How to Decide When It's Time to Reformat and Reinstall Windows

Windows gears
It's been almost a year to the day since I adopted an Acer desktop replacement (i.e. a big honking laptop) as my primary PC.

It's a powerhouse, stocked with a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, and loads of other goodies. For the most part, it's been great.

For the most part. In recent months, problems aplenty have cropped up. For one thing, it takes a solid 10 minutes of boot-up time before the hard drive stops thrashing and I can actually doing anything.

Also, for reasons I haven't been able to pin down, when I first run Word, Excel, Outlook, or any other Office 2010 component, it takes forever to start.

And lately, when I boot the system, Windows sometimes tells me it's "preparing my desktop," then shows me something that looks like Windows 95 and crashes a lot.

Stuff like that.

Granted, I'm a power user. I'm on the thing all day every day, installing and testing all kinds of software. A few glitches are to be expected. But that's no defense of Windows; the OS should be able to handle that kind of load without getting all gunked up like this.

All I'm saying is, this is what happens over time. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes two or three, but eventually you reach the point where there's too much sand in the machinery.

For a lot of people, that's the point where they decide to buy a new PC. But I don't think that's necessary, especially if your system is just a couple years old. Instead, you can wipe the hard drive and reinstall Windows. It's a hassle, one that can consume an afternoon or even an entire weekend, but the end result is a system that runs like new. And it won't cost you anything.

I'm not here to explain how to perform that process; for that, look to Lincoln Spector's "Reinstall Windows Without Losing Your Data." My goal is to help you decide when it's time to take this drastic step.

Frankly, I think you'll know when. If programs won't run properly, Windows crashes often or takes more than a few minutes to boot, or you've got a malware issue you simply can't overcome, that's when you need to cut bait and start over.

I've reached that point with my system. So I'm making lists of all the essential programs and utilities I'll need to reinstall, backing up all my important data (including easy-to-overlook stuff like address books and iTunes folders), and syncing as much stuff to the cloud as possible (for ease of retrieval after the system wipe).

If you feel like this is beyond your capabilities -- it's a bit like rebuilding a car engine, after all -- consider hiring professional help. It'll cost you a few bucks, but certainly less than a new PC would.

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