Reinstall Windows Without Losing Your Data
One More Backup
You just spent a lot of time taking a fresh Windows installation and customizing it. If you ever have to reinstall Windows again, wouldn't you like to skip that step?
Use image-backup software and an external hard drive to create an image of your hard drive in its current everything-but-data state. Should you have to reinstall again, you can use this backup as your recovery tool and simplify the process.
Again, I recommend EASEUS Todo Backup, although you can find other good programs that will do this job.
Whatever program you use, make sure to create an emergency boot disc with it.
Restore Your Data
Now it's time to bring back your data. If you used an actual Windows 7 retail or upgrade DVD, the data is in a folder called C:\Windows.old. If you used a manufacturer's recovery tool, your files might be in a special folder off the root, perhaps called C:\Backup. Otherwise, your data is no longer on your hard drive.
Aren't you glad you made that backup?
If such a folder exists on your hard drive, open it in Windows Explorer and navigate to its User folder (Windows 7 or Vista) or 'Documents and Settings' folder (XP).
If the folder doesn't exist, you'll have to get it off of the clone or image backup. Create a folder on the internal drive called
Backup (it should be C:\Backup). Plug in the external drive with the clone, and copy the contents of that drive's User folder (Windows 7 or Vista) or 'Documents and Settings' folder (XP) to C:\Backup. Once the copying is done, remove the external drive (properly, of course, through the system tray's removal tool). Leave Windows Explorer open to the C:\Backup folder.
Whether you needed to copy the data from the external drive or not, you should now have a Windows Explorer window open and displaying multiple folders--one for each user logon. For convenience's sake, I'm going to call this window the Backup Location.
Open a second Windows Explorer window, and navigate to C:\Users (Windows 7 or Vista) or C:\Documents and Settings (XP). I'll call this window the Proper Location, because it's where your data should be--and eventually will be.
Do the following for each user:
Open the user's folders in both the Backup and Proper Locations. You will see additional folders, mostly the same ones, inside each. Drag some of the folders from Backup to Proper.
Which folders should you move? The obvious ones are Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. Their names may or may not be prefaced with My. XP users needn't worry about the lack of Music, Pictures, and Videos folders--they're inside Documents.
You should absolutely not move AppData (Windows 7 and Vista) or 'Application Data and Local Settings' (XP). These folders are hidden, so it's likely you won't see them, anyway.
Use your own judgment about other folders. Just remember that the folders you don't move aren't going away immediately, so you can always correct that mistake.
You'll get several error messages as you move the folders. If Windows asks, yes, you do want to merge folders. Replacing a file with one that has the same name is also probably safe, but use your own judgment.
That process will take care of your documents, spreadsheets, pictures, music, and so on. Application data (Firefox settings, Outlook data files, and the like) is more complicated. Each application has its own way of handling the task, so I can give you no general instructions.
Just remember that you still have this data in your Backup Location, and you can restore it when you need it. You'll find it in the AppData folder for Windows 7 and Vista, and the Application Data and Location Settings\Application Data folders in XP. All of these folders are hidden, visible only if you tell Windows Explorer to display hidden files. See "Back Up, Restore, and Migrate Firefox" and "Back Up and Restore Outlook" for instructions involving two popular programs.
Eventually you'll be able to delete your Backup or Windows.old folder. But don't rush. Wait a few months until you're sure it has nothing that you'll need again.
Well, that was a long and difficult slog. Let's hope that you won't have to do it again anytime soon.
Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes PCWorld's Answer Line column and blog.