Best Way to Reinstall Windows, User Data, Patches?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader 'rseal54' writes:

" Dear Dennis,

I have a 6 year old Gateway computer with Windows Vista operating system and Service Pack 2 installed. I have a question regarding reinstalling Windows; I want to save all my data and installed programs to an external hard drive, then do a clean reinstall of the operating system. Is it possible to reinstall Vista with all the latest updates [automatically applied during the reinstall without using Windows Update]? Also, how do I get back all the items that were saved on the external hard drive? "

My Response:

That's an excellent question, and thank you for asking. There's a lot of questions being asked here, so I'll try and break it down.

How to Reinstall Vista with all the Latest Updates?

You can apply Windows Vista Service Pack 2 and integrate hot fixes and patches to it and have them all installed after a fresh reinstall of Windows -- however, the process is (a) not supported by Microsoft, (b) done using multiple third party utilities (one for slipstreaming, and another for integrating patches), (c) obfuscated, error-prone with caveats, and (d) very time consuming. I have attempted to Slipstream Vista SP2 in the past, but wasted many hours in the process. Therefore, I do not recommend going this route and will not provide instruction on how to do it. That said, I have other ways to get around the issue.

The Easiest Way to Reinstall Windows

For simplicity sake, I suggest you backup all your data, format the drive, reinstall Windows, then let Windows Update download and apply all the updates. When the process is complete, make a disk image backup of your system and use that for any future 'reinstalls' using a disk image restore. This will effectively achieve what you're asking -- to have all the latest updates, patches, service packs, etc automatically applied for a 'fresh' reinstall of Windows.

Also note that I do not recommend that you reinstall Windows over top of Windows -- you should always backup your drive, then format it. The reasoning here is that: (a) reinstalling Windows over top of Windows may not work properly afterward, and (b) the drive will still be cluttered with junk. If you format the drive first, everything gets nuked and you start fresh, defragmented, and with less junk.

How to Backup and Reinstall Windows and All Programs

The process of reinstalling Windows and all user data is done manually, and can be very time consuming. Depending on how much data you have and which version of Windows you're reinstalling, you will be looking at (most likely) 2 or 3 full days of work to achieve a full reinstall, including reinstalling all your programs, and re-importing all your data, etc. If you go this route, I suggest using either Option #1 or Option #2 below.

Option #1: Disk Image Backup, Format, then Reinstall Windows

To make the disk image backup, I suggest using Acronis True Image -- I use it on all my PCs. Once you've backed up the existing system, formatted the drive, then reinstalled Windows, I suggest you choose only the most essential programs to reinstall on the new operating system; this will save you some time, and also help to keep your system optimized with less 'junk'. You can then use the disk image backup of your old system at any time to import data to the new system (such as documents, images, etc). You can also make a disk image of the new system once all service packs, patches, etc, have been downloaded (as previously suggested).

The caveat with this method is that (a) you will have to reinstall all your programs manually after reinstall Windows (usually by downloading the program off the Internet, then install it); and (b) some programs require 'exporting' data in order to re-import on a new system (such as Firefox's HTML bookmark export feature), and extracting this data cannot be achieved directly through a backup. As such, another alternative to a full disk image backup would be to virtualize your existing system into a virtual machine (option #2), which is my recommended method for a complete reinstall -- but only if your hardware supports it.

Option #2: Virtualize Windows, Format, then Reinstall Windows

Creating a virtual machine of your existing system will essentially provide you with a 'live' backup. You can then access the old system just as if it were a separate PC -- whether it's through Remote Desktop, VNC, or file and print sharing.

Having your old system as a virtual machine makes it extremely convenient to export data for purpose of re-importing on the new one, plus you can go back to the old system if you needed to at any time; you can do all of this without having to shut down your newly installed operating system. You can convert your existing system into a virtual machine using VMWare vCenter Standalone Converter (free); you can then use VMware Player (free, I believe) to play the virtual machine.

The caveats here are that you need plenty of RAM and CPU to run the virtual machine, including resources for your newly installed operating system. I suggest you have at least a dual core CPU (quad core recommended) and 4 gigabytes of RAM (8 gigabytes recommended) if you plan to go this route. You will still need to download programs off the Internet and reinstall them on your new operating system (and then import any user data if needed), as mentioned in Option #1 above.

How to Export and Import User Data from a Previous OS Install

Re-importing user data into the newly installed operating system can be tricky, and unfortunately there isn't an easy way to explain this because every program is different. At any rate, it's usually done by (a) exporting data and then re-importing it using an 'import / export' feature inside an installed program, or (b) by extracting data via the AppData / user Roaming folder, or (c) copying and pasting the appropriate data into the installed program via the Program Files directory.

Suffice it to say - if you don't know what you're doing, please ask for help (see Option #4 below).

Option #3: No Reinstall; Clean Up Existing System

Another alternative to the two above methods mentioned above is to clean out the existing system of all the junk and optimize services. This would effectively achieve the same result as a clean reinstall -- if done properly -- but won't take nearly as long.

You can use freeware 'cleaning' programs that will help with this, but be careful as many programs are very generic in nature and won't do anything to improve performance (even though they claim to). In this case, you might be better off having a professional give your system a very thorough look-over and apply all the necessary fixes. The fact is that all PCs are different, and there isn't a universal software program that can effectively make all the right choices when it comes to optimizing a PC depending on its hardware resources available and the operating system being used.

Option #4: Expert Help from Dennis

In either of the scenarios of I've mentioned above, I can provide you with service to get the job done right. If anyone reading this article needs help with any of the issues I've mentioned, you can contact me via Live Chat (at the bottom left of the screen), or through the contact form on the site.

About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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