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Reasons behind reformatting your hard drive and reinstalling Windows OS?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / August 14, 2009 6:38 AM PDT

What?s the reason behind reformatting your hard drive and
reinstalling Windows occasionally?

I?ve been an avid reader of your help and how-to newsletter
for many years and thanks to you and the members, I have
learned quite a bit. The one thing that I could never
understand is when a topic of Windows problems is presented,
many people offer the suggestion of reformatting the hard
drive and doing a fresh install of the Windows operating
system and magically things should be solved, but they never
go into details as why this solution works. Is this some sort
of standard Windows ritual that I?m not aware of? I?ve never
really understood this, but there is always a few who mention
it and I?d really like to understand why people give such
advice and also what it does for you? Is it bad advice or
should it be taken into consideration? Is this something that
I should be doing to improve my Windows XP system? Should
this task be performed every six months, every year, every
other year...??? Please help me out as this subject has been
puzzling for me for quite some time. Thank you.

Submitted by: Stephanie L.

Here are some featured member answers to get you started, but
please read all the advice and suggestions that our
members have contributed to this question.

See my answer to last week's question ... --Submitted by Watzman

It all depends... --Submitted by Zouch

It isn't necessarily standard procedure --Submitted by 4Denise

Reinstalling and reformatting --Submitted by xpdeg

The last resort --Submitted by alswilling

If you have an answer or would like to share why you personally do reformat of the hard drive and a fresh install of the Windows OS with Stephanie, please click the reply link below and submitted. Please be as detailed as possible in your answer. Thank you!
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Spread Wealth

Usually when someone asks for help with a problem several other problems are listed other than the one they are trying to fix so formatting will cure all the separate problems instead of listing the fixes for all of them. Fixing all of the problems would take more time than a format and clean install.

The windows kernel can become corrupt during all this use as well in areas and a clean install will correct this.

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by puma / August 21, 2009 1:29 PM PDT
In reply to: Spread Wealth

the windows kernel is spaghetti code compared to *nix variants, thus easily can become corrupt but it does not have to be. problem is that the manufacturer is more interested in profits than creating a quality product. even the developers are mostly from asia, known for its cheap labor...

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I agree - you don't have to do this with UNIX or VMS
by chuck_whealton / August 22, 2009 12:05 AM PDT
In reply to: ??

I'm going to have to agree with Peace Maurader and Puma.

I've worked in the IT industry since the 80s and it's incredible how much time you can waste in troubleshooting a Windows installation versus just biting the bullet and reinstalling it.

At the same time, having worked with a good chunk of the UNIX variants out there and the VMS operating system, seeing how it works with Windows is somewhat laughable. Whereas you have UNIX and VMS systems that get installed and can achieve continuous uptime in the years, in that same amount of time you may have to reinstall your Windows-based desktop system multiple times.

I don't NORMALLY see this on Windows server operating systems, probably because you don't have people logging directly into them for normal work, but you constantly see it on desktops. Thank God that at least in the corporate world, we have RIS and other imaging technologies that make putting a standard image back on a system a snap. Unfortunately, those of us at home normally get stuck reinstalling from scratch.

Charles Whealton

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Spaghetti code in *nix/Linux
by verdyp / September 6, 2009 12:31 PM PDT
In reply to: ??

The spaghetti code also exists within the various *nix/Linux kernels. The old "microkernel" architecture is no longer there since long, and there are huge dependencies between the kernel and even between the loadable drivers (called 'modules' in Linux). If you have ever tried to manage the system updates on Linux, the automated updates will fail for each module that have been tweaked locally or installed from packages that are not part of an existing supported pack from your distrib. It then becomes wuite difficult to manage the versioning, so you're stuck to using only the "official" packages maintained by your distribution provider. except for pure standalone applications that just use some basic libraries.
The set of dependencies in most *nix/Linux programs are extremely more difficult to manage in the sources, you can look at the various "configure scripts" and numerous packages you have to preinstall before compiling them, with specific versions. That's why many softwares for *Nix/*Nux only come supported with specific distributions. The effective danger, on *nix/Linux is to start with a distribution and finally find later that it is no longer active or no more supported by your important application software. That's the main reason why *nix/Linux is used mostly for server applications, and with very few desktop applications. *nix/Linux still needs a coherent GUI and some standards to build applications with them.
So may be the future of *nix/Linux on desktop will be within virtual environments, rather than on C/C++ packages: I mean here better support of advanced GUI features within standard libraries of languages like Python or Java or a .Net port, to reduce the dependencies in application code, or using common libraries of famous browser tookits like Mozilla, WebKit, and Qt, to build applications on top of it. But there will still be a lack of unification for the desktop integration (having to manage various desktop shells, or various system repositories for installable application packages, is a mess of spaghetti code, and lots of difficulties for managing upgrades and their dependencies: this means that these systems are too often installed with too mange packages than those that will be actually needed; in which case a desktop *nix/Linux installation can now require even more installed gigabytes of code on disk than Windows itself, whose layering and reuse of code has considerably progressed, notably in Windows 7 that is very promizing).

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Backup to VHD, reinstall Windows & VirtualPC, then transfer
by verdyp / September 6, 2009 9:08 AM PDT
In reply to: Spread Wealth

The safest way I've found to reinstall Windows, or install a new version, using a single PC, is to make a complete system backup to a VHD file, stored on a separate disk or partition, then reformating the system partition to reinstall Windows or install a new version.

Next, install VirtualPC, and start it pointing to your VHD file. You'll have a live version of the previous version, that will still be booting and from which you can transfer the files and settings you want, using the Microsoft's transfer agent, and then transfering the other files or settings that were ignored by this agent.

It can take quite a long time to create this backup. However it is the safest way to cleanup you system, restarting from scratch and transfering only the useful things you really want, keeping the backup accessible from Virtual if anything is still missing (you can use your VirtualPC session to look at what is missing and how the things were setup to work in your previous install.

Once you are happy with your new system settings, you may drop your VHD file or create a new backup of it.

Note that VHD files can also be transfered as a single file to another PC running Virtual PC.

Personnaly I won't burn a DVD to store the VHD file (quite often, it will not have enough space to store it in one fragment). Consider adding a second drive to store this backup safely: you may disconnect this drive while installing the new system.

If only Windows could also boot and mount directly a VHD file as if it was its main system partition, without requiring Virtual PC... we could still switch easily from one system installation to another. So we would just need to create a large partition formatted with a simpler filesystem, like FAT32, just to store the MBR and small multiboot software and the VHD files. When Windows would boot, it should be able to mount the VHD file as its disk "C:" and then optionally mount the host partition as another disk, where just the current VHD file would be locked by the current instance of the system.

We would also have more powerful recovery mechanisms, and more powerful security tools to inspect the content of a VHD and repair it while it is not hosting the current active system: for this recovery procedure, we could as well boot from a Linux CDROM (there does exist VHD drivers for Linux that can mount a VHD file as if it was a physical disk, containing its own internal partitions, boot code, filesystems...)

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Size of a VHD file
by verdyp / September 6, 2009 9:22 AM PDT

I just tried to backup a full installation of Windows 7 Ultimate (final release for manufacturers) in its default settings (which requires a disk space of 16GB in order to complete the installation, including all its internal working files), and after some post-install cleanup, I was very pleased to see that the full installation only required a bit more than 6 GB of disk space plus 1 GB for its default paging file (i.e. Seven Ultimate successfully runs within 8GB, including with the addition of an alternate web browser, and its current system updates). This is much less than Windows Vista.

Note that when backing up a complete system (including several partitions) to a VHD file, that file can be compressed for faster transfers over a network, however compressed VHD files cannot be used as live writable disks, so they are not bootable; however you may use offline defragmentatin tools on VHD files to minimize the partition usage, prior to resizing the partition, in order to reduce the size of the VHD file: it does not have to contain physically all the data from unused partitions).

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reformat drives

it's been my experience, reformatting is a last ditch effort.
I have several programs to stop adware and virus stuff.
but if the only choice you have is reformat,...then feel free to do it.

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Format and reinstall

This practice is mainly a hold-over from the Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 days, however it is sometimes necessary to remove some bad settings or drivers or perhaps the remnants of a boot sector virus. Back in the good-ole-days (LOL) of Windows 3.1, computers, especially developer's computers, would crash often, sometimes several times a day. This would corrupt system files, drivers etc. at random making the machine exhibit strange problems. It was next to impossible to troubleshoot this strange behaivior and rather than spend days trying to figure out what was wrong, it was simpler and faster to start over. Also, the hard drives were not nearly as reliable as modern hard drives and would sometimes add to the problems. Formating the drive ensures that even if a boot virus or other nasty was present, it would be wiped out.

As I said, this is not necessary with XP or later OS except on very rare circumstances. These OS guard the system files and other vital files and are many times more stable than the old OSes. I am a developer and I have not had a BSOD on XP in several months, probably less than 6 total with XP in more than 5 years. I used to get that many in a hard day with W31.

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Windows reinstalls aren't complete
by BigGuns149 / August 15, 2009 5:44 AM PDT
In reply to: Format and reinstall

While I think that there are some people who jump too quickly to reformatting I disagree with you that the circumstances where doing a reinstall makes sense are rare. For a lot of more severe spyware issues doing a reinstall takes far less time and results in a more stable/secure/reliable system.

Depending upon the speed/size of the HDD and the number of files involved you can spend 1-2 hours trying to clean a system and still not get everything removed while on a lot of modern systems you can have a reinstall complete in less than an hour. Unless one has a lot of applications it seems like a waste of time to try to find and remove every piece of spyware.

In some respects reinstalling is far less of a hassle than it used to be. Install media are far faster(CD/DVDs compared to multiple floppies) and the modern Windows registry is far more complex than things were in Windows 3.1 so finding a issue may take FAR more time than it used to be.

Except for severe spyware infections I agree with you that reinstalls are pretty rare these days, but spyware issues are still relatively common.

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Your code
by xpdeg / August 15, 2009 1:28 PM PDT
In reply to: Format and reinstall

Hi, you don't say if you only use your machine to write code or for everything.

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No, This Is Still SOP For MS
by WTM / August 30, 2009 2:10 PM PDT
In reply to: Format and reinstall

But it is getting better. Windows 7 looks like the best they've ever done at this point. None the less, Windows still slows down constantly with use, and the only solution is a clean install. I don't know about the format part, wiping the drive clean is enough. The idea of carrying every last address for the system around in memory is absurd.

Number one reason I've seen in recent times for doing this? Windows update. If you customize your system at all, TURN THAT SERVICE OFF!

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See my answer to last week's question ...

See my answer to last week's question:

[The title was "People are too quick to reinstall Windows "; and the first paragraph was:

People are too quick to reinstall Windows, and too slow (FAR too slow) to consider that when a computer isn't working, the problem might be the computer (and not the software).]

There is an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat all problems like nails. This is kind of like that: Often people (in particular telephone tech support people) don't know what to do, so they give this advice. For THEM, it works, because "reinstalling windows" can take hours or even days, so the problem goes away, for hours or days. Note, however, that in their mind, the "PROBLEM" isn't the problem but rather the customer who is seeking assistance. Hey, if we just got rid of all of our customers, there would be no problems !! Think how much easier life would be.

So much for today's lesson on how to win friends and influence people.

Ok, let's look at VALID reasons to reinstall Windows:

1. Malware and Virus': If a system gets a virus/malware infection, reinstalling Windows may be the only way, the best way or the fastest way to fix the problem. These infections alter critical Windows files as well as installed user programs and, sometimes (but fortunately rarely) data. Some of them cannot be removed, in other cases hundreds or thousands of files may have been altered and a complete reinstallation may be the only way, the best way or the fastest way to fix the problem. IF, that is, the system is really suffering from such an infection.

2. Registry corruption and bloat: One of the most important components of Windows is the "Registry", a database of everything that is on the comptuer and that has been done to the computer. This includes both hardware and software. As the computer is used more and more, and as software and hardware are removed and added (especially added), the registry gets bigger and bigger and bigger, which makes using the computer slower and slower and slower (one of the problems is that when you remove a program, which may have thousands of entries in the registries, it's "uninstall" process probably does not remove all of it's registry entries). While there are "registry cleaners" that purport to "clean" the registry (and in some cases to defragment it as well), both their effectiveness and safety are variable and questionable; in the worst case, they remove critical entries and can damage or even destroy the computer (in some cases to the point that it no longer boots). Sometimes, you just get to a point where the best thing to do is start over clean, but the only way to do that is to reinstall everything (not just Windows, EVERYTHING) from scratch. Yes it happens. I'd even go so far as to say it's inevitable. But unless you are one of those people who installs WAY too much (too many things that you should know better than to install), it should take 2 to 3 years before you MAYBE get to a point where registry bloat is enough of an issue that you should consider reinstalling windows.

3. Corrupt files. This is similar to item one, virus' and malware, but it's not the result of a nefarious attack. Sometimes, a hardware failure will corrupt files or critical data structures (boot records, directories, FAT tables, MFT tables (the NTFS equivalent of directories and FAT tables), etc. It can happen, it shouldn't, but it can. The damage may be such that reinstalling windows is the best or only solution. THIS IS USUALLY CAUSED BY HARDWARE FAILURE (although it can be transient).

So those are the reasons why it really might make sense to reinstall windows. And, frankly, because of "register bloat", most users should expect that a "periodic" reinstallation of windows may be good or necessary. BUT, the "period", in the absence of malware infection or hardware failure, or people who compulsively install everything that they come across, should be 2-4 years (note, also ... this may be about the practical life of a typical comptuer due to the obsolescence that occurs as new comptuers become more and more capable).

A couple of comments: Reinstalling windows completely means reinstalling ALL of your other software (office, photoshop, multimedia tools, browsers, etc.). It also means you either backup your data first and restore it, or you lose it. If you have a lot of "stuff" on your computer, this will take hours and will probably take days. There are some strategies that you can use to minimize this:

1. KEEP YOU DATA IN A PARTITION OTHER THAN DRIVE C: This makes a lot of sense and is a good practice. But, unfortunately, it's surprisingly difficult. It means "moving" the "My Documents" folder from it's default location, and it means configuring ALL of your programs to place and look for their data in a partition on a drive other than C:. Software publishers (including Microsoft) do not make this easy, and even when it's not difficult, they don't tell you how to do it. And in some cases, the level of difficulty required to move a program's "default" data storage location reaches the point of manually editing the registry.

2. After you do a reinstallation, and have everything major more or less "right", MAKE AN IMAGE BACKUP. Then if you have to reinstall, the image backup may be hours or days faster than a piece by piece "bare metal" reinstallation of everything (restoring an image backup is usually a 20-40 minute task and it gets you back to where you were when you made the backup .... which should be shortly AFTER
you did a complete piece-by-piece reinstallation of Windows AND ALL OF YOUR OTHER SOFTWARE. The problem with this is that no only do most users not know either what it is or how to do it ... but it requires an image backup program that you will probably have to BUY. [Vista Ultimate has an image backup program in the OS, and in Windows 7 I believe it will be present in all versions].

3. CONSIDER USING "SYSTEM RESTORE". Very often, "system restore" can save your butt and avoid the need for the far more complex process of a full reinstallation of Windows. Another tool that most users don't know about and don't know how to use. But at least it's part of Windows, and it's free.

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by Cadillac84 / August 14, 2009 11:40 AM PDT

I knew it had to be you as I was reading the post! Who else makes so much sense? Well, there are a couple others, but this is (I guess) my shorthand way of saying "I agree!"

I have never made a format/fresh install of Win XP except after a totally failed drive (excluding other people's computers). I won't say it never happens, but if you decide your files are important and are willing to work hard to keep them, it can usually be done!

I like to use my little Apricorn USB attached drive with their software to make a Clone of the bad drive so I've got something to fall back on. Then I plow into it knowing I can at least get back to the bad place I was in the awful event I make it worse! LOL

Congratulations on continuing your string of great answers!


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Same here
by Anysia / August 21, 2009 12:56 PM PDT
In reply to: IT HAD TO BE YOU!!!

The only time I have had to do an full reinstall of XP was due to hard drive failure and replacement, and even after replacing the hard drive, I used a system back up/image to shorten the needed set up time from days to just a few hours.

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by johnlira / August 22, 2009 6:54 PM PDT
In reply to: IT HAD TO BE YOU!!!

After changing internet providers, installing xp sevice pac 3 I still had problems. Until again you came with the right answers. I will hang with your threads as long as your out there.
thanks pal!
Joanne Raymond

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reformatting the Hard Drive and reinstalling XP..
by davidaharon / August 23, 2009 3:50 PM PDT
In reply to: IT HAD TO BE YOU!!!

Before one goes to this extreme one needs to try a feature called System Restore [similar to GoBack from Windows 98]

I had an unusual situation about a week ago when one of new programs I tested wiped out the icons on my desktop after I consulted a Computer expert. He suggested I do a system restore and then eliminate the guilty program ... well after the 3rd back attempt my system was working with all the icons on the screen.

So as an alternative route to go, here's is the procedure:

a] back up your data you need.
b] open the following:

1. Start
2. Programs
3. Accessories
4. System Tools
5. System Restore

When running the system restore go back in time to a point before the problem started. You may have to go back a couple of earlier dates to get the screen
'Normal' like it was.

After System restore is done. then get rid of the offending troublemaking programs. [In my case it was a Vision program to restore eye vision using Subliminal techniques].

and then run

a] Anti virus program [update that before running]
b] Anti Spyware program such as SPYBOT.
c] a defragger program such as Smart Defrag
d] a general hard drive crap cleaner

Using the Add/remove feature in Control Panel remove all unwanted programs... this might include elimination of several similar functioning programs [do not remove the setup program in case you want to use it again] ...

Go to your download manager folder and check for unfinished downloads and delete them.

Also Note when you download a movie or a program it often does NOT Go to your default download folder.

I recommend that you download the original setup or a zipped version of the setup program. Do a data check and get rid of extra copies of files that are just duplicates taking up space.

To clean up ebook PDF duplicates of the same titles:
a] Decide on a system of file and folder renaming:
A consistent naming after downloads for PDF extension files ...

For example you have several files from different sources by various sponsors:

Sponsor A has a title with hyphens for each word
Sponsor B has A title with author following
Sponsor C has first name last name title and publisher and so on

Do a further Cleanup of your audio and video files ... Some videos take up 100 megs and more.


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Always first read what watzman says
by yasinghMD / August 24, 2009 1:49 PM PDT
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by PsychGen / August 24, 2009 2:08 PM PDT

Watz the watzman...Muwahahahahaaaa!

Sorry. Couldn't resist...

Good advice though.

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All good advice but....
by Guerito / September 19, 2009 9:28 AM PDT
In reply to: IT HAD TO BE YOU!!!

...have none of you who say you've never had to reinstall windows ever turned on your machine one day and it just won't boot? I have ten years of building systems and installing software experience, also worked as tech support for well known hardware vendor...sometimes there isn't an answer. I myself have experienced the situation where windows freezes, blue screens or just won't boot and the message 'windows failed to start this may be due to a recent software or hardware...blah, blah' cuts no ice when you haven't installed/reconfigured/changed any software or hardware. What can a person do when one day then turn on their machine and they get the message 'boot.ini is missing'. When a crucial file is missing and the system won't boot what advice can you give to the average home user who only has a restore disc to save them?
Windows simply 'breaks' sometimes for no obvious reason. We can all make backups, disc images to protect our files and the ONLY time we should reinstall is when we have hardware failures but, the bits and bytes that are held on our devices are only as reliable as the device and until we discover an indestructable, uncorruptable storage device that won't lose data due to something as simple as a 0.5v power fluctuation or getting knocked over by the family dog, then we just have to accept that us humans are doing the best we can with the tech we have and reinstalling is a fact of life and should be taught in school. More than likely if kids learnt that reinstalling was a time consuming, discouraging task then one of them will grow up to imvent a device or discover a method that will make reinstalling extinct then the only phone calls tech support will recieve is 'how do I turn it on?' which is a much more pleasing question.

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can anyone recommend...
by tooele / August 15, 2009 2:10 AM PDT

a good software program to make an image backup?


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Backup Software
by High Desert Charlie / August 15, 2009 3:59 PM PDT

Acronis True Image seems to work well
Norton Ghost - Not Bad.

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Image Backup
by OldHackRik / August 21, 2009 12:36 PM PDT
In reply to: Backup Software

The best I have found and it works perfectly, is Macrium Reflect. Plus, it is free. You can make a boot CD so that when you need to recover from a disaster, just boot from the CD, plug in the external hard drive which has a saved image and restore the OS drive from the image on the external drive and you are back in business lickety-split. This will help you recover from a failed hard drive, virus or trojan malfeasance, or a massive personal f**k up. Just remember to occasionally do a fresh image backup, especially when you make major changes to your OS.

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Not free.
by Grey_Wolf01 / August 21, 2009 3:58 PM PDT
In reply to: Image Backup

Just checked and Macrium Reflect is no longer FREE, they now charge $39.95 for the program.

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_"no longer FREE"_?_ Must not have tried !
by Good-PC.Guy! / August 21, 2009 4:29 PM PDT
In reply to: Not free.


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by jerrylust1 / August 22, 2009 11:38 AM PDT
In reply to: Image Backup

The personal edition is free. It also has the ability to restore single files, rather than the entire image, to where they were or another location.

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Image Backups indeed!
by vanCarnisse / August 22, 2009 1:08 PM PDT
In reply to: Image Backup

Partioning and an Image Backup is the answer. Whatever tool, I use Acronis happily, imagine: On does a fresh install with the good drivers, most important software and updates. Do some cleaning CC Cleaner f.a. The machine runs still smoothly. That's one of the best moments to backup. Imagine a couple of month later: The system starts behaving annoing. Ons tries some things, dependent on situation and skills. Time goes by gazing at the windows on the screen. Then one says Enough! and starts his engine to fall back to situation smoothly running or whatever state of progress. It starts spinnin. within an hour evrething is **** and span again.

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backup program
by catlady9tails / August 23, 2009 2:32 AM PDT
In reply to: Image Backup

to OldHackRik -
I downloaded Macrium Reflect then did a back up. and put it on a cd. now how do you use it to restore?I have windows XP 3 and IE8 also fire fox for browsers. I put the cd back in and checked around but not sure what to do if I ever have to do this. I have done a complete format and reinstall . but didn't have a backup for all the other things on my pc. I do have a backup on a flash drive of the drivers I need to reinstall. I tried opening the files on the cd but kept getting a message that it couldn't open it. thanks catlady9tails

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Bad backup programs
by verdyp / September 7, 2009 9:07 PM PDT
In reply to: backup program

Any backup program that is not capable of creating a true image of your disk as a .VHD file, that can be remounted later at least as a virtual hard disk, for example in Virtual PC or in Windows Server, should be thrown away. Remember that Virtual PC is free. It will save your life if you ever need to reinstall your OS completely from an image, or intend to reinstall it completely from scratch and still being able to recover all the settings that are still in thr VHD file.
Beware with cheap backup programs (including the default backup program of Basic and Home versions of Windows... which does not preserve everything and is completely unable to create true image files of your disk, including its partition tables, MBR, boot records... partition tables and settings for geometry parameters and fixup modes).

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Tisk,Tisk Catlady9tails...
by Good-PC.Guy! / September 8, 2009 5:07 AM PDT
In reply to: backup program



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You discredit yourself
by verdyp / September 11, 2009 9:51 AM PDT

When you'll learn that it's completely unproductive to shout us with allcaps, may be your arguments will be considered. You violate the netiquette, so you discredit yourself by doing this here.

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