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July 14, 2011

Win7 hidden reinstall, refresh the operating system to repair your computer

Microsoft won’t tell you this, but you can do a fast, nondestructive, in-place, total reinstall of Windows 7 without damaging your user accounts, data, installed programs, or system drivers.

That means you may never have to do a full, from-scratch reinstall again, even when your system is misbehaving so badly that a full reformat-and-reinstall seems the only answer!

As I’m sure you know all too well, from-scratch reinstalls are ordeals. They take hours. And when a reinstall is done, you still have to recreate all your settings, reinstall all your software, and so on. It can take days to fully recover from a total reformat/reinstall.

Windows’ little known, in-place reinstall takes only a fraction of that time and effort and yet completely rebuilds, repairs, and refreshes an existing Windows installation. It leaves your other software alone (no reinstallation needed!) while also leaving user accounts, names, and passwords untouched.

When you’re finished, your Windows installation is just as it was before, except that all the system files are fully repaired, refreshed, and ready to go.

This nondestructive-reinstall ability has been in Windows since XP. (See this XP reinstall article that I wrote for another publication, years ago, when XP was new.) But — for reasons unknown — Microsoft has never made nondestructive reinstalls an official repair. In fact, it’s not even listed in Win7′s System Recovery Options (Help & How-to page).

(Vista users, you’re not forgotten! The nondestructive reinstall process for Vista is nearly identical to that described in the rest of this article.)

You need three things before you begin

First, you need access to a standard Win7 installation DVD. Ideally, you have your original setup DVD tucked away somewhere. But if not, it’s perfectly OK to borrow one from a colleague or friend, as long as it’s the same 32- or 64-bit version as your installation. Ideally, it should also match the general type — retail disk or OEM/vendor-supplied disk — as well.

Why is it OK to borrow? A standard Win7 DVD actually contains all editions of Win7. For example, a 32-bit Win7 DVD has all the files for the 32-bit editions of Win7 Home, Win7 Professional, Win7 Ultimate, and so on. Your license key unlocks whichever edition you paid for.

This means it’s perfectly legitimate for you to use someone else’s Win7 setup DVD to install Windows on your system, as long as you use your own, original, paid-for product key during installation. Sharing disks is fine. Sharing keys is not.

This also provides an easy workaround for the all-too-common problem of PCs that ship without setup DVDs. As long as you can borrow a standard setup DVD of the same general type (as described above), you should be able to rebuild your system using it, with your own original, unshared product key.

And that’s the second thing you need: your original 25-character product key. It’s usually found on a sticker on your computer or in the paperwork that accompanies a retail copy of Windows 7.

If you’ve lost track of your product key, no problem: you can use a free keyfinder tool to dig it out. One such tool is the excellent, but absurdly named, Magical Jelly Bean (info/download). There also are many other free product keyfinders, as this About.com list shows.

The third and final thing you need is a current backup. Although the reinstall process works reliably, it’s not infallible. Deep-seated system errors, OEM customizations, hardware trouble, or other variables may foil your reinstall efforts. Having a complete and current backup is a sensible precaution. (See the May 12 Top Story, “Build a complete Windows 7 safety net.”)

Avoiding problems with Win7 Service Pack 1

If you’re not running Win7 SP1, skip ahead to the next section.

You can also skip ahead if you’re repairing an SP1 setup with a Win7 setup DVD that already contains the SP1 files — but such disks are still relatively rare as of this writing.

If you’re still reading this paragraph, then you’re most likely attempting to repair a Win7 SP1 setup with an original, pre-SP1 DVD. That’s OK, provided you take an important preparatory step.

Win7 SP1 replaced many of your original system files with newer versions. If you try to install the older, original Win7 files over the newer SP1 files, the setup process will balk at what it sees as an erroneous downgrade.

So, if you’re attempting to repair Win7 SP1 with a pre-SP1 DVD, you need to remove SP1 from the target PC before proceeding. Fortunately, that’s easy, as Figure 1 shows



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