How To Set Up Your Windows Laptop From Scratch

Hooray. You bought a brand-new Windows laptop and, for whatever reason, the manufacturer was nice enough to let you go through the installation process yourself instead of filling your new system full of crapware for you. Just kidding. It's rare when that happens, and buying a laptop that's full of junk is one — but certainly not the only — reason why you might want to reinstall your operating system from scratch.

Read more


Getting apps back onto your fresh, new Windows 10

One of the first websites I turn to after installing a new version of Windows 10 is Ninite—check all the apps you want on your PC, and you’ll be able to download a single executable that automatically installs everything you’ve selected. Between that and the various game services I’ve already talked about, that usually takes care of most of the critical apps I need on my system.

Screenshot: David Murphy, Ninite

However, I did want to give a quick shoutout to the Microsoft Store. Yes, that app. While I rarely use it, there are a few instances where you might want to consider the Microsoft Store version of an app instead of something you’d download from another company’s site. Take iTunes for instance—the Microsoft Store version can stay updated without needing an extra Apple Software Update utility.

While some apps are pretty similar between their “regular” and Microsoft Store versions (Spotify, for example), I generally find it easier to install and uninstall apps via the latter. If nothing else, you’ll have a quick list of everything you’ve used in your “My Library” portion of the app, in case you’re a little forgetful.

Make a backup once you’ve finished the basics

Once you have a general version of Windows 10 set up to your liking—all your preferences are set and all the regular programs you use are installed—I think it’s a great idea to image your entire installation before you start downloading a bunch of crap from the web or what-have-you.

Go grab Macrium Reflect and create a backup image of your entire C:\ drive, assuming that’s where you installed Windows and your programs. This way, you’ll have a great “operating system + everything I like” version of Windows that you can use the next time you want to restore your system back to a “clean” version of the OS.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Sure, you’ll probably have to download a bunch more Windows 10 updates than if you used Microsoft’s .ISO, but you also won’t have to go through the process of setting up and installing the OS, as well as your apps.


Comments

    The easiest way I've found is to download the latest media creation tool and let Windows do a clean install of the latest stable version. Of course, I also back up and do all the other common sense things, some of which are mentioned above. If you have a decent net connection it's a faster way to get back to scratch.

    I HATE how MS changed my perfectly memorable Windows login password and forced me to use a PIN or a new password.

    If you’re forgetful, make a list of your installed programs
    I have a bookmarks folder called Programs - New System Install, with links to the homepages of all the programs I use frequently.
    This helps me remember which programs need to be installed on a fresh system and also makes it easy to ensure I'm using the latest version of each one. Ninite looks to do a similar thing, but the list of programs it supports is limited.

    You can nuke the system from inside windows. You start at refresh my system then select not to keep files, then select not to keep anything.

    It seems to create a current windows installation image then reinstall from scratch.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now