How to Reinstall Windows XP

Over the years, PC World has published hundreds of tips for fixing glitches in Microsoft's Windows operating system. But sometimes, the only cure for a Windows malady is a complete reinstallation. Here's how to reinstall Windows XP.

First, locate the Windows CD that shipped with your PC, along with the CDs for your application software. If you downloaded your antivirus, firewall, or other programs, copy those downloads to a CD or to some other type of removable media. (If your system didn't ship with a Windows CD, your reinstallation files are situated on your hard drive; I'll describe how to access them in just a minute.) Also, dig up the instructions that your ISP sent you for configuring your network settings, and keep them close at hand.

Copy the contents of your 'C:\Documents and Settings' folder (or whichever folder you store your personal files on) to a CD or other removable medium. Then grab any other critical data and back it up. It helps to collect the installers for the latest drivers for your PC's graphics card and other hardware, too.

Ready to Reinstall

Now insert the Windows CD that came with your PC, and reboot your system. If you didn't receive a Windows disc with your machine, the files you need are sitting in a hidden partition on your hard drive. To access them, press the keys indicated on your screen when you reboot, but before Windows loads. The keys differ from vendor to vendor, so contact your PC's manufacturer if you don't see the prompt.

In many instances, the only available option is 'Return the drive to its factory condition', which destroys all documents, photos, and other data files on your PC. That's why you made a copy of your data folders.

You get more options--including the ability to preserve your files and settings--when you use Microsoft's own Windows XP installation disc. Make your selection, and follow the on-screen prompts to complete the reinstallation.

Starting Over

Regardless of which option you choose, you'll have to reconfigure your network connections, reinstall some of your device drivers, and update XP and your applications manually.

To configure your Internet connection, right-click My Network Places, click Create a new connection, and follow the prompts, entering the appropriate information you received from your ISP.

Once you've re-established your Internet link, you must reinstall and update your firewall, antivirus, and antispyware programs.

Next, check to see which of your device drivers need updates: Rght-click My Computer and select Properties, Hardware, Device Manager. Look for entries with yellow question marks or red exclamation points. A question mark indicates that Windows is using a generic driver for that device instead of one specifically designed for it; an exclamation point means that the device is not working.

The drivers for graphics boards, sound cards, and printers are most likely to need an update. If you haven't already done so, visit the vendors' Web sites to download updated drivers to your PC. Run the installer for each updated driver, allowing XP to reboot when needed, or right-click the entry in Device Manager, choose Update Driver, and step through the wizard, selecting No, not this time to the Windows Update question, and choosing the specified location option when it appears. When you can navigate to the driver file, select it and click OK to install it. When you finish updating your drivers, close all open windows.

Updates Galore

Your next stop is Microsoft's Windows Update site. Click Start, Windows Update, and follow the prompts. Since you'll probably be downloading many megabytes of updates, you might want to find yourself a good book or seek some other diversion while you wait.

When the downloading is complete, you'll be ready to reinstall and update your applications. Don't forget to update your critical apps as well. Microsoft Office, in particular has some important updates. Download them at the Microsoft Office Online Downloads page.

Once you've restored your applications, begin replacing your data. The first priorities are the My Documents and Application Data folders, which you'll find in the folder with your logon name inside 'C:\Documents and Settings'. To bring back your Internet Explorer favorites, restore the contents of the Favorites folder. Also restore the Shared Data and Application Data folders inside 'C:\Documents and Settings\Shared Documents'. Once you've reintroduced all of your data, your Windows refresh will be complete.

Note: For a visual tutorial on Windows XP reinstallation, watch our video.

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