Vista Hands On #2: A no-fuss, nondestructive clean install

Vista Hands On #2: A no-fuss, nondestructive clean install

Summary: Who says you need to format your hard disk to do a clean install of Windows Vista? In this edition of my 30 days of Vista Hands On, I explain how to use an upgrade copy of Windows Vista to install a completely clean copy without wiping out your old data. The technique involves a Setup procedure that was guaranteed to cause problems in Windows XP but works just fine in Vista.

TOPICS: Windows

Thanks to the radically revised Setup program in Windows Vista, Windows users can safely discard one of the basic tenets that have governed installation decisions since the beginning of the Windows era.

That's right - you can now safely point Windows Setup to a partition on which Windows is already installed, as long as you have at least 15 GB of free disk space and you don't plan to use the copy of Windows on that partition anymore. When you choose to do a clean install in this configuration, Windows Vista Setup moves the old Windows, Program Files, and Documents and Settings folders to a folder named Windows.old. Your new installation creates a brand-new set of top-level folders on the current system drive: Windows (for system files), Program Files (for application files), and Users (for data associated with each user account on the system).

Why would you want to do this? Let's say you currently have a system that has a single disk with a single partition and plenty of free disk space. You want to start fresh with a clean install, and you're willing to reinstall your programs and re-create your settings. But you have lots of valuable data and you don't want to lose any of it. Performing a non-destructive clean install gives you the fresh start you're looking for, and your data files are safely ensconced in the Windows.old folder. You can no longer start up your old Windows installation, but you can copy any of the saved files from that folder to your new user profile whenever you're ready.

Why is this option acceptable now? In previous Windows versions, the operation of the Setup program invariably involved some commingling of files in the old and new Windows installations. Those unwanted system files and leftovers from previously installed programs defeated the purpose of doing a clean install. But the image-based Windows Vista setup makes a clean break, allowing you to quarantine the old files and do a truly clean installation of your new operating system.

Here are the step-by-step instructions:

1. Log on to your previous edition of Windows (the one you intend to replace), insert the Windows Vista DVD, and allow the Setup program to run.

2. From the Install Windows screen, click Install Now and follow the prompts to get the latest updates and enter your product key.

3. When prompted to choose an install type, select the Custom (Advanced) option, as shown here:

4. In the list of available disk partitions, choose the one containing your current Windows installation. For most people, this will be drive C.

5. Click OK when you see the warning dialog box shown here:

Finish setup. Because you're not doing an upgrade, the rest of the installation should proceed very quickly. When you start Windows Vista for the first time, you'll see that all your data and program files from the previous installation are in the Windows.old folder. If you have any old data files to retrieve, you'll find them in the Windows.old Documents and Settings folder, under your old user account name.

You needn't rush to get rid of those old files. Unless you're severely cramped for disk space, your best option is to hold on to the old files for a week or a month or however long it takes to assure yourself that you don't need anything stored there. When you're ready to get rid of those old files, don't try to delete them from Windows Explorer. Instead, choose the faster, safer way to eliminate them: Run the Disk Cleanup tool (just type Clean in the Search box on the Start menu to find it). Select the Previous Windows Installation(s) option as shown here, and then click OK.

When the Disk Cleanup tool finishes (typically in only a minute or two), you'll be left with a copy of Windows that is virtually indistinguishable from a clean install performed on a freshly formatted hard disk.


Topic: Windows

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  • Welcome to Mac OS 9

    I can't believe Windows users have never been able to do this. We Mac users have
    been taking this feature for granted for decades.
    • You have it wrong

      Bill Gates clearly stated in a recent interview that Apple ripped off everything from
      Microsoft. No doubt this feature was in Windows 2.0; it's just that nobody bothered
      to use it.
      • Partially wrong

        Apple never ripped anything off of Windows. They [b]did[/b] rip off most things from other companies and vendors, but not from MS..
        John Zern
      • Gates is wrong.

        And the courts proved it, but failed to do anything useful about it.

        Ever heard of Apple v. Bill Gates? No? It concerned (and, more importantly, proved) the fact that Windows 1.0 was an [i]illegal[/i] port of Macintosh OS v1 to the x86 platform, performed by (then} Consultant Bill Gates. I may have gotten the case-name wrong (it's been years since I actually read on the subject) but it does exist.
        Raymond Danner
        • Wow, a parallel universe

          What you are describing did not happen on the Planet Earth that the rest of us inhabit.
          Ed Bott
    • Been doing it too for decades

      All the way back to the DOS days. It's not that hard but Windows did make things a little more difficult with thier default "My Documents" fold that got nuked during re-installs. If choose not to use it then life is much better anyways so no loss.
    • MAC OS

      I don't understand something here, if you're a Mac user why do you waste your time reading about Vista??
  • I'll stick with reformatting thank you

    One of the things installing a new OS gives you a chance to do is start over, while defrag is nice its just not quite as clean as a reformat for optimizing the Hard drive. Not too mention getting rid of the stuff that you don't need, it may take longer to do with having to backup all essential data prior to the reformat but it is still the best way to go for my money.
    • I've found little difference

      When I do a reformat vs a clean install on an existing partition then defrag I find no difference. I still do a Format about every 3 to 4 intalls just for sanity. A format can alert you drive problems ahead of time. I've had that happen a twice now.

      Personally I like my way better. My files are in a directory I created that doesn't get touched by Windows. So when I re-install the files are still there as I left them. I need to do is create a short cut and I'm ready to go. No need to move or copy files from an Windows.old directory.
      • Reformats...

        Reformats are so old-school. Ever heard of (or used) Spinrite 6? All the advantages of a reformat without the data loss. I'm serious.
        Raymond Danner
  • I already do this Every 6 months with W2K

    I have 1 80 GB partition where I re-intall Windows 2000 Pro about every six months. It's easier to do that than uninstall a bunch of games leaving a bloated regestry and other problems. I don't use Documents and Setting for any data. I make my own data folder on the C drive and create shortcuts to it on the desktop. I do have to do a little extra work like exporting my email from Outlook and saving any saved games in another directory but that's minor. I've actually given up on saving email, it's a waste of time, effort and space. Saved games I usually don't care about by the time I'm ready to re-install.

    This feature in Vista has promise. Because sometimes you do find you accidentally saved something by default in to MyDocuments. But at the same time, by the time I'd go looking for said document I'd have deleted the Windows.OLD directory. That'd be my luck anyways.
  • And if I have my files in other directories?

    For various reasons, I have files in a variety of locations on my hard drive, none of which are under Documents.

    No matter. I have no intention of installing Vista in the foreseeable future anyway. I just got two new systems with XP Pro, because 2000 Pro is no longer available, and have them thoroughly classic-ified.
    • None of your data would be deleted or moved

      I listed the three folders that are moved to Windows.old. Nothing else is changed or deleted.
      Ed Bott
  • This is exactly why the current

    Partitioning scheme used by Windows is so inefficient! There should be a minimum of 2 partitions! 3 would be better!

    Partition 1 should house the OS
    Partition 2 should house the applications
    Partition 3 should house the user settings and documents

    Linux and FreeBSD do this and have done this for years. Unix does this as well. When I did set up Windows I ALWAYS set it up with 2 partitions! That way when (not if but when) the system got so boogered that fixing didn't work, I could do a complete fresh install, including a low level format of the first partition, which was the OS.

    Now the fact that Window NOW saves documents and such, that is a good thing! But they are still perpetuating a bad design and implementation! ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • Huh?

      "Linux and FreeBSD do this and have done this for years."

      Really? I just checked my default install of Ubuntu. It has a single partition for system, programs, and data, plus a separate, very small swap partition.

      Suse 10.1 has three partitions, but they're not divided the way you want them. One is swap, one is native, one is home
      Ed Bott
      • Ubuntu is a derivitive that defaults

        to a single partition. Any Linux user with half a brain NEVER goes with the default.

        For SuSE (which I use), I didn't include the swap partition. I am only looking at user accessible partitions. And the /home stores all the user preferences as well as any custom applications you installed plus all your documents so you can over write the / partition.

        Ubuntu broke the standard, but then again all the Debian derivatives have, which is why they are the b@stards of the Linux community. ]:)

        So SuSE, Mandriva and so on follow with the standard. To the best of my knowledge all the RPM based distributions do.
        Linux User 147560
        • Where'd my other half a brain go?

          "Any Linux user with half a brain NEVER goes with the default."

          So I have to choose the right distro (not some b@stard derivative), or I'm stupid. And I have to learn the right changes to the defaults, or I'm stupid.

          Have I got that right?
          Ed Bott
          • Close!

            Keep working on it! ;)

            If you know anything about the Linux community there are several different groups, RPM, APT, CLI, GUI, KDE, Gnome... get the idea? Now one thing that is true is that Debian is a fork from the standards set forth by all other Linux distributions. Debian not only changed where it puts files but how the OS operates in it's configuration. Now from a security stand point this is good. Diversity in the ecology prevents mass infections due to same system configurations. The bad is somewhere a standard has to be set and adhered too. Now I don't know about Debian itself, but Kubuntu and Ubuntu both use a single partition set-up. This is how Windows does thing and just plain STUPID! OS's, regardless whose, get hosed sometimes.

            Anyhow in mainstream Linux channels Debian is the b@stard child of Linux.

            Now there are some cool pro's to the Debian fork but they broke from file structure as well as system layout. This includes the derivatives such as Ubuntu. NOW experienced Linux users know how to overcome the partition issue easily.

            The entire point of my post (which seems to be lost... as usual) is that the single partition set-up, regardless if it's Windows or a derivative non-standard Linux distribution, is stupid. One of the strengths to Linux security is the segmentation of data files from system files by partition. So in the unlikely but not impossible event a Linux system is infected or damaged a rebuild if very fast indeed with NO loss of personal settings or files!

            That's my point. 2 or more partitions is the SMART way to do business on ANY OS. I don't know how Mac does it, but I would set the Mac up the same way if I had one.

            There is that better? Or did I ramble too much again? ]:)
            Linux User 147560
          • I think I got it both times

            I agree, it's a smart design.
            Ed Bott
          • LOL

            Ed you and Linux User would make a great comedy team. Really. ;)