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Reformatting Windows XP the RIGHT way

Reformatting Windows XP the RIGHT way

At the ripe age of nearly 10 years years, Microsoft’s venerable Windows XP remains its most popular operating system to date. In spite of the impressive stability which has made it so popular, Windows’ capacity to affect mysterious and seemingly-irreparable problems is well-known. When plagued with an issue that few — if anybody — seem to have an answer to, it can be a maddening experience.

Yet for every problem, the full reformat stands as a solution guaranteed to remedy any issue that does not stem from faulty hardware. Rather than spending days on an error that may never have an identifiable cause or actionable solution, a reformat can make everything right as rain in just a few hours.

In this definitive article, Icrontic will assist you in archiving your important data, erasing the faulty installation of Windows, installing a fresh copy, and outline the best practices for minimizing your investment of time in future reformats.

Archiving important data

No matter the condition of your Windows installation, it is almost always possible to archive pertinent files so they are not lost during the reformatting process.

Before jumping to the section that best describes your situation, it is imperative that you are prepared with the proper tools to do the job. Arming yourself with an external hard drive assures that you have a place to put your important files both during the reformat and later as an insurance policy against data loss.

There are many external hard drives available, but we are fond of the 320GB Western Digital Essential Passport drive. Not only is it sleek and capacious, its low price-point also makes it an inexpensive solution for your needs. If you feel that the amount of information you need to save is less than 320GB, a 4GB flash drive can perform all the same functions for less than $40 with a good sale.

Next is the external hard drive adapter which is used to connect a hard disk to another computer’s USB ports. If you are in a situation where your computer appears unable to detect an installation of Windows, it is impossible to easily recover your information without such an adapter. We favor the BYTECC BT-300 for its price and its support for both IDE and SATA devices.

Now readied with the proper tools for the task, feel free to proceed with the section most appropriate to your situation.

  • The current installation of Windows XP successfully makes it to the Windows desktop. You have chosen to reformat your PC because of error messages, spyware, viruses, blue screens, or an inexplicable inability to run certain programs.
    Proceed »
  • The current installation of Windows XP does not make it to the Windows deskop. Your computer restarts when attempting to load Windows XP, persistently indicates the system did not shut down properly and must begin in safe mode, or fails to complete the login process.
    Proceed »
  • The current installation of Windows XP neither attempts to load nor makes it to the desktop. Your computer reports that the boot disk is invalid, requests that you insert a system disk and press any key, or otherwise produces no errors suggesting a detected installation of Windows.
    Proceed »

Windows XP loads the desktop

If an installation of Windows is going to break, be thankful that it broke like this. Whether you’re suffering from random errors, malware or malfunctioning programs, at least you can get into the operating system and copy files in a familiar environment. Since you can get to the Windows desktop, you’ll also be able to back up your drivers so you don’t have to hunt for them after the reformat.

Step 1: Install the external HDD

At this point, connect the external hard disk to your computer. The device plugs into any USB port at the rear of the system and also requires AC power from the wall. After plugging the hard disk in, it should appear as a new drive letter in the removable storage section of Windows Explorer.

External hard drives will be displayed beneath the CD-ROMs in the area outline in blue

External hard drives will be displayed beneath the CD-ROMs in the area outline in blue

Step 2: Export system drivers

In this instance, please visit our Windows driver collection guide. At the end of an article, we speak of a swank program called Drivermax which will allow you to back up your current drivers so they can later be restored. Proceed with that option and store the exported drivers on the newly-installed external hard disk. After the reformat, you’ll reinstall Drivermax, import the drivers, reboot your PC and be on your way.

Step 3: Archive important information

Now it’s time to scrub your system for important information that you’ll want to keep. There are several places to look and several ways to be sure you’ve gotten what you need. Log into each user account on the system and perform these steps until all accounts have been accounted for. Do not leave any accounts out:

  • If you use Firefox, use the MozBackup tool to back up your browsing history, extensions, favorites and browser settings to the external hard drive. When you reinstall Firefox post-format, run Firefox once then restore your profile to Firefox from the export with MozBackup.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, it has a built-in tool for favorite management. Go to File » Import and Export » click next » select Export Favorites » select the Favorites folder » click next » hit browse and save the file to your external hard disk by hitting next and finish. To recover the exported bookmarks, simply repeat the process and choose Import Favorites next time.
  • If you manage your mail with Outlook Express, the fantastic Outlook Express Backup utility will export your mail, user identities, mail accounts, message rules, attachments and more. Use the program to export all the content you desire to the external hard drive. Post-format, use the tool to import the data into the fresh installation of Windows.
  • If you’re an iTunes user, the program features the ability to store iTunes files to CD or DVD, but this option is worthless for users with large libraries. Instead, follow these instructions to store the data to your external hard drive. You can recover the information post-format by reversing the steps in the guide.
  • Use the Windows XP Files Settings & Transfer Wizard to store all the documents, icons, desktop and start menu settings. First, create a new folder on the external drive for each user account on the system. Second, log in to each user account on the system and run the FAST Wizard from the system tools folder in your start menu. Microsoft has an excellent tutorial on how to use this utility. Make sure you save the output from each account in a different folder on your external hard drive. Also be sure to tick the “custom list” box and omit your My Music directory if you use iTunes and have already stored your iTunes library.
  • Any additional information you deem important should be moved to the external as well. We will be formatting the entire hard drive so be sure that the drive is completely backed up before proceeding. This extra information might include pictures, saved games and financial information. Don’t forget these!

Now that all your data has been backed up, we can begin to customize your Windows XP disc to bring it up to date. Proceed to the next page »

Windows XP does not load the desktop

If you cannot get to the desktop but Windows produces various errors indicating that it is still detected, you’re still in a good place. At this time you’ll need to completely power down your computer and remove the hard drive from the system. You’ll need a second computer on hand to use as a place to manage your backup procedure.

Step 1: Connect external hard disks

At this point, connect the external hard disk to your computer. The device plugs into any USB port at the rear of the system and also requires AC power from the wall. After plugging the hard disk in, it should appear as a new drive letter in the removable storage section of Windows Explorer.

Similarly, you’ll want to connect the disk you removed from the malfunctioning system to the external adapter. Connect it to the new computer’s USB ports and use this hard drive just like you would your external, as it will appear in the same location.

External hard drives will be displayed beneath the CD-ROMs in the area outline in blue

External hard drives will be displayed beneath the CD-ROMs in the area outline in blue.

Step 2: Archive important information

Now it’s time to scrub your system for important information that you’ll want to keep. There are several places to look and several ways to be sure you’ve gotten what you need. Perform these steps for each user account folder stored on the system in the Documents and Settings directory:

  • If you use Firefox, Mozilla outlines a method that can be used to store and restore your profile in the event that a utility cannot be used.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, your favorites will be backed up when you archive the user profile folders in the Documents and Settings directory as described below.
  • If you manage your mail with Outlook Express, Microsoft outlines how to find and store this information as a backup. Move all of the data uncovered with their walkthrough to the appropriate folders you’ve created on your external disk.
  • If you’re an iTunes user, the program features the ability to store iTunes files to CD or DVD, but it’s an option you cannot access at this time. Instead, follow these instructions to migrate the information from your internal hard drive to the external disk.
  • Back up the My Documents folder for each user account on the system to save critical documents, pictures and other files that typically get stored here. To do this, navigate to the Documents and Settings\USER ACCOUNT NAME\My Documents folder, where “USER ACCOUNT NAME” is the login name that a user uses to access the Windows desktop. Move the the contents of each user’s My Documents directory to unique folders on the external disk. After the Windows installation is finished, each user’s data can be copied back from the external drive.
Copy these files and folders to the external. This will store most user's documents created with Microsoft Office, Excel and Powerpoint.

Copy these files and folders to the external. This will store most of the documents created by Microsoft Office, Excel and Powerpoint.

  • Any additional information you deem important should be moved to the external as well. We will be formatting the entire hard drive so be sure that the drive is completely backed up before proceeding. This information might include saved games, financial information and pictures.

Now that all your data has been backed up, we can begin the process of bringing your Windows XP disc up to date. Proceed to the next page »

Windows does not appear to be installed

The most catastrophic of conditions to be in, it is possible that the way Windows stores and retrieves your data is corrupted or the hard drive is simply broken. In this situation, we must first verify the integrity of the drive and then begin the process of data recovery. Icrontic has you covered with guides for both stages!

  • To scan the integrity of the drive and assure that it is not damaged, use our Hard Drive Testing Guide. The tool outlined in that article will indicate the condition of the drive. If the test comes back with an error code of 0x70 or 0x72, it is imperative that the drive be replaced. However, the data may still be accessible. Power down your system and remove the faulty hard disk, then connect this broken drive to your external adapter on a second PC.
  • If connecting the drive to your external adapter does not yield access to files, it’s probable that the file system has become damaged. In order to recover those files, Icrontic’s Advanced Data Recovery article uses the external adapter you have to perform data recovery operations. These files should be stored to the external hard drive for safe-keeping.

If you’ve managed to get to a point where you can see and access files stored on the drive, check in these common locations for data you should move to your external hard drive. Perform these steps for each user account folder stored on the system in the Documents and Settings directory:

  • If you use Firefox, Mozilla outlines a method that can be used to store and restore your profile in the event that a utility cannot be used.
  • If you use Internet Explorer, your favorites will be backed up when you archive the user profile folders in the Documents and Settings directory as described below.
  • If you manage your mail with Outlook Express, Microsoft outlines how to find and store this information as a backup. Move all of the data uncovered with their walkthrough to the appropriate folders you’ve created on your external disk.
  • If you’re an iTunes user, the program features the ability to store iTunes files to CD or DVD, but it’s an option you cannot access at this time. Instead, follow these instructions to migrate the information from your internal hard drive to the external disk.
  • Back up the My Documents folder for each user account on the system to save critical documents, pictures and other files that typically get stored here. To do this, navigate to the Documents and Settings\USER ACCOUNT NAME\My Documents folder, where “USER ACCOUNT NAME” is the login name that user uses to access the Windows desktop. Move the the contents of each user’s My Documents directory to unique folders on the external disk. After the Windows installation is finished, each user’s data can be copied back from the external drive.
  • Don’t forget any additional information like pictures, saved games or financial information. These will be wiped from the system throughout the course of this guide.

If you had to purchase a new hard disk because DFT verified that the existing one was faulty, now is the time to install the drive back into your system. Now we can proceed with customizing your Windows XP disc to bring it up to date.

Next page »

Comments

  1. LIN
    LIN Really great article; easy to read & follow. A "must read".


    LIN
  2. QCH
    QCH VERY detailed but not too complex. Nice work, again, Thrax!!! :thumbsup:
  3. Ben
    Ben On the size of the C drive partition: the problem there is that your desktop and the contents of Documents and Settings are automatically stored on the same drive as your OS. You might want to move your My Documents (which is easy), and you can re-define the locations of your Desktop, Temp directory, and Documents and Settings Branch in the registry, although this can get messy as it seems some programs use the registry while others will persist in using the C drive.

    On the use of NTFS: Last time I checked Linux based recovery CD's have a hard time dealing with NTFS drives, so be prepared to not have that option.
  4. Leonardo
    Leonardo Excellent! From A to Z.
  5. minoan
    minoan "Need to repair Windows XP professional if possible"

    I have a current thread with the above title, and wonder whether this article is a solution to my problem. I have a Dell Precision M50 laptop which has a corrupted Windows XP Professional installation which will now not boot up to the Desktop. It reports it cannot load hive, which is either corrupt or missing.

    Does the present article cover my situation? Would I need to be able to get the hard disc out of my laptop? (which may not be so easy as getting a hard disc out of a desktop).
  6. Leonardo
    Leonardo Minoan, this is the next step for you. In your other thread we looked at possibilities for salvaging/repairing your existing Windows installation. If you cannot get your Windows installation repaired, then the guide linked in this thread is probably your next step, to reinstall Windows, fresh.

    You will find in this guide by our Icrontic writer, Thrax, different methods for salvaging data from an existing Windows installation. Some of those tools may work for you, some may not.
  7. Stardance
    Stardance In my experience, if an undetectable rootkit, or any other malware, is currently installed on a primary HDD, then there is a significant risk that it will recognize that a USB drive has been connected.

    If it does that, then it will install itself on that drive. Once installed there, it will subsequently recognize that the USB drive has been connected to a device in which there is one or more internal HDDs, and it will either infect all of them or infect only the drive(s) that are bootable.

    Ordinarily, an undetectable rootkit infects only drives that are bootable, because it must install a kernel-mode driver when the system boots in order to conceal its processes and its files.

    Note that a kernel-mode driver cannot be installed on a system that has a 64-bit Intel or AMD CPU and runs Windows Vista or 7. (I am not sure whether Patchguard is installed on 64-bit Windows XP.) So, a rootkit cannot be undetectable on such a system, but it might run without the kernel-mode driver, with unpredictable consequences. Since it has been able to hide from anti-malware utilities, it is not likely to be identified by a "signature" during scans. It might be stopped if the anti-malware utility is behavior-based or specification-based.

    Some firewalls might halt the malware execution and query the user whether to allow the program to run. Beware of allowing anything to run when you do not definitely know the software to which the executable belongs!
  8. Stardance
    Stardance NOTE: After Windows XP is re-installed on a HDD, all other software should be re-installed from a fresh download or from an original CD-ROM.

    It is not entirely safe to re-install executable files of any type from backup copies or disk images. You must be absolutely certain that they were not altered by malware before the backup copies or disk image was made. The risk is that, when you run an altered executable, it might launch the malware installer, which can run in the background while the executable continues to run in the foreground.

    After you re-install Windows XP, the autoplay/autorun feature is enabled by default. Before you re-install any software or restore any files, you should disenable autoplay/autorun for external USB devices. Doing so apparently entails disabling it for DVD and CD discs, too. If you do not do that, then malware which installs itself on an external USB drive and creates an autorun.inf file will be automatically executed when that drive is made available to Windows XP.

    If Windows XP autorun/autoplay is disenabled for external USB devices, then malware which is installed on such a device will not be able to run, unless (1) the user specifically runs the malware executable (OOPS!!), (2) some other program, that the user runs, launches the malware executable, which is probably an installer, or (3) the operating system is booted from the external drive.

    AFAIK, Windows XP will not make a USB disk drive "bootable", although the computer's BIOS might look for a bootable device on a USB port. So the advice in "Reinstalling Windows XP the RIGHT way" to store copies of files that you want to save on an external HDD should be safe to follow -- with autoplay disenabled.

    After saving files on an external USB or serial HDD, it would be a good idea to take a look at its contents while using an administrator account, so that hidden and system files are visible, to see whether a malware executable might be present. Again, executable files should not be saved on the external HDD, since there is a risk that they have been modified by the malware.

    Note that Windows XP can create a "bootable" DVD-R/W or CD-R/W disc. Malware could attempt to have itself installed when the DVD or CD disc is created, if the malware is sophisticated enough to do that. Windows XP will boot from an optical disc drive if a bootable disc is present regardless of whether autoplay/autorun is disenabled.

    However, you don't need to make a "bootable" DVD or CD disc to re-install Windows XP. The original Windows XP installation CD-ROM disc will suffice. :-)
  9. Stardance
    Stardance As per your procedure, I used the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard to store the settings, but not any files, on the external 320 GB HDD (a Maxtor One Touch 4). On my computer the location is identified as F:\FILES AND SETTINGS TRANSFER WIZ\ to which the wizard added the folder USMT2.UNC and stored two files in it, IMG00001.DAT and status. Initially, I included files as well as settings, but the Wizard insisted on including files that were already stored on the external HDD where it was supposed to store them pending transfer to the "new computer". That did not make any sense, and was not a good sign.

    Note: I used the "Folder or drive" option to transfer the settings to the external HDD. After all of the backups, I removed the internal primary HDD and replaced it with a new, unused HDD.

    Since "page 2" was not available when I read your article, I did not attempt to "slipstream" Service Pack 3 and subsequent into the Windows XP Home Edition installation disc. Not that I would try that with the original CD-ROM, regardless. But I have had plenty of experience with installing Windows XP H.E. After it was installed, I went online with I.E. 6 to download and install the 56 "required" updates (another 14 are optional) to bring the installation fully current.

    Then, when I ran the File and Settings Transfer Wizard to access the data which was stored on the external HDD, it displayed the message:

    "The location that you specified does not contain stored information. Please type a valid folder path into the edit box.

    If you entered a path to a removable disk, the disk must be in the drive."

    As far as I can determine, the path is valid and the disk is certainly attached to the computer and functioning. I've copied other files from it to the new HDD which I installed in the computer to replace the former internal primary HDD.

    Evidently, this feature of the Windows XP Files and Settings Transfer Wizard contains one or more flaws. The Microsoft "tutorial" only describes using the wizard to transfer files from one computer to another by way of a "null modem cable".

    Did you test the method which you described before you posted the article? Do you have any idea why it did not work?
  10. troll
    troll To quote some Google Results... :wtf:
    Remember:
    1. If you've moved USMT2.UNC copy it back to the location you ORIGINALLY copied it from on your "old" computer.

    2. Point the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard to the ROOT directory/drive letter and NOT the USMT2.UNC folder itself.
  11. Arthur-HC-Williams
    Arthur-HC-Williams I can't read the text, due to the NAB ads blocking it.

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