One of the digital tasks I love doing on a regular basis — yes, regular — is to wipe my PC and reinstall Windows 10 from scratch. It’s worth spending an hour or two restoring my system to its maximum potential performance, and it couldn’t be any easier to do. Yes, that means you’ll have to spend a little time reinstalling or restoring your apps and data, but that’s also easy if you back them up beforehand.
How easy? Let’s get right into it. Here are a few of your options for making your data that much easier to restore on a fresh copy of Windows 10.
Live in the cloud
This one’s easy. If you keep all of your critical information in the cloud, then you won’t have any personal data to restore to a brand-new Windows 10 PC from anything you own. You’ll just have to reestablish your connections to whatever services you use, or install whatever apps they offer that sync your cloud contents to your hard drive, and you’ll be good to go.
What does this mean in practice? Well, instead of using your Windows 10 user folders to store documents or pictures, for example, you’d just store all of that on your Google Drive/Dropbox/Mega/OneDrive. If you can remember to do that in all instances — including moving files from your actual Windows 10 desktop to a protected cloud folder — you’re set. Otherwise, you can get fancy and set up symlinks (symbolic links) to hardwire this change into Windows 10 itself; you can also right-click on your user folders and change their locations via Properties. Drop them in the main folder you’re syncing to the cloud.
You will, of course, have to set these links up again once you’ve reinstalled Windows 10. And if you simply made a mental note to store all your photos and documents to the cloud, you won’t be able to access other folders like your AppData folder (containing your web browser’s settings, history, et cetera) later on. If that doesn’t matter to you, great! Just make sure you’re aware of the differences between copying the contents of various user folders and copying your entire user folder to online storage.
Use an always-online backup app
I confess, I let my Backblaze account expire because I never used it to restore any files in the many years it spent backing up my PC to the cloud. That’s not to say it isn’t useful; I just have a bunch of different backup techniques. Backblaze was one of them, but it ultimately proved unnecessary.
However, if you use this or any other service that drops an app on your system to automatically back up all your files to the cloud, you’re golden. Assuming you don’t mind some downloading — or however else your service processes restore — you can easily get your most up-to-date files back on your system in a fresh version of Windows 10.
This approach works best for your personal data; don’t expect to use it to, say, restore all of your previously installed apps and games.
Copy your data straight out of File Explorer
In my Windows 10 setup, all of my personal data sits within my main C:Users folder. Whenever I want to back up everything important on my system to one of my secondary drives, I just drag-and-drop my entire User folder to its backup destination. It chugs along, I go have dinner; I come back, deal with a few prompts about unimportant tiny or temporary files that messed up, and I have a full backup of everything I care about.
It doesn’t get any easier than this, as long as you have the storage space (which you can check by right-clicking your Users folder and selecting Properties, or by using an awesome app like WizTree to really see what’s eating up so much space). Connect an external drive to your system or use a secondary drive inside your desktop PC, copy your files over, and you’re done. No complicated program needed.
Use a third-party app to create a disk image (or clone)
We’ve long been fans of Macrium Reflect at Lifehacker. This free app makes it easy to either clone your entire drive to a secondary drive — everything on it makes the leap — or create a full image of your drive that you can pull up later within your brand-new, refreshed operating system.
Since I’ve already gone over this app in exhaustive detail, I won’t walk you through the imaging process in this article. It’s pretty easy for most people to figure out. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any way you can go wrong, as long as you check the clone or image you’ve made before wiping your original drive with a fresh version of Windows 10. (Even then, it’s always good to have as many backups of your data as possible, so consider uploading your critical data to the cloud, copying it to any other storage you have sitting around, or shoveling it onto another system temporarily).
Back up your browser tabs separately
You should already be synchronizing your browser’s data — like your bookmarks — to the cloud, based on whatever browser you’re using. Before you say goodbye to your old operating system and reinstall a fresh copy, use an extension like OneTab to mash all of your open tabs into a single one, and then export your list. Save that to the cloud, or email it to yourself, or put it on a flashdrive — however you want to preserve that data is fine. Just don’t lose track of that file, as it contains all of your tabs, and if you’re like me that’s a pretty hefty list.
How do you get your apps and games back after you reinstall Windows 10?
Let’s assume that you’ve backed up all your data, taken a deep breath, reinstalled Windows 10, and are staring at a brand-new version of the operating system. We’ve already covered all the big steps and settings you’ll want to know about, but there are a few critical ones you’ll want to do right away:
- Connect your Microsoft account to Windows 10 so you can activate your OS and start synchronizing your settings.
- Start copying your data back to your system. I recommend creating an “old PC” file on your desktop, copying everything to there, and figuring out your files’ final location using that as the source. (Remember, it never hurts to have too many backups.)
- Use an tool like Ninite (or Chocolatey) to start reinstalling your core apps.
- Grab your favourite gaming services — Steam, Epic, Battle.net, et cetera — and install them. Don’t redownload your games, though. Find them from your backup, if you saved them, and copy them back to their original locations. You should be able to then use the app to “install” each game to that location, which shouldn’t cause it to redownload the entire game, just verify the existing files and download minor updates as needed. (Your gaming service’s app might even be able to scan for existing game files already, like Battle.net.) This is a great way to avoid having to stress your your monthly internet data cap for data you probably already have.
- While all this chugs along, set up your online accounts. These can include any apps you need to sync content to or from your cloud storage, your primary email and calendar services, and anything else that requires a name and a password — including your password manager.
This article was originally published in January 2021.