Start over with a clean Vista installation

When a Vista configuration bogs down, the simplest approach is often to reset the OS via a clean installation; if your data is fully backed up and/or stored in the cloud, the reinstallation is a breeze.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Windows 7 has done wonders for Microsoft's reputation, which was seriously tarnished by the ice cold reception that greeted Vista, Windows 7's predecessor. That's the conclusion of the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is compiled annually by the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the American Society for Quality, and the CFI Group.

According the ACSI results released Tuesday, Microsoft's customer satisfaction score jumped 8.9 percent in the past year to 76 (on the survey's 100-point scale). That's higher than Microsoft has scored on the survey in the last four years: the company scored a 73 in 2006; 70 in 2007; 69 in 2008; and 70 in 2009.

The ACSI survey indicates that Microsoft is now on par in customer satisfaction with the overall software industry, which saw its rating increase 1.3 percent, from 75 in 2009 to 76 in 2010. (By comparison, the all-industry satisfaction rating in 2010 was 77, up a point from the year prior.)

Vista gets its groove back
So "hooray" for Windows 7, but millions of people will be using Vista, for whatever reason, for years to come. The most effective approach to dealing with severe Vista performance problems is a clean install to a default configuration of the OS. By having complete and relatively recent data backups handy, you can get Vista back to square one in a couple of hours and still have ready access to all your personal files and settings.

Of course, you'll have to reinstall your applications--including your security programs--but the Vista reset gives you a chance to get rid of the programs you don't really need, fell-swoop style.

The process can be even easier when you store your personal data on the Web servers of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other online services. Of course, omnipresent access to your personal files at little or no monetary cost still comes at a steep price: the risk of your data becoming public. Wherever there are Web servers, there are security risks. Still, Web-based storage makes it less likely you'll lose family photos or other important data when you wipe the Vista slate clean.

You can minimize the risk by using an online storage service that encrypts your data so only you have access to its contents. In a post from June 2009, I described three free services that support encryption. Last March, I tested two free file-sync services that let you combine the contents of folders on any two systems securely via the Internet.

Shrink a Vista configuration to 10GB
When Windows 7 was released last October, I installed the new OS on a 50GB partition on my test laptop's 250GB hard drive. The drive's only other partition--apart from a 10GB recovery partition--was used by the Vista installation that shipped with the machine. As you can imagine, I soon found myself favoring Windows 7, but the apps I relied on for much of my work resided on the 180GB Vista partition (which had 80GB of free space).

The time had come to make Windows 7 my primary OS and to install a default Vista configuration on a much smaller partition. (I need to keep Vista around for software-testing purposes.) I managed the Vista revamp in just under 2 hours, with a little preparation and one relatively minor glitch. The key is to have a complete, up-to-date backup of your Office documents, images, audio, video, and other data files ready to be restored.

One of the best step-by-step articles on reinstalling Vista is Lincoln Spector's tutorial on the PCWorld Business Center. Lincoln warns that you should plan to be without an operating PC for one full day because the machine may lack an important device driver or other vital component as a result of the OS reinstallation.

In my case, I already had a Vista installation CD, a complete backup, and a rescue CD, so the Vista-from-scratch installation took a couple hours. Keep in mind that you may also need access to the Internet from another nearby system.

I ran into a problem with wireless network access because after the OS revamp, the software for the laptop's Intel wireless chip was AWOL. (I obviously didn't follow Lincoln's advice to back up all my device drivers.) I used the other PC to download the wireless application from Intel's site to a thumb drive and then installed the program in Vista from there.

Separate Vista from your data and apps
After I was satisfied that both Vista and Windows 7 were running smoothly, I created a third drive partition by splitting the partition the now-lithe Vista configuration was parked in. The third partition lets me separate Windows from my data and applications. This helps improve the performance, stability, and security of your PC because system files--which change relatively infrequently--are stored on partitions apart from the near-constant disk accesses that occur as applications read and write data.

Back in 2007, I explained how to partition a drive in Vista. Microsoft's Help & How-to site describes the process for Vista and Windows 7.

Windows 7 Computer Management utility
Create a third partition on a dual-boot Vista/Windows 7 PC to store your data and programs. Microsoft

Before you can consider the system ready for everyday use, you have to reinstall your applications and restore your data and settings (if you wish). Once your PC is back on the job full time, you may want to create an image backup onto a reliable removable medium.

Personally, I've got a spindle full of discs storing image backups that have never and will never be used. I realize that image backups are insurance you hope you never need, but it might be quicker and simpler to do a clean install rather than restore an image backup. Still, I imagine I'll create an image backup of the new setup eventually; old habits are hard to break, I guess.

After using the bare-bones Vista for a few hours, you may be surprised by how slick the operating system can be. Windows 7 may ultimately prove to be just as susceptible to creeping decrepitude as Vista is. We're a long way from the invisible operating system--although Google is close--but with luck we can at least look forward to spending a lot less time clicking through system dialog boxes.