Backing up your data before a reinstall

When helping people do a reinstall the question always comes up: “We’re going to delete the entire harddrive. What do you need saved?”  and the answer is always a stupid: “Just save everything!

Because this is usually some sort of “work situation” I usually resort to a long kind explanation. Really, inside my own mind, I do a facepalm while shouting “Look pal! If we save EVERYTHING, we’re also bringing the ERRORS and the entire MESS along to your new installation. That would sort of make this a huge waste of time, right?
The person who knows best what to save is not your favorite IT geek, it’s someone else….

Yes, its YOU!

Creating a backup of your important data is the beginning of every reinstall and while it can be time consuming its actually really easy. This article will tell you how to do it, and give pointers to where to look for all your stuff.

Backup device

The reason for backing up your data is that a proper reinstall will clear all your files on the system drive of your pc. Since you don’t want your own files, documents, digital photos, your emails, your bookmarks etc.  you want to make sure those things are safe somewhere else.

The easiest way to do this is to put them on an external hardddrive. You certainly do NOT want the data to be “inside”, or connected to, the pc you are about to reinstall. While it is fairly easy to put them on another partition than the system drive, this involves a great risk to your data. I can’t even count the times I’ve had a friend say “I’ll just store it right here for now…” and then later during the installation I hear a “Ooops… I think I just formatted the wrong drive…

Do yourself a favor, and buy a drive just for your backup purposes. It will make your life a lot easier.The reasons for this are:

  • A drive that you have dedicated for this purpose will not be filled with random crap just when you need it to have space for your backup.
  • A drive that you have dedicated for this purpose will not have files on it that you need every day. Therefore you can store it securely somewhere thats not in your own home.
  • You don’t want to use a drive that you often lend out to friends, because you don’t want them to mess around in your files, or make copies of your secret love letters 🙂
  • You don’t want to use an old drive that you found laying around in your basement. Because even though it has run perfectly for years it will break down today, at the most inappropiate moment. Trust me.
  • You don’t want to use a drive that you borrowed, because just when you have all your data on it, and nowhere else to put it, your friend will call and tell you that he needs the drive back right now.

Saving your documents

You can spend from a handfull to millions of dollars, euros, or any other currency on backup systems… but those are really only for professional daily backups. Save yourself the money and do it the manual way.

Simply create a folder on the external hardddrive. Give it a name like “ReinstallBackup2010-02-11”. (Yes, do the date thing. Because, and trust me on this one, next time you’re doing a reinstall you will not yet have emptied this folder yet. Also, the ISO standard date makes it easy to sort the backup folders by date.)

Inside this folder you’ll create subfolders with relevant names as you need them. Now start the hard work of looking through your computer for all the stuff you need saved. I usually do like this:


Look at every file on your desktop. Usually a lot of these will be shortcuts to programs, half finished documents, resized images, and other general useless files. Delete the ones you don’t need anymore, and copy the rest to a subfolder named “Desktop” in the backup folder.


Look through your “My documents” folder. This includes “My pictures”, “My videos”, “My music” etc. Some people use these folders a alot. Others never use them. Anyway its always worth a look to make sure that nothing important is here. If so, copy everything to a subfolder of the backupfolder. Name the subfolder “Documents.” (I think you got the picture now.)

If you want to open each document to see whats in them now is a good time. Right now your pc probably still has all the applications that are needed to open the documents. One thing is for sure, it won’t have those after the reinstall. Installing programs AFTER the reinstall just to open a document, just to see that you don’t need the document, or the program, anymore… is simply just a waste of time.

The C drive root

Always have a look at the root of the c drive. Some programs, and some people have a tendency to just throw things there… just because its an easy to find location.

The appdata folder

In recent versions of Windows programs are supposed to save their settings etc. in a hidden folder called AppData. The easiest way to see whats in it is to press the “Windows key + R”, and then type %APPDATA% including the %, in the window that shows. Press enter to open the AppData folder. This will work even if you don’t have the “Show Hidden Folders” turned on.

Just give this folder a quick look. Often nothing important will be here, but some games will store their save games here. You might want to copy those specific files.

Other stuff to save

There is still a lot more files to look for, but those will depend on how you use your pc. Examples are:

Digital signatures

These are the special files that are needed to log in to your home banking, government websites etc. Not all banks have these, but you can be pretty sure that if your log in system requires JAVA on your pc to work, it does have a “key file” somewhere. Usually you can go to the website and make a backup of these files somehow. Its usually worth some time to look into this, because its often a pain to get a new key file and a new login to these systems. Sometimes it may even cost money to get a new login.

Mail data

If you are still in the stone age, and use a mail program instead of webmail, then you also need to make a backup of the files where your emails are stored. For some reason this is often incredibly difficult, and it changes often when a new version of the mail program comes out. Whenever a friend calls me to get help with this I basically have to learn everything from scratch every time. I do this by searching google, and doing a lot of reading. And really… theres no reason why you should not do this yourself instead of calling your favorite IT geek 😉

Also, consider moving to a webmail system. Today webmail systems like gmail etc. will work just as fast, and be able to do just as much as your email program. They can even get mail from the same account as your email program does. Moving to webmail will give you one less headache next time you need to reinstall your pc.

Remember that you probably also need to make a backup of a contact list of some sort.


This is one thing I always used to forget, and even though its hardly very important data (They can easily be recreated if you can just find the site again.) it’s still one of the things that make people whine the most when I forget to save these 🙂

To make a backup of your bookmarks you’ll have to figure out how your browser stores these.

  • Firefox has an export/import function. Just export them to a file inside your ReinstallBackup2010-02-11 folder, and then import them later.
  • Internet Explorer stores all the bookmarks in the Favorites folder under your user folder. Just copy the entire favorites folder to back them up. To restore, just throw the contents into the new favorites folder when you are back with the new system.


When you’re done, and you have double checked everything, unplug the external drive.

Now rest and relax. With all your data on the external drive, it really does not matter how much you screw up during the install, because you’re not going to be able to “break anything”.

80% of your work is done, now head on to the install of the new clean system.

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