Reformat and Reinstall Windows XP

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Make a commitment. Reformatting and reinstalling Windows is not something that should be undertaken lightly or if you are in a hurry, but is the best and only way to completely restore a computer to its best operating condition. Once you have exhausted other troubleshooting methods, a reinstall may be your only option left.  Before you get started, it is important to make a commitment to yourself that you will spend the several hours necessary to do it properly. There are also a few other things you'll need before you get started.

Starting checklist. These are the things we recommend you have before getting started on your reinstall.

  • Windows XP System Disk
  • A working USB memory drive with at least 100MB free space
  • An external hard drive or CD/DVD burner
  • A high-speed internet connection


*Special Note. If you have a disk from your manufacturer labeled "Recovery Disk" or "Restore Disk," you may be able to skip this entire process and save yourself several hours. Insert and boot from the disk and follow the prompts.


To prepare for the task. Before making any changes to your computer, backup any personal files such as pictures or music that you do not want to lose. A reformat and reinstall is a destructive process which will completely erase your hard drive's contents and rebuild it from scratch. Anything you do not backup beforehand will be lost. Use the external hard drive or your computer's CD/DVD burner to make backups of these important files.

Boot from CD. Get get started, you'll need to first Boot from the Windows XP CD. On many computers, you may get this option by pressing F2 or F12 when prompted by the computer's bootup screen. It may briefly flash something on the screen such as "Press F12 for boot menu" or something similar. You may also need to change the order of devices from which Windows searches for boot information in your system's BIOS. When you have found the correct way to boot your computer from a CD, restart with the Windows XP CD in the drve.

Press any key to boot from CD...


If you are on the right track, you should see "Press Any Key to Boot from CD". As soon as you see this, it is critical that you press the any key on your computer.

Reformat and Configure. After detecting drivers, the Windows setup program will ask you to choose a location to install Windows XP to. Here you want to delete all existing partitions.  Do this by pressing D and then L to confirm that you want to delete the partition.  At this point, it becomes very difficult to recover any files which you did not previously backup.

Delete Partitions

Create one or more new partitions before installing Windows.  Lots of folks like to create 2 partitions so they can install Windows and programs on one and save all of their personal files and documents on a second.  From the screen below you can press C to create your new partition(s), and then follow the onscreen directions.  New partitions need to be formatted before you can use them.  The Windows setup program will let you choose whether to format them as NTFS (for higher security) or FAT32 (for backwards compatibility).

Create New Partition(s)

Once you have created your partition(s), you are ready to press ENTER to begin installing Windows.

Select a File Type

At this point you will probably need to choose a filesystem (remember, NTFS or FAT32) before it performs a format of the partition and copies over system files.  You may speed up your installation by choosing to perform a "quick format" instead of the regular one which can take awhile depending on the size of your disk.

Configuring Windows

After your disk is formatted, it will copy over systems files which takes only a few minutes and then the computer will reboot.  You will be greeted by the screen pictured above which performs several important steps in getting your computer ready for its first boot to Windows XP.

Enter Your Product Key

At some point, your installation may prompt you to enter your Windows XP product key.  This will be either on the sleave the CD was held in or printed on a sticker attached to the case of your computer.  This key must be entered exactly or it will not work for you.  (Hint: Be very attentive as the "8"s sometimes have a tendancy to look like "B"s and vice versa on those stickers.)

Network Settings

After several more minutes, the install program may prompt you for network settings and ask you a few other questions.  Stick with the typical settings for most of these unless you know what you're doing and they should work pretty well.  You may be prompted for your user name or computer name.  Pick whatever you like, but remember to write down your administrator password and keep it in a safe place.

After the setup program completes, your computer will reboot one more time and then you will be booted into Windows.  If you've installed from a Windows XP CD, you will probably have to activate the software within 30 days or Microsoft will lock you out.  This is to prevent software piracy.

If your computer uses any special hardware components which Windows did not recognize, you will need to install the drivers on your own before your computer is fully operational.  These drivers may be included on a separate CD that came with your computer or are available for download from the internet.  Try checking with the product's manufacturer for the latest release of drivers because they are the most up-to-date and have the fewest compatibility issues.  If you can't find them from your manufacturer, try looking at www.driverguide.com as they have free downloads for the best variety of drivers of any site I've seen.

When you're done with the install and you get the computer configured just the way you like it, I recommend using imaging software to make a backup of your hard drive to save yourself time should ever need to reinstall Windows again.  Good luck!  Please let me know of your successes or failures and I'll try to comment back with suggestions.

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