Start Anew in Windows
Sometimes Windows is beyond recovery, and there's nothing left but to put it out of your misery. And I don't suggest you do something dire, like buying a Mac.
A Windows reinstallation isn't always a last-resort solution, however. In fact, I reinstall my OS about once a year to clear out the cobwebs. But I'm a risk-taker by nature. The safest course is to wipe Windows clean only when you have to.
If all goes well, you'll be done in only a couple of hours, but be ready to survive without the machine's services for a day or two if you need to troubleshoot the reinstall. Before you do anything, back up: Make a copy of all your data files and place it on a CD or other removable medium. For optimal results, use a disk-imaging program such as Acronis's $50 True Image (see FIGURE 5
Next, collect your Windows installation CD (or the restore CD that came with your computer), plus the discs for every application that you want to keep. If you don't have a restore CD, look for a restore utility on your PC, which likely has an option to create a restore CD. If you downloaded a shareware program and don't have a CD, make sure to track down the registration code needed to turn the free trial into the fully functional, unlimited-use version.
With luck, you won't need the CDs that came with your hardware, which are neither easy to access nor up-to-date. Put all of your current device drivers in a separate folder, away from C:\Windows, before the reinstall. I've written three batch files for doing this. Click here to download the one for your version of Windows and to read the instructions for using it. But be forewarned: If a set-aside driver doesn't work, you may still need the outdated one from the vendor's CD.
Below are all the steps required to reinstall Windows XP and 2000. "New Beginnings for Windows 98 and Me" has more info for those versions.
Take a deep breath, insert your Windows or restore CD, and reboot your PC. Restore CDs vary from vendor to vendor, so I can't give you specific instructions. At their best, the discs are fully functional Windows CDs holding all the drivers you need. But at their worst, they only allow you to return your hard drive to its factory condition--with Windows but without any of your data and programs.
If the only option on your restore CD is a fresh factory installation, make doubly sure you have your data backed up before you reinstall. After the reinstall, you'll have to restore your data from this backup (but you can skip the "Match Users to Data" section below).
If your CD has a full copy of Windows XP or 2000, you'll be prompted to 'Press any key to boot from CD'. Do so. In the setup program, pick the options that will leave the previous file system in place while deleting (as opposed to repairing) the old operating-system files. For instance, if you're told 'To use the folder and delete the existing Windows installation in it, press L', press l. I got four of these prompts the last time I reinstalled Windows, since my system has multiple hard drives, each with multiple partitions.
You'll eventually be asked for your user name, as well as for the names of other users. Enter just one name--not your real name (problems can arise if Windows tries to make new folders with the same names as existing ones). Instead, enter the name fake, which you'll delete later.
Match Users to Data
When you're back in Windows logged on as someone named "fake," open Windows Explorer to C:\Documents and Settings, select Tools, Folder Options, View, Show hidden files and folders, and make sure 'Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)' is unchecked. Click Yes, and then OK.
Now you'll see six or more folders, among which will likely be ones named All Users, All Users.WINDOWS, Default User, Default User.WINDOWS, and 'fake'. There will also be a folder for each of the old installation's log-in names. Open the Default User folder and look for one or more files named 'NTUSER' (they may have different file extensions). Delete these files, press Ctrl-A to select all the remaining files and folders, and then drag them all to the Default User.WINDOWS folder. At any dialog box, select Yes or, better yet, Yes to All (see FIGURE 6
Return to the Documents and Settings folder and rename each of the folders for an actual user (rather than the All Users, Default User, and 'fake' folders) by adding the extension .old to the name. For instance, rename the folder 'Lincoln' to Lincoln.old (click the folder name once or use the F2 key to rename folders).
To create the real accounts, select Start, Control Panel, User Accounts in Windows XP or Start, Settings, Control Panel, Users and Passwords in Windows 2000. Create an account for each user from the previous install. At least one of the accounts must have administrator privileges. In Windows 2000 you may have to check Users must enter user name and password to use this computer to create users.
Once all of the users are in place, log off "fake" and log on to each new account one at a time. In XP, select Start, Log Off, Log Off; in 2000, click Start, Shut Down, Log off fake, OK. If you are the only user, log on as yourself, log off, and log on again as "fake." If there are multiple users, first log on as one user, then log off and log on again as the next user, then log off again, and so on, until you've logged on and off as each user before logging back on as "fake." XP users: Resist the temptation to use the Switch User option (which does not exist in 2000); you need to completely log off each user, not just switch users.
Once you're logged back on as "fake," your Documents and Settings folder should have two folders for each real user: 'login name' and 'login name.old'. Delete the 'NTUSER' files and move the others as described above for Default User, but this time from the 'login name.old' folder to the 'login name' folder. In other words, if the user's name is "Lincoln," you would enter the 'Lincoln.old' folder, delete all the 'NTUSER' files, and drag the remaining files and folders to the 'Lincoln' folder.
When you're done, log off "fake," and then log on to one of the system's real accounts with administrator privileges. Finally, return to Control Panel's User Accounts applet and delete the "fake" account, using the option to delete files.
Finish the Job
The last step is to reinstall your drivers. If you ran my batch files before reinstalling, simply open Device Manager as described in "Update Your Drivers." Listings with a yellow question mark need an update (see FIGURE 7
To reinstall a driver, double-click its listing in Device Manager and choose Driver, Update Driver. Select the option in the Hardware Update Wizard that lets you choose the location of the search and select the driver (the wording varies). Uncheck the option to search floppies, CDs, and other removable media, and direct the wizard to look in the folder c:\olddrivers. Click Next and follow the prompts.
If you are prompted to insert a particular CD, click OK and point to c:\olddrivers, which is where your drivers are stored. If that doesn't work, simply tell the installer to skip that file. The driver will likely install properly despite Windows' inability to find that specific file. However, if the device doesn't work, dig out the CD that came with it and load the driver from it. When all the drivers are in place, delete the c:\olddrivers folder, or move it to a removable medium for safekeeping.
Your applications are still on your hard drive and listed on your Start menu (that is, unless your restore CD reformatted your hard drive), but most of them won't work because Windows can't see them yet. Reinstall the applications that don't open when you try them. If you no longer want a program, delete its shortcut from the Start menu and remove its folder from the Program Files folder. You don't have to properly uninstall the app this time.
At some point, you may have to reactivate XP. Since your hardware hasn't changed, this should be no problem. And last but definitely not least, you should update Windows and your applications. Click here for tips on installing XP's Service Pack 2.