Reformatting and restoring a PC is not fun--in the way spending 2 hours in the dentist's chair is not fun. You have to back up all your data (and pray that you haven't forgotten anything), reformat the hard drive, install Windows, track down missing drivers, find and reload all your software, restore your data, and pull out clumps of hair over the things you inevitably neglected to save. (Firefox plug-ins, anyone?)
Definitely not fun--yet it's something that most PC users end up doing at least once. When your machine becomes so sluggish, flaky, malware-infested, or ill-behaved that no optimization utility can help, sometimes the only remedy is a full system-wipe and restore.
If you're smart, however, you'll look upon this as an opportunity--not only to return your PC to its former out-of-the-box glory but also to make it better than it was before. I'm talking about implementing a bulletproof backup system to thwart future disasters, organizing your folders and desktop to keep clutter at bay, cutting performance-clogging security software to a bare minimum, and making sure that if you ever need to reformat and restore again, the process will go a lot easier.
In other words, you've cleaned house. And now it's time to get that house in order.
Create an Image of Your Newly Restored System
Windows installed, updated, and personalized to your liking? Check. Important apps loaded? Check. Drivers working? Check. Now step back and bask in the glow of your perfectly configured, smoothly running PC. Don't you wish you could capture this moment forever, and even preserve it for the future in case something goes awry?
You can, by creating an "image" of your system as it exists right now. An image is essentially a full-system backup, but one that contains all the extra stuff that gets added after a fresh Windows install. By making that image your go-to restore source, you can save a ton of time if you ever need to do another system overhaul. (Remember, however, that an image isn't intended to preserve your data; that's an entirely different kind of backup.)
Countless drive-image utilities are out there, but I'm partial to Macrium Reflect Free. It's easy to use, and it can save your image file to an external drive, a network drive, or even CDs/DVDs. It'll also build a bootable rescue disc for restoring the image, just in case you're trying to resurrect a seriously compromised system.
Add a Linux Partition
Admit it: You've always wanted to try Linux. It's a fast, robust operating system, stocked with all the software that most users need for everyday computing. Plus, it's free--and if your Windows install ever becomes too messed up to boot, you might be able to use your Linux install to save it. (To learn more, check out "12 Reasons to Try Ubuntu 10.10 Now.")
This is the perfect time to create a dual-boot environment, to devote a chunk of your hard drive (a partition) to Linux. When you're finished, you'll be able to choose Windows or Linux every time you boot; it's like turning one PC into two. And in the unlikely event something goes wrong during setup, no major harm done: You could just whip out the drive image you created earlier and restore the system to its previous pristine state. (Read our Linux Line blog for more tips and news from the Other Side.)
I recommend the Ubuntu version of Linux, though you can find countless others to choose from. To install Ubuntu alongside Windows, you'll need to download the OS, burn it to a CD, create a partition within Windows, and then boot the Ubuntu CD and follow the instructions. Ubuntu's own Windows dual-boot help page spells all of this out in much greater detail.
Set Up an Automated Backup System
No more excuses! Your data has survived this far, but you're computing on thin ice. A devastating malware attack or hard-drive failure might be just around the corner. The time has come to start making backups on a regular basis, just as you always promised yourself you would.
I recommend two approaches. First, schedule a weekly full-system backup, using an external hard drive as the destination. The aforementioned Macrium Reflect Free works quite well for this task, as it can automatically create image files at scheduled times. However, consider springing for the $40 full version, which supports both differential and incremental backups. (The latter means the program adds only the files and data that have changed since the last backup, a huge timesaver.)
Second, enlist an online backup tool such as Carbonite or Mozy to save your most crucial data (Office documents, financial records, etc.) to the cloud. I'm partial to Mozy, which gives you 2GB of free backup space, a highly automated backup utility, and the option of making a local backup in addition to the cloud version. It's a great set-it-and-forget-it choice.
Organize Your Files, Folders, and Desktop
Just like moving into a new house, moving back into a restored PC gives you the rare opportunity to put everything in order: your files, your folders, and even your desktop. Let's start with the last--it's time to stop leaving icons strewn across the desktop like so many clothes on the bedroom floor. Instead, organize and corral them with PCWorld favorite Fences, a free utility that turns cluttered desktops into tidy ones. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it.
As for your files, it's always good to physically organize them as best you can, putting documents in one folder, photos in another, videos in a third, and so on. But even if you have this kind of stuff spread out across hundreds of folders (and/or different drives), Windows 7's Libraries feature makes finding what you need easy. In fact, it's a much better approach than the age-old folder/subfolder system. The only trick is getting Libraries set up properly, which you can learn to do in "Simplify File Organization With Windows 7 Libraries."
Slim Down Your Security Measures
A lot of PCs suffer from security overkill. Assuming that more must be better, users install a firewall, an antivirus program, an antispyware program, a rootkit blocker, and perhaps even an entire Internet-security suite on top of all that. (And you wonder why your system takes 10 minutes to boot?)
Resist the urge to overprotect your PC that way again. Instead, take a simplified approach to security, one that starts with Windows 7 itself. (Sorry, XP users--your OS is a leaky bucket.)
Believe it or not, Windows 7 has almost everything you need to stay safe online: a firewall, a spyware and pop-up blocker, an improved User Account Control system, and a host of malware and phishing protections built into Internet Explorer 8. Top everything off with the free Microsoft Security Essentials antivirus utility and the Web of Trust browser add-on, and you have an extremely well-protected PC. The only extra you might need is a spam filter, though most Web-based e-mail services (Comcast, Gmail, Yahoo, and the like) do an excellent job filtering it for you.
Install a Better Uninstaller
If there's a program you no longer use, uninstalling it makes sense, right? You'll free up disk space and help Windows run more smoothly. That's the theory, but in reality many uninstalled programs leave behind traces of themselves--configuration files here, Registry entries there, and so on. That's just the kind of gunk that makes Windows sluggish over time.
What you need is a better uninstaller, a program that will remove every last vestige of any application. Regular PCWorld readers know of our fondness for Revo Uninstaller, but lately my tool of choice is IObit Advanced Uninstaller, which offers a few perks that Revo lacks. One of them is batch uninstalling: You can select multiple programs to be removed instead of having to hit them one at a time. That feature is a great timesaver during those spring-cleaning sessions when you want to clear out several months' worth of unwanted apps.
Plus, IObit's program is tiny (just 700KB) and portable, requiring no installation (meaning one fewer program gunking up your PC). And you can't beat the price: It's free.
Create a Driver Library
One of the biggest hassles in restoring a PC is tracking down the drivers for all your components and peripherals. Even if you restored from an image file as described on the previous page, you might end up with some drivers that are outdated. And trust me: Driver discs always go missing just when you need them.
Get proactive and make driver backups a part of your regular backup regimen. The free utility Double Driver 4.1 accomplishes the task quickly and easily. It scans your PC, automatically detects and selects drivers that aren't part of the operating system, and then lets you back them up to a USB drive, a network folder, or another storage device.
Keep Your PC Booting Quickly
It's an unofficial (but undisputed) law of nature that over time Windows boots more and more slowly. Blame software: Every program you install seems to insist on loading a piece of itself when you boot the machine. It's like an onrush of traffic trying to merge onto an already crowded freeway.
Put freeware utility Soluto on the job as your traffic cop. (Yes, I see the irony in installing yet another program to wrangle your existing programs, but hear me out.) The tool analyzes the software and services installed on your PC, and then gives you the option of eliminating them, delaying their startup, or leaving them alone. Even better, it offers recommendations, complete with statistics on what other users have done; it's like a crowd-sourced startup manager.
It works better than any other startup manager I've ever used, too. (It even eliminated a couple of weird pop-ups that had begun to appear on my system right after Windows booted.) If you're concerned about the fate of your fast-booting machine, Soluto is the solution.