By the time you read this sentence, another Windows system will have crashed somewhere in the world. Actually, it’s more likely a dozen, or a hundred. Compared to Linux and Unix systems, Windows is notoriously well-known for churning to a halt easily. At that point the recommended procedure is often a reinstall.
But if you have more than a few programs on your computer, you’ll avoid this to the bitter end rather than reinstall (I know – I do). However, with a little under-the-hood tinkering, you can make the inevitable reinstall much easier.
The key to easing your life is extremely simple – split your lone C drive into more than one (D, E, and so on). Place your valuable data on the upper drives, and the Windows system by itself on C. When it’s time to reinstall, you can wipe and reinstall C to your hearts content, all without damaging your important files.
For instance, on all my systems I have only 2 gigabytes set aside for my C drive, with the remainder on D, E etc. You can use a program like PartitionMagic to rearrange an old drive, or simply reformat a new disk into two drives. Programs are then installed on D, so if I later need to reinstall Windows, my primary software is safe and sound. In addition, splitting across drives can be somewhat safer, since accidents to one drive (including viruses) are less likely to affect all of your data.
Of course, it isn’t just as simple as that – two problems remain. Firstly, Windows has a lot of tendrils in your software and vice versa. You won’t be able to wipe your C drive, reinstall Windows, and expect software to work immediately. For example, your Start Menu will be cleared. As well, there may be files needed by your program that are copied into the Windows directory, and which will get erased along with your C drive.
Solving the start menu problem first: download TweakUI for your computer (a Microsoft freebie – search for it at their website to get the proper one for your system). The option you want is ‘Special Folders’, under the ‘General’ tab. Choose a folder, select to change the destination, and pick another drive. At the very least, move your ‘My Documents’ folder, ‘Start Menu’, and ‘Favorites’. From then on, you’ll be creating data on these other drives instead of on C. Of course, the first time you do it, you’ll want to manually copy the old directories to the new location so nothing is changed. When it’s time to reinstall, finish off by rerunning TweakUI, point the folders to these other drives, and the old data is visible once again.
The second problem is that your Windows directory is clean, but missing important files. Not all programs need reinstalling (especially older ones), but for those that complain about missing pieces, you simply reinstall and switch. For example, if my Eudora email program is located at E:\Program Files\Eudora, I rename the directory to Eudora_old, and install the program again to E:\Program Files\Eudora. Then I delete that directory, and rename Eudora_old back to Eudora. With that, the program is installed properly again.
This technique doesn’t eliminate the necessity of backing up thoroughly. If anything goes wrong, you still can lose data. However, this tip has made reinstalling of Windows much easier over the years, and I recommend it for anyone who has more than one machine to care for. The time spent setting up the drives will be more than repaid the first time you’re stuck with a crash.