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How to clean install Windows the right way

Eric Geier | March 22, 2016
Performing a Windows reinstall can make your PC feel like new, but you'll want to do some prep work first to avoid losing precious data and software.

If you use a desktop email client program such as Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla’s Thunderbird, take a look at the server settings of your email accounts. If they’re set up as IMAP, your messages are likely stored on the email server. If they’re setup as POP3, however, the emails are downloaded to your computer and may not be stored on the server. In other words, you’ll want to save or export the emails for accounts using POP3. For either method, make note of the incoming and outgoing server addresses and settings. If you’ve forgotten the email server passwords, you can use a utility like Mail PassView to recover them.

If you have games and would like to save your settings or games, either search online about how to back up and restore individual games, or use a utility like GameSave Manager to perform backups on multiple games.

Back up your drivers

After a clean install of Windows, the drivers for your hardware must be reinstalled. In Windows 8 and 10, most drivers are reinstalled automatically by Windows. In Windows 7, you’ll likely have a couple drivers you must manually reinstall before all hardware is working correctly.

Though PC manufacturers typically allow you to download hardware drivers from their websites, sometimes it’s hard to identify exactly which ones you need. So consider backing up your current drivers before performing a clean install or upgrade—especially if it’s Windows 7—using a utility like DriverBackup!. You can then restore the drivers, if needed, after the clean install, or just utilize the list of saved drivers to identify which drivers you need and download the most up-to-date drivers from the manufacturer's website.

Download Windows and obtain a product key

Before you can do a clean install of Windows you need to create the installation media—a disc or flash drive you can boot from to run the setup—if you don’t already have it.

You can download Windows 7, 8.1, and 10 directly from Microsoft and and follow the directions to create the disc or flash drive. Currently, Microsoft doesn’t appear to offer a download for the first version of Windows 8. If you have a Windows 8 key, remember it won’t activate 8.1, so upgrading to Windows 10 might be the easiest option if you don’t have a Windows 8 disc.

Make sure you have a valid product key for the particular Windows version and edition you’re clean installing in order to activate Windows afterwards. For Windows 7 computers, look for the Windows product key on a label physically somewhere on the computer. If you can’t find the sticker, the product key recovery tools discussed earlier can also retrieve the Windows product key stored on your computer.

 

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