Revitalize Your Aging PC With a Fresh Installation of Windows

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I apologize for the recent lack of posts, I’ve been having some computer issues. I’ve been experiencing the usual sluggishness that happens after you’ve had Windows for a while, but recently it had been unbearably slow. Even after running multiple anti-virus and anti-malware software, defrag utilities, registry cleaners, I just gave up and had to re-install the operating system. Of course, I’m bad and only make sporadic backups so it took me a while to organize my files and make proper backups.

Although not directly related to finances, I found that re-installing a fresh copy of Windows on your computer can make a huge difference in speed and usability, so much so that you can delay buying a new computer for a while (within reason). This post is somewhat specific to Dell laptops since that is what I have, but much of it is still applicable to all Windows PCs.

According to this How To Restore or Reinstall Microsoft Windows page at Dell, I had a few choices after backing up all my data:

System Restore
This is a Windows OS feature, so it should available across all PC laptop brands. It allows you to revert back to certain setpoints in your system’s past, hopefully back to a date in which everything was running smoothly. But I had been experiencing a slow and gradual decline, and none of the dates I picked improved my situation. It might work better for other folks. The good news is that you can also switch back to your original state.

Restore From Hidden Partition
Most recent Dell laptops have a hidden partition on the hard drive that contains a backup copy of your computer’s original factory software. The official name is Dell PC Restore by Symantec. You just have to hold Ctrl+F11 during start-up. I’m sure this would be great for most people. Unfortunately, my attempt failed. “Your installation was unsuccessful. Please call Dell Support”. Grrr.

Most other companies have a similar setup. For example, I did a successful factory reset on a family member’s Acer computer with Alt+F10. All I had to do was backup their pictures, and I was done in under an hour.

Restore from Recovery OS Disc
I was then left with the final option of manually re-installing the operating system with my Windows XP CD. Two houses and three years ago, I probably had it. Now, it’s nowhere to be found. (Side note: Some computer have you make the recovery CDs yourself. Do it before it crashes!) Luckily, I found that you can request a new recovery CD from Dell:

Dell Customers can now request a set of backup discs containing the factory-installed operating system as well as the device drivers and utilities specific to your system. Requests are limited to one (1) set of backup discs per system purchased.

There was no mention of needing a warranty, which made me hopeful since mine had already expired. After submitting my request, I received an e-mail saying that they would send me a Recovery CD for free, though they did make it very clear they didn’t have to since my warranty had expired. Still, they did FedEx it to me overnight at no charge, so I was very pleased with the service in this situation. Other brands may charge a nominal fee.

Final Result: Laptop that feels like new. Total Cost: $0. 🙂 I am now back up and running, and it is amazing how much difference a fresh install makes. The cobwebs and grimy buildup is gone! I did spend hours on the backup and everything, but even if I bought a new laptop, I’d still have to spend hours reinstalling new apps and transferring files.

More Links
HP Notebook PCs – Repairing or Reinstalling The Operating System

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  1. Or there is Fedora Linux and Ubuntu Linux that may work better for home computer because you will not end up with antiviral and and other utilities slowing you down. Plus they are free and next time you may save buying computer without Windows.

  2. I often tell people that if they haven’t upgraded their software since they purchased their computer, they don’t need to upgrade their computers. Many people seem to think that computers just naturally lose performance as if they’re old cars. If you’re still running 7 year old software and don’t have any problem with it, your 7 year old computer’s probably fine. Sometimes a wipe and reinstall may be in order though.

  3. I wiped and reinstalled my 4-year-old laptop a couple months ago and now it’s the fastest computer in the house!

  4. I call this yearly ritual “Microsoft tithe day”. I help my family members do this to their computers but I have found Fedora to suit all my needs for the last 4 years.

  5. @Alex:
    I use Ubuntu and Gentoo also. I can highly recommend Kubuntu for those who are new to the linux realm.
    Jonathan- would you be willing to try kubuntu? There’s an installer called “wubi” that allows you to install it inside Windows without repartitioning, or you can resize your Windows partition and install kubuntu right beside it without harming Windows.

  6. rzrshrp: Your point is correct, but how many people are really running the same software after 7 years? Their web browser has certainly been updated, perhaps they’ve installed something like Google Desktop Search or some other indexing program, and who knows what kind of bloated software the AntiVirus vendors have foisted on them. Also, web pages have become more complex over the years with JavaScript and Flash. Often times, application developers don’t test their new products on old hardware to limit performance regression.

  7. brian:Hah, I guess we don’t run in the same circles but I see many people that do. Unfortunately some people don’t even upgrade their browsers. A decent PIII/Athlon based computer from yesteryear is still good enough for comfortable web browsing on the latest browser as long as spyware/bloatware isn’t slowing it down. Shoot, my AthlonXP 2800+ still fulfills all of my non-gaming needs. I think that’s about 6 years old.

  8. Funny, right before I read today’s blog, I was making a list of programs to reinstall on my laptop, which has been having similar problems.

    A little off topic, but my computer illiterate dad recendly bought a brand new laptop with Windows Vista. While helping him getting to know gmail, it struck me how many links and buttons and options there are nowadays in even the simplest applications. In fact, being quite new to gmail myself, I had never even noticed its Refresh link (why not a button?) until someone pointed it out.
    Why don’t we have simple versions of those programs anymore?

    As for switching operating systems, I once tried for a year to get along with a Linux installation, and I kept wanting my Windows programs back. If you’re used to one OS, it’s excruciating to have to learn another. Besides, most regular programs are written for Windows and maybe Macs (iTunes, anyone?). I got tired of finding workarounds.

  9. Some folks actually recommend reinstalling every few years to keep the computer new. It’s a part of the routine for them rather than troubleshoot. As long as you keep decent backups, I think it’s worth it.

  10. I know I need to reinstall Windows and all of my data is backed up, but I get cold feet when I consider reinstalling my programs. Anything from the past 5 years was downloaded, including paid programs. No CDs. Any advice on that score?

  11. Like Alex, I’m a Linux user. I don’t know how Windows people work. I recently checked out one of our new Windows notebooks at work and I can’t believe how sluggish it is. I’ve got a (Linux) machine 7 years old that I would prefer to use to that work laptop and the laptop was purchased at Christmas.

    Now, a Windows computer without virus software… That’s a reasonably responsive machine. Unfortunately, you can’t responsibly do that.

  12. Aside from those things that Jonathan mentioned, there are a few additional things you can do. As for the basics, I usually recommend AVG free and MalWareBytes for virus/malware scanning, and ntregopt for registry optimization (many “registry cleaners” do very little, if anything … ntregopt is small, simple, ad-free, and works). In addition to this, I usually also recommend:

    1) Check your startup apps. For novices, the easiest way to do this is to click “start->run” and select “msconfig”, and then go to the “Startup” tab. Most of my computers, at most, have one or two things in there (the graphics driver control panel extension and unlocker are my essentials). Don’t uncheck stuff unless you know what it is — a quick google search of the item name will usually give you a hit.

    2) If you don’t use it, disable indexing. A quick google search will get you information on how to do this for your OS (I would *not* recommend this on Vista, since it’ll break the nifty start menu search functionality, but on XP most users will not notice it).

    3) Disable any system services that you don’t need. Don’t do this unless you’re fairly computer-savvy. It can make a significant difference, though.

    4) Uninstall any programs that you don’t use (for the non-computer savvy) — This has the effect of removing any start-up items and system services that they installed, and can make your computer faster.

    5) Get someone to do an off-line virus scan for you. A few modern viruses are nearly impossible to remove from an installed copy of windows … so you have to scan the infected copy from a “clean” copy of the OS. You should be able to do this without modifying your computer in any way by using a preinstalled environment CD (essentially a Windows Live CD).

    6) If you have *safe* browsing habits (that is, you don’t use Internet Explorer, you don’t open email attachments unless you have absolute knowledge that they can’t be infected, you don’t pirate software, etc. etc.) and keep your software up-to-date, disable the real-time scanning functionality of your virus scanner. Whenever you download a file or email attachment, right-click on it, and scan it at that time before opening it. Schedule a full system scan to happen at night a few times a week, and leave your computer on on those nights. Real-time virus scanners are a huge drag on system performance, and if you’re comfortable with computers (and have enough knowledge that you *should* be comfortable with them), there’s really no reason to run one. On the other hand, most people who fall into this category already know everything I’ve written here 🙂 In any case, I haven’t run one for almost 10 years, have never had a problem.

    Following my own advice (and some that I’ve probably forgotten), I’ve never had to “wipe” one of my computers … and I have never seen a noticeable reduction in their performance (I usually keep a machine for ~4 years).

    One more tidbit I’d like to add: Don’t forget about the value of upgrades! Often if you’ve had a computer for a few years, you can get a new CPU, RAM, or HDD (laptops and desktop) that’s much faster (bigger for RAM) than your old one for cheap (< $80 each). Don’t EVER opt for the “slow” hard drive option, it’s crippling for performance. On a desktop, after you’ve had your machine a few years, you can also usually get a much faster graphics accelerator for not a lot of money (< $80) … and finally, Windows 7 is faster than XP … so that’s anther possible performance gain after it comes out. I’ve had both on my netbook (which is a low end machine by definition), and I’ve been hugely impressed by the Windows 7 RC.

  13. Jeremy Olexa says

    Use Linux, it is free. I haven’t reinstalled my Linux laptop since 2004 when I first installed it. And I have all the lastest up to date software applications that I need. 😉

  14. I’m happy that people liked the Linux idea… Bigger question about laptops though is batteries. Any ideas how to revitalize one without spending money to buy one?

  15. Alex,

    Batteries go bad over time. No way around that. Companies tend to not even warranty the battery as part of an extended warranty plan. I’ve stopped buying extended warranties on electronics.

    As far as using Linux goes. It’s good to see so many people catching on. I’ve been using it for the last 8 years and it has come a long way.

  16. An earlier poster said you can’t “responsibly” run windows without antivirus software…that’s absolute baloney…with an IF.

    If you are a reasonably competent user–you keep your software updated, you’re not downloading pirated software (frequently has spyware/malware/virus), etc, there’s virtually a nil chance that you will get viruses. If you’re using Firefox, very little chance you will get spyware/adware. I’ve had one virus on my personal windows computer in the last 15 years, and that was from some stupid software I shouldn’t have downloaded.

    Without spyware/anti-virus software constantly churning in the background, your computer WILL be faster. I don’t recommend this unless you are a competent user.

    Having said that, my main computer nowadays is a Mac…

  17. This is funny, I too have seen people buy new computers because “my old one has gotten slow”. as if!

    However, reinstalling everything can be a full day’s worth of work. I’m surprised nobody has suggestions of how to clean Windows installations rather than start over. Is it impossible?

  18. For web browsing I recommend Firefox with Adblock Plus and NoScript plugins installed… you’d be surprised how much faster pages load without ads and unnecessary Flash garbage.

    As for Linux I use Ubuntu, Gentoo and Mandriva for different things and occasionally like to try out new flavors… for non-techs to get into Linux I would recommend Ubuntu or Mepis.

  19. Defragmenting the hard drive might help too. I think you may have actually deleted some things with the fresh installation, but if you don’t miss those thing, more power to you!

    I’ve decided that the best thing in the world is to stick with buying netbooks from now on. THe only things I do are internet and word processing and a netbook is good enought for that. Don’t like the tiny keyboard? Hook up a full sized one. Ain’t wired life just grand? The replacement cost is far lower if anything goes wrong.

  20. Sebastien says

    Definitely you should use Linux. Kubuntu and openSUSE are two excellent distributions (I use the latter, my brother uses the former). Easy to use and support for most hardware. With Linux, you get:
    – Reduced threat from viruses (save on that anti-virus subscription)
    – Free software (save on commercial software)
    – Free operating system (no need to pay $$$ to Microsoft)
    – Faster disk access (the file system for Linux uses all the latest that today’s graduates learn in schools, vs last century for NTFS. Defragment? What is that? When I used windoze, a defrag would frequently cause data loss such as icons disappearing.)
    – More robust overall (once setup and if you don’t install new software, I find Linux more consistent. No mystery “but it worked yesterday”)
    – You can have multiple users on the same machine logged in at the same time.
    – WAaaaayy easier backup. All your user files are in one place (under /home/username). I use rsync to make a duplicate of that folder every week. When I switch machines, I just need to sync that folder onto the new machine. So easy.

    If you gotta have windoze (e.g. my mum has a game she likes), you can use VMware (VMplayer is free) to run those very few applications that don’t run. There is also WINE (the windows emulator). I use that to run Quicken 2005.

  21. Good tip. I think reinstalling the OS every couple years is a good idea. With more use the system will get ‘clogged up’ and performance will degrade over time. But it can be a lot of work to reinstall the OS and all your programs.

  22. It’s tough to switch to linux right now since I have so much money committed to Windows software.

    Macromedia Fireworks
    Software that lets me access internet via cell phone
    MS Office

    I’m actually trying to re-download Quickbooks 2007 right now… hopefully it will work and save me an upgrade.

  23. I second what Dan said: msconfig is a great way to speed up an aging computer. Most people don’t realize how many applications start themselves up automatically when they turn their computers on. Get enough of these programs and there’s no memory left for any applications you want to run–it’s all being used by “startup items.”

  24. Sebastien, you wrote:

    “- WAaaaayy easier backup. All your user files are in one place (under /home/username). I use rsync to make a duplicate of that folder every week. When I switch machines, I just need to sync that folder onto the new machine. So easy.”

    I’m not sure how familiar with windows you are, but it’s been the exact same way since Windows NT (mid-1990s).

    On a windows computer C:documents and settings is the same as *nix/*bsd directories /usr/home or /home (if you’re using Vista it’s c:Users and if you’re using NT I think it’s c:winntuser — I forget). If you’ve ever worked in an office that has a windows domain running (even one like I run where the “windows server” is a FreeBSD box with Samba!) at every logon/logoff your user directory is synchronized between the server and workstation…think of it as windows rsyncing 🙂 “My Documents” … your registry settings … Application specific directories (think Thunderbird mail, Firefox profiles, etc) ALL live in your Windows user directory. Windows just takes the added step of abstracting the barebones away a little bit more.

    Actually I disagree with all your other points as well 🙂 The threat from viruses is greatly overblown (I never run anti-virus on my personal windows computers), I use plenty of free software on windows (Apache, Firefox, MySQL, etc), unless you’re buying from a small box company or custom building (two things many people don’t want to do) chances are you’ve already paid the “microsoft tax” and will never have to actually buy a copy of windows right out, NTFS is actually a pretty nice file system (I’d be glad to explain in more detail backchannel if you’re interested) and there’s no conceivable reason a degrag would cause any “data loss” such as icons disappearing (?!)..Windows since NT has been multiple user (15+ years) … Robustness is perhaps an issue, though not for me since win2k.

    Switching to *Nix/*BSD is great if you don’t have any applications beyond web/email/office/etc that you use. The second you start getting into legacy apps, programs with years of accumulated data, and custom business apps, the feasibility really goes right out the window. Me? I use my windows box for games and home theater, and my mac laptop for everything else. There’s absolutely nothing I would conceivably gain from switching either computer to *nix/*bsd, though I make great usage of (primarily) BSDs in my work as server platforms.

  25. Do yourself a favor and make a disk image of your fresh install. I do this for all my machines. As soon as I install a fresh OS, get all the drivers and software loaded I image the disk to an inexpensive external USB drive and archive it. (use something free like DriveImage XML

    As long as you’re good about backing up your data someplace you can very quickly reapply the disk image and be up and running in no time. I like to “re-pave” windows machines every 6-9 months if possible.

    You can make an image before you format your old machine as well so you KNOW you didn’t miss anything.

  26. Stewie Griffin says

    Why I own a Macbook Pro. OSX rocks.

    Btw. all your Windows apps can run just fine in a v irtual machine running Windows. I personally use Parallels for virtualization and Windows XP runs better in a VM than I have ever seen it run on my old PCs.

  27. It’s hard to appreciate Linux until I read things like this post. I’m reading 4 things that you did that Linux users just don’t really do.

    1) multiple anti-virus (Most Linux users don’t run anti-virus software, because with Linux there really is no need. The only time I run even a scan is if i’m moving a file from my Linux machine to a windows machine.)

    2) anti-malware software (when 99% of the software is open soure, there’s no spyware, because anybody could remove that part of the code create the program again. Might be confusing, but you won’t have spyware problems in LInux)

    3) defrag utilities (EXT4 file system……..don’t defrag)

    4) registry cleaners (no registry)

    You’ll have to run wine if you have to have some software applications, but the majority of your applications might be platform independent.

    1) Macromedia Fireworks -> try inkscape, which i prefer

    2) Quickbooks -> try gnucash as an alternative

    3) Software that lets me access internet via cell phone -> I’m tethering with both iphone and gphone on a linux box, so this isn’t an issue

    4) MS Office -> either a joke or you have some clients that require you to send them a file that has to be in a certain format. Openoffice and gdocs is really good.

    Maybe play with these programs in windows, since they are platform indpedent. If you can use these programs, then you can run them perfectly in Linux

    google earth

  28. I guess what amazes me is how people reformat once a year and can’t understand how bad windows is, because they have nothing to compare it to. Just don’t get a wrong distro of Linux and write an article about Linux after selecting a distro that’s just not for you and second give it more than a week. You’ve given windows 20 years to learn, just give linux more time than a week to judge it. It’s hard for some people when there’s no start menu on the bottom right or they are looking for that E on their desktop to get on the internet.

  29. I’m surprised that nobody mentioned Mozy for online backups.

    My wife and I have been using Mozy for over a year now and it gives us a wonderful peace of mind. Mozy gives you 2GB of free online backup space AND you get an extra 250MB for each person that you refer (the person that you refer gets an extra 250MB also, so it’s a win-win thing). Or you can pay $4.95 per month for unlimited space (that’s what my wife uses). It’s a VERY good product – set it and forget it. I used to backup to CD-RW but really I would only backup once a month (or less) so it wasn’t a good solution. Now it backs up daily and I don’t have to remember to do it. I love it! And so does my wife!

    I don’t need the extra space, but here’s a referral link for my buddy, Mike. He was trying to get up to 3.5GB the last time I spoke with him so he could use a few referrals.

    Jonathan, you could get a ton of free backup space with all the folks that read your blog!

  30. Isn’t windows a pain sometimes.
    Now, when I first get a new computer, I install all the programs I think I’ll need, transfer my data (music, pics, etc) and then create a restore point.
    After that, I can simply restore back to that point anytime.
    It beast reloading all your programs all over again.

  31. i have had an HP for almost 5 years now.
    battery is shot, so its more of a desktop than a laptop at this point.

    a year and a half ago office blew itself up. as a part of the fix windows blew up too.

    after installing a parallel copy and pulling all my data off the harddrive (i now run syncback se daily, weekly, and monthly – best $30 I have ever spent), i used the included restore disk and took my system back to square one.

    it has a few hiccups again, but overall it runs much better than it had been. much like your case, initially it was back to ferrari mode. maybe every 2-3 years is often enough to go back to square one – you could perhaps get 9 years out of a computer on 2 resets.

    oh, and my freebie antivirus software reset its 1 year subscription at the same time, so there are other potential hidden benefits.

  32. Your total cost might have been $0 out of pocket, but my experience installing a fresh copy of XP, finding all the drivers, getting all the Windows updates and then installing all the software to use it (the way I do) is every bit of a 6-9 hour process. When I went laptop shopping more than a year and a half ago I weighed my options and couldn’t find an XP computer to match my needs and budget, and didn’t want Vista, so I bought a Macbook and haven’t been happier or looked back.

    When I did run XP, I almost always partitioned my hard drive and installed Windows on a 20-40GB C drive and kept all data on the remaining space on D. This allowed me to reinstall Windows or deal with crashes a little bit better and faster. I’m also a network admin for a living, mostly dealing with XP boxes, for which I usually keep a ghosted copy of C: on the D: partition of any new system I deploy so should C: go wonky, I can always bring it back very quickly with the ghosted image.

  33. Mike: I have to ask, why didn’t you want Vista? Have you ever tried it? On old hardware, it is moderately slower than XP, but on new hardware, there isn’t really a noticeable difference. I think it’s rather unfair to compare an eight year old OS to your very up-to-date copy of Mac OS. Microsoft made huge strides in the realm of security with Vista (Address Space Layout Randomization, Data Execution Prevention (introduced in XP SP2, if your processor supports it), and UAC (which, although people whine, is a *good thing*. Running with UAC on is similar to the way most people use Linux, in which you must “sudo” yourself to be root for programs that need root access). For a full summary of the changes, see:

    That being said, if you really want to give windows a fair shake, and you want to do it for free, I’d recommend that you try the Windows 7 RC. It’s completely legal, free, and represents the best that Microsoft has to offer ( ). I was kind of lukewarm about Vista (I like the kernel and security improvements, but didn’t like the speed hit or GUI changes), but I’m a fan of Win 7 – it’s faster and they fixed a lot of my GUI complaints. I would encourage anyone who isn’t afraid of repartitioning their computer to give it a try.

    OTOH, I must say that I have a copy of OSX on my netbook (I bought it, so even though I’m still violating Apples EULA, I feel good about it :), and Ubuntu on my laptop, and they’re both very good operating systems. I have three big complaints about macbooks: I will never buy a laptop that doesn’t have hardware right-click (come *on*, Apple), I hate the way that OSX does window management (I have ADD, and the maximize button is my friend), and I refuse to pay a premium for the hardware just because it has an Apple logo on it.

  34. TechJosh says

    Before I do a reinstall I always create a new install cd using NLite

    I get together all the latest service packs and windows updates and drivers for my pc and let NLite integrate them into the install so that I don’t have to do it after the installation is finished.

    NLite even lets me customize some things like defaulting to Windows Classic instead of the cartoony XP theme, disabling the annoying error reporting service, indexing service, setting up windows explorer defaults… etc. So after reinstalling the OS I’m basically ready to go. It also makes a nice emergency disk in case you hose your system (just be sure to backup your data…)

    Sorry to sound like a commercial, but if someone is gonna go through the trouble of reinstalling everything on their windows based PC they really should at least look at NLite before starting.

  35. I got an e-mail from Apple, saying that they offer $50 to $100 discount for students.
    I am student myself and have 529 account, so if I buy Mac this year, I get to use 529 fund and some discount for purchasing a new computer.

    Just wanted to share.

  36. Mac FTW! About 17 years of Windoze experience here – got a Mac and haven’t been happier. Minimalist and lotsa power/speed! Boots quickly. Even with a bunch of TSRs you don’t see a performance hit like on a PC.

    Like they say….Once you’ve had a Mac you won’t go back! Or something like that =D

  37. I just scanned my registry with Ntregopt, as Dan mentioned previously, and it came up with 40% reduction! What garbage did I have hiding in there?! I noticed my re-boot was very quick afterwards.

    To all the Mac enthusiasts, I don’t understand why people are so gung-ho about them. Every Mac I’ve experienced since the late ’90s has been prone to freezing, especially during graphics app use (maybe Adobe issues?)

  38. Pogo –

    If you’re curious about what ntregopt does, see:

    I actually discovered it because, as it turns out, Windows registry hives have a maximum file size … and once, do to a malfunctioning install of Visual Studio, I hit it (I think they’ve bumped it up since win2k, which was the OS I had at the time). Since I’m adamant that computers do not get “crufted” up, I had to find a way to fix it 🙂 My typical Windows maintenance involves nothing more than unchecking installer options that add start-up items or system services, and uninstalling applications that I don’t use, and with only that I’ve never really seen a significant slowdown in one of my computers over its lifetime.

    I do highly recommend defrag and ntregopt, though. Personally I build my computers with RAID 5 arrays, and fragmentation doesn’t affect them as severely as a typical single HDD setup…

  39. kcnChester says

    Years ago, back in the Windows95 days, I bought a Gateway computer. I still have it – running a text only version of Slackware Linux. Anyway, about 3 or 4 years after buying it, I got a call from some girl at Gateway. She was trying to sell me another Gateway computer. When I told her that I didn’t want one, she told me my computer “should be getting slow by now”. I told her “…no, it was still the same speed as the day I got it”.

  40. Jeff Flowers says

    Mike Panic Said:

    “my experience installing a fresh copy of XP, finding all the drivers, getting all the Windows updates and then installing all the software to use it (the way I do) is every bit of a 6-9 hour process.”

    Dude, give me a break.

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