Theres nothing quite like the feeling you get when
you first turn on a new computer and begin to use your unspoiled machine. Except in very
rare occasions, its one of the few times you can be virtually guaranteed that
everything will work, that the software already installed on the hard disk wont
crash and that you can get something useful done. Of course, this technological honeymoon
never lasts terribly long, because you invariably install some new software, add new
hardware, make some configuration changes or do something thatthough it should work
fineeventually leads you down the slippery slope of seemingly inevitable PC
The desire to recreate that "fresh" feeling
often leads people to start over with their computers by reformatting their hard drive(s)
and reinstalling their applications from scratch. In fact, Ive heard of several
people who do this on a semi-yearly or even more frequent basis as a regular form of
system maintenance. In addition, many computers now come with special boot floppy disks
and installation CDs that are specifically designed to bring your system back to its
pristine, shipped-from-the-factory state.
Another reason for pursuing this strategy is that no
matter how hard you may try, there are times when your system reaches a point where
its simply not worth expending any additional effort trying to figure out why
programs keep crashing or other strange problems keep occurring. I know that dedicated PC
troubleshooters never want to give up, but one of the hardest lessons you can learn is
that sometimes it really is better to start over.
Now, I wouldnt throw in the towel too quickly
because starting from scratch is a fairly time- and effort-intensive project. But if
youve tried the techniques I describe in the "PC
Hardware Troubleshooting Tips," "PC
Software Troubleshooting Tips," and "PC
Startup Troubleshooting Tips," articles and have still been suffering through
several difficult days, weeks or, God forbid, months of problems that just dont seem
to get any better, then youre a good candidate for a fresh start.
The problem is, nobody every really tells you how to make
that fresh start. Oh sure, you hear the basics: "Just reformat and reinstall,"
but you dont really ever hear exactly how the whole process is done. Well, worry no
more, because this article will take you step-by-step through the process of starting over
with your PC.
Step 1: Backup
Before you even think about doing anything to
your hard drive, you need to back up all your critical files. This means not only all your
data files (you did organize them all in a single location, didnt you?), but also
those application files and other software pieces that took some time and/or effort to
acquire. Included on this list should be updated driver software, applications patches,
service packs, bug fixes and any other enhancements that youve downloaded off the
web (and dont have available on CD or in some other handy form). I
also recommend you save your browser bookmarks which, if you're using Internet
Explorer, can be found in the Windows/Favorites folder.
One file that's commonly overlooked (because
it isn't stored in an obvious place) is your Outlook or Outlook Express e-mail
file. The easiest way to find it and back it up is to search for *.pst off the
Start menu. All Outlook files use the .pst extension and you can be sure to
find yours this way, even if it doesn't have the default name of Outlook.pst.
Generally speaking, your Outlook file should be in the C:\Windows\Application
Data\Microsoft\Outlook folder. This is important to know because when you
reinstall, you need to copy your .pst file back to this same directory.
In addition, don't forget to write down all
your network settings from any network log-in you have, as well as those found
in the network control panel. If you have dial-up networking connections,
remember to right down the settings for each of those as well. When you go to
re-establish your network settings, you'll be awfully glad you did.
Youll probably run into a problem with applications
that automatically update themselves over the web, because they dont necessarily
have an easy way to find the update files theyve downloaded. If thats the case
with some of your applications, youll probably have to simply let the application
"re-update" itself after you re-install it.
Windows 98 or Windows ME updates that occur via the Windows Update
feature may also present this problem, although you might be able to find them in your
Windows directory in a hidden folder called msdownld.tmp (at least, thats where they
were on my machine). To view hidden files, open Windows Explorer, select Folder Options
from the View menu, select the View tab, and click on the Show all files radio button.
You dont need to back up all your applications
because you can more easily install them off their original CDs. In fact, part of the
point of this exercise is to re-install your applications so that all the right files get
put in all the right places. For this reason, I also dont recommend that you make a
complete disk copy, or disk image before you do a re-install of all your software. If you
do, and then you restore that copy, you could end up with the same types of problems that
led you to take on this procedure in the first place. Just back up what you need.
Step 2: Create a Boot Disk
The next step is to create a bootable floppy disk that
includes all the programs youll need to get the next few steps. I cover how to do
this in my "How to Create a Real Windows
95 (or 98) Boot Disk" article. One additional point Ill add here is that
you need to make sure both the Fdisk.exe and Format.com DOS utilities are on your newly
created Windows 95 or Windows 98 boot floppy. If they arent (the standard Windows 98
floppy still needs Format.com), you may need to copy them over from your hard drive onto
the boot floppyyoull find them both inside the Command directory inside your
main Windows directory. (In fact, Windows/Command is where youll find all the
important DOS-based utilities.)
One other option for Windows 98, Windows
98 2nd Edition and Windows ME users is that the Windows
98/ME CD is bootable, meaning it has all the necessary files to start your computer stored in
the right places, much like a boot floppy disk. Your computer has to support booting from
the CD-ROM and you have to enable this feature (which you do in your computers BIOS
or CMOS Setup program) in order for this technique to work, but it can be a handy option.
If youre unsure whether or not your computer supports this, look for a reference to
the El Torito BIOS standardwhich this feature is sometimes calledor look
around in the Boot Options section of your computers BIOS Setup program. Also
remember that after youre done with this procedure youll want to change this
BIOS setting back to booting from your floppy drive and hard drive (usually in that
Whether you go with the floppy or the CD, be sure you try
it out at least once before you begin the partitioning process. The next step in this
process will erase all of your computers data, so you want to be sure your computer
boots from the disk/disc before you continue.
Step 3: Partition and Reformat
The crux of the process occurs here in Step 3. The first
part of this step is called partitioning your hard drive and its usually done with
the DOS-based Fdisk program bundled with all versions of Windows. (Some people prefer
third-party partitioning programs such as PowerQuests powerful PartitionMagic or
QuarterDecks Partition It
or Partition It
Extra Strength for this process.) Partitioning involves organizing a single hard drive
into logical chunks called partitions, as well as setting an overall file structure to be
used on each partition, such as FAT16 or FAT32. The second half of this step is called
reformatting and it basically wipes any existing data from each partition and prepares the
partition to accept new files. (By the way, this is not the same thing as a true low-level
hard drive formatthese days that can typically only be doneand should only be
doneat the factory.) Formatting is done with the DOSbased Format program, or
simply within Windows itself, just as you do with a floppy disk.
Before getting into specific steps, you need to know a bit
more about partitions, such as the fact that there are two main types: primary and
extended. The most important difference between them is that primary partitions can be
used to boot your computer and extended partitions cannot. In addition, unlike primary
partitionswhich actually hold dataextended partitions are themselves just
containers for yet another kind of structure called logical DOS drives. So, for example,
you might find that your hard drive is divided into one active partition and one extended
partition and the extended partition contains two logical drives "inside" of it.
Each active partition and logical drive uses its own drive
letter (i.e., C:\, D:\, E:\, etc.) and operates independently, so with multiple
partitions, a single hard disk may "look" like multiple drives. In reality,
however, its just one physical disk thats organized into different containers.
Of course, if you have multiple hard disks inside a computer, each of them uses a drive
letter as well, so when you have multiple partitions on multiple disks, things can get
kind of confusing.
If you want to run multiple operating systems on your
PCsuch as Windows ME and NT, or Windows 2000 and Linuxyou often need to have multiple
primary partitions. In some instances, such as with Windows 95 and NT,
it's possible to have just one primary partition with two operating
systems, but both operating systems need to be able to understand the
partition scheme--such as FAT or FAT32 (see below for more)--for this to
The maximum number of primary and/or extended partitions you can have
is four, but be aware that only one primary partition can be active (and therefore
"visible" to the rest of your system) at once. On the other hand, other than the
26-letter drive limitwhich does existthere are no restrictions on the number
of logical drives that you can have within an extended partition.
More importantly, multiple logical drives within an
extended partition can be used and visible on your system at once. So, for example, if
your system has an extended partition with two logical drives and one primary partition
(you always have to have one of those), you would be able to see all three drive letters
at once. On the other hand, if you have two primary partitions and one extended partition
with two logical drives, you might only see three drive letters because the other
primary partition and any data or programs stored on it would be invisible
if the two primary partitions were completely different types (such as Ext2 for
Linux and NTFS for Windows 2000). Again, if both operating systems
"understand" the same partition type, then you might be able to see
all four drive letters.
In many cases youll want to keep your entire disk as
a single primary partitionand, therefore, single drive letteralthough there
are some cases where you cant. Specifically, if you have a hard drive larger than 2
GB and youre using the original version of Windows 95 or Win95A, youll have to
use multiple partitions because of limitations in Win95 itself. (To find out what version
of Windows youre using, open the System Control Panel and look in the upper
right portion of the General Tab. You should see a reference to Windows 95, 95A, 95B, 95C, 98,
ME and 2000 underneath where it says System.)
Other limitations you may run into on disk size limits may
be as a result of your computers BIOS. Some older BIOSs had a hardware
limitation of around 2.1 GB (some newer ones are limited to 8.4 GB), that prevents them
from working with larger drives, but that can usually be fixed with a BIOS update. Check
your computer manufacturers or motherboard manufacturers web site, or you can
also try the Micro Firmware or Mr. BIOS sites.
If you have both an updated BIOS and Windows 95B
(sometimes called OSR2) or laterincluding Windows 98 or Windows MEthen you can take
advantage of the FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32-bit) file system and have a partition (or
even multiple partitions) larger than 2 GB. Without going into too much detail, the basic
reason for this is that FAT32 is able to keep track of a much larger number of individual
file elements than the older FAT16 file system (which is more commonly referred to just as
FAT). This translates into the ability to work with larger partitions.
Before you actually begin the partitioning process, you
need to decide how you want to partition your driveif you want to keep it all as one
big drive, or if you want several different partitions/logical drives with one for data,
one for programs, etc. In addition, if you plan to try out or regularly work with multiple
operating systems (OS's), youll have to plan for that at this stage. Youll
also need something called a boot loader if you install multiple OS'sone comes
bundled with PartitionMagic and another comes with Windows NT 4.0 and
Windows 2000. A boot loader is a
program that lets you decide which primary partition to make active at boot-up. The OS
that is loaded from the active partition is the one that gets "control" over the
machine for that particular session.
Once you have a basic strategy figured out, you can move
onto the specific steps. The following describes how the process works with Fdisk. (If
youre using PartitionMagic, or some other utility, youll have to follow
different steps, but the concepts will be similar.)
First you need to boot your computer with your boot floppy
and then launch the Fdisk program as soon as you get to the A:\ prompt. To do that, just
type in Fdisk and then hit Enter or Return. If youre running the version of Fdisk
that comes with Windows 95 OSR2 or later (including 98, 98 SE, or ME), youll first see a kind of
obscure text message and question about having support for large disks to which you answer
yes or no. Though theres no specific mention of it, this question is asking whether
or not you want to use FAT32. If you answer yes, youll get FAT32 and if you answer
no youll get a FAT16-formatted drive. (Of course, if you have Windows 98, you can
convert from FAT16 to FAT32 with the bundled FAT32 Driver Converter after the fact. If you
have Windows 95, however, youll either have to start all over again to switch to
FAT32, or purchase a third-party tool such as PartitionMagic.)
Once youve answered the question, youll be
presented with four numeric choices from which you can create a new partition, delete an
existing partition, make one of the partitions active or get more information on the
current partitions you have. In general, Id recommend selecting option 4 first to
get more information about your current partitions.
If youre going to switch from multiple partitions to
a single partition or if you want to adjust the size of your current partitions,
youll first need to delete all but the primary active partition. Before you can
delete an extended partition, however, you first need to delete any logical drives that
are inside the extended partition. To make any of these deletions, select option 3 off the
main Fdisk menu and follow the directions. Youre always given a warning before you
do anything destructive, so if you take your time, you shouldnt run into any serious
To create new partitions or logical drives or to resize
the remaining primary partition, select option 1. If you want to use logical drives, you
first need to create an extended partition to hold them and then you can create the
logical drives. In all cases, youll need to know how large you want the partitions
and/or logical drives to be in megabytes, so do your math ahead of time. If youre
resizing a single partition, simply make the partition the same size as the available disk
size. Also remember that all hard drives use a certain amount of space for disk overhead
so dont get upset when your new 8 GB hard drive (or whatever size you have)
doesnt have eight full gigabytes (or whatever its advertised capacity is) for
Once youve finished your partitioning, you can exit
from Fdisk by simply hitting the Esc button at the main Fdisk screen. As the ensuing
screen says, youll have to restart before the changes take effect and before you can
re-format the newly created or resized partitions.
By the way, if you opt for something like PartitionMagic,
youll find the partitioning process more intuitive and more flexible than what Fdisk
provides. For example, you can resize partitions graphically without having to first
delete them, and you can easily switch a particular partition back and forth between FAT16
and FAT32, among other capabilities.
Regardless of how you partition the drive, however, the
re-formatting process is very simple. Once again, youll need to restart the computer
with the boot floppy installed and when you get to the A:\ prompt, type in:
Format C: /s
What this command does is reformats the active primary
partition on your main drivein other words, it reformats your hard drive. The /s
switch at the end of the command tells the computer to also copy over the basic DOS system
files to the hard disk so that you can then restart from the hard disk and boot to a C:\
DOS prompt if you want. To continue onward with Step 4, however, youll probably want
to boot from your boot floppy.
Step 4: Reinstall
Now that the hard part is over, its on to the
drudgery of re-installing everything. Of course the first thing youll need to do is
re-install the operating system from scratch.
To do that, after you start your computer with your boot
floppy inserted into the floppy drive, you'll need to make sure you have the Windows 95,
98 or ME CD in your CD/DVD-ROM drive. Once it's there, just type the following at the A:\ DOS
prompt you should see when the boot process finishes. Hit the Enter key at the end of it.
(Note that you may have to type a letter other than "D" if your CD/DVD-ROM is
assigned to a different drive letter.)
On a freshly formatted drive this process should go
smoothly, but be prepared with any drivers or driver upgrades you have available on
floppies or CDs. As Windows goes through the Plug-and-Play process of detecting
your computers hardware and then attempting to install drivers for it, the OS should
give you very clear signs whenever it needs input (or disks/discs) from you.
If you want to, you can create a directory on your hard
drive called Win95CAB or Win98CAB and then copy all the compressed .CAB (or cabinet) files
youll find on the Windows 95/98 CDs (in the Windows 95 or Windows 98 folders
respectively) into those directories. It takes a fair chunk of hard disk spacearound
100 Mbytes or sobut it saves you from having to look for your Win 95 or Win98 CD
down the road if you ever install anything and the installation process asks for the CD.
Instead, you can just direct it to the CAB files on your disk and youll be all set.
Thankfully, Windows ME does this for you automatically.
If your PC comes with a program that automatically returns
it to its factory fresh state, youll use that to install your OS instead. Doing so
should automatically take care of installing the OS and applications that came with your
computer. If you have any updated drivers or applications as part of your backup, however,
youll have to re-install those manually, as explained a bit further down.
If you have trouble during the installation, it could be
that one of you drivers is out-of-date. If so, youll want to check the
manufacturers web site for an update (see the "PC
Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" article for more). Once the OS installed, you
should run any other driver installation programs you have. Occasionally these types of
programs will tell that you need to reboot for the changes to take place. When youre
going through this re-install process I highly recommend you take their advice for each
program that requires it. Even though constantly rebooting adds even more time to the
process, it can be worth it in the long run. The reason is if you install multiple pieces
at once that make changes to your system, those changes could conflict or counteract each
other. Because the purpose of this exercise is to get everything working properly,
youre better off taking the conservative route here and letting each piece
"take hold" one at a time.
Once all your drivers are done, its time to
reinstall the apps. Again, if at the end of the install the program says it needs to
restart Windows for the changes to take effect, I would restart. The order that you
install the applications in typically doesnt matter, although I would probably
install any that had been causing you problems first. Once the main apps are in place, you
need to reinstall all those lovely Service Packs, bug fixes and other updates that you
painstakingly backed up in Step One. Remember also that some updates and Service Packs can
only be done after a previous update to the same program has been made so make sure you do
them in the proper order.
Before copying over your own data, I suggest you try
running a few of your favorite applications to make sure everything is working properly.
In addition, make sure you double-check any previously problematic programs once
everything has been installed. If a problem crops up now, its probably due to a
software conflict with another application on your system. If thats the case,
youll need to check web sites for updates and see if that helps (see the "PC Software Troubleshooting Tips" article
Finally, after all the applications have been installed,
its time to copy back over all your own data. If you havent already, I suggest
you take advantage of this re-installation process and use the opportunity to organize all
your data files in a single location, such as the My Documents directory. You dont
want to put everything at the main level of the My Documents directory, however, or
youll be overwhelmed. Instead, to make that directory useful, you should first
create sub-directories inside it and then use those directories to store your various
types of files.
Step 5: Enjoy
When everything has been restored, its time to enjoy
your new machine. Well, almost. Though it shouldnt make any difference, its
probably worthwhile to double or triple-check any problem applications (you knowthe
ones that led you to take on this procedure in the first place) after you restore your own
Once youre confident that things are working well,
you can take yourself and your PC back on a second (or third or fourth) technological
honeymoon and get to know each other all over again.
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If you enjoyed this article, you'll really
like my book, "Personal Computer Secrets."