fresh Windows installation to a new solid-state drive
© 2012 by KV5R. Rev. August 5, 2012.
Why do it, when you can just clone? After all, a full re-install is a huge amount of aggravating work, and can take 4-40 hours, depending on how much stuff you’ve installed and customized, and your past experience with fresh set-ups. After several months or years of use, most users will have customized a great many things in their computer, like operating system settings, applications’ options and preferences, and for “power users,” a great deal more. All will have to be done again after a fresh install, although you can save a lot of trouble by backing up and restoring various configuration files and such, if you can locate them beforehand.
There are at least several good reasons for doing a fresh install:
- If you bought a new computer with Windows installed, it likely came with a lot of crap-ware and trial-ware. We all uninstall that junk, but let’s face it: traces get left behind, and the best way to get rid of it is to do a fresh install with a clean Windows retail installation disk.
- After a couple years, even a well-maintained Windows installation will become somewhat bogged down and sluggish with garbage and thousands of orphaned registry entries. Also, poorly maintained systems are likely to be bloated with spy-ware, ad-ware, unintended add-ons, and other such crap.
- When I’ve done full re-installs, I’ve found that there was just a lot of software that I had installed but so rarely used that it wasn’t worth re-installing. You can always do so later if really needed—and you might go searching and find something better.
- You might have a hidden partition on your hard drive (usually a recovery partition) that you’ve already backed up to DVDs and you don’t want the recovery partition eating 13-16 gigs on your new SSD.
- If you bought a new computer a while back and used Windows Easy Transfer to move things from your old computer, your new computer inherited a lot of mess it doesn’t need, particularly if your new one came with a later version of Windows.
- You’ll eventually need to do a fresh install anyway, and doing so in conjunction with a new SSD install is a great time to do it. And remember that installing the operating system and software goes a lot faster on an SSD—huge office apps that used to take like two hours will install to SSD in like fifteen minutes.
Advanced Preparation for a Fresh Install
It’s a good idea to spend several hours preparing for any re-install. Indeed, the more you do beforehand, the faster you’ll be done with the new installation and configuration. Think of it this way: almost everything you configure is stored somewhere, and if it’s in a file, you can save that file and restore it later, popping your hard-earned customizations, settings, and templates right into the new install. The only thing you can’t do is simply copy the registry—and you wouldn’t want to—the best thing about a re-install is getting a nice, clean, fresh, fast registry.
Here’s my pretty good to-do list (and there are many others on-line):
- System Drivers: Locate and back up all the driver install files and hardware vendors’ software that you’ll need to re-install first, such as motherboard chipset, audio, graphics, mouse, printer, LAN, and etc.
- Make a list of applications that you currently have installed and want to keep, along with their license keys. Locate and organize the original disks and/or installation files, which should be placed on your back-up drive for later retrieval.
- Make a list of all the other stuff, by folder, that you have and want to keep, that are not in the “installed” list. Things like folders of PDF files, utilities, and anything else you store outside of the Users tree. Put them on your back-up drive. Well, you can back up your whole drive to your back-up drive in a file-by-file operation (not a compressed backup image) so you can get to them individually during the re-install. There are several free backup programs that back up file-by-file (not images), and I use FBackup, because it’s the best of the free ones. I had it scheduled to back up the whole drive once a week, and certain folders every 6 hours, incrementally. It uses Windows’ VSS (Volume Shadow-copy Service) and so is able to back up all files, even those in-use and locked, like your system files and restore points.
- Make a list of all those relatively obscure folder paths where things like your email databases and contact list are stored. Make sure you have “Show all files” turned on, because most of these are in “hidden” folders such as \users\you\appdata. You can search on-line to determine many such locations for various software. There is absolutely no reason to lose all your stored emails just because you bought a new computer or drive, or re-installed Windows!
- Obviously, you’ll back up and restore all your Users data folders, like Documents, Music, Pictures, Bookmarks, Contacts, and everywhere else you store data. Just be careful to not restore all folders from hidden folders like AppData, because some of those will need to be rebuilt by the applications you install, else you end up with a mess. But do restore related AppData folders after you re-install the relevant app, and you should be back like it was before. Same thing applies to the folders in the hidden ProgramData folder. If your computer has more than one user (besides Administrator, Default, DefaultAppPool, and Public), then be careful to restore folders to the correct users.
Here’s how I handle all that mess: I maintain a large folder tree called C:\X. In X, I have sub-folders for miscellaneous things, and one of them is called Installed. For everything that I have installed, the install file goes into an appropriately-named sub-folder. If it installed from a CD or DVD disk, I extract the ISO from the CD (with ImgBurn) and put the ISO in appropriately-named sub-folders (CDs and DVDs can go bad or get damaged and if you have the ISO file you can always burn a new one). If I uninstall a program, but want to keep it for “maybe later,” I move its folder and install file from Installed to another folder called Uninstalled. X gets backed up to an external eSATA drive once a week. So, I’m using the the file system itself as both a list and an organized storage space for everything I have installed (and more). Thus, during re-installation, I can just go through all the folders in X\Installed and re-install everything. Some things, like your anti-virus and Adobe Reader, are best re-installed from on-line to get the latest version, so I make a folder of that name and just put a little file therein as a note that says “get-on-line.” I also keep a bunch of PDF books, info, and stand-alone utilities in sub-folders of X. The reason all this isn’t under a Users folder is that I want to back up X on a different schedule, and X is more like a big archive file-cabinet that offices would keep in a back store-room.
For all the user data stuff, well, that’s what a regular, incremental file-by-file backup is for, and my user folder backup gets quietly refreshed every 3 hours.
Once you have located, documented, and stored everything that you will need to re-install and re-configure, it’s time to start the actual re-installation.
Re-installation Using the OEM Recovery Disks or Partition
If you computer did not come with a physical operating system disk (as most don’t nowadays), you will need to either re-install from your hidden recovery partition (or the recovery DVDs you should have burned right after you bought the computer), or obtain an operating system install disk or image needed for your particular system. Since I use Windows 7 Home Premium SP1, I’ll focus on that here. Those who run Linux systems already know how easy it is to re-install that, so there’s no need to cover it.
There are at least a couple of ways you can use your OEM recovery partition for re-installing Windows:
- Use your recovery DVD set to restore the computer to a factory-new condition (along with all that junk-ware it came with).
- Clone the HD to the SSD, then boot the recovery partition and do a recovery, which will wipe out and re-create your C: drive. The disadvantage is that you’ll eat about 13-16 gigs of your SSD with the recovery partition. It’s insignificant on a 500+ gig HDD, but not so on a much smaller SSD. You can always delete the recovery partition later and slide your System Reserved and C: partitions down and then extend the C: to fill the remainder of the drive.
Note that the big disadvantage of using the recovery system is that it will return your computer to a factory-new state, complete with all the junk-ware and trial-ware, which you will later have to remove, again. The advantage is that your system’s drivers will also be installed—but let’s face it, you’ll have to locate them on-line and update them anyway, unless your computer is very new. Another disadvantage is that if your computer is over a year or two old there will be hundreds of Windows Updates to download and install. Doing a fresh install with a more recent Windows installer will already have most of them included in the release.
Re-installation Using a Windows Install Disk with Your OEM Key
A better, though slightly more complex, option is to obtain a clean Windows 7 installation image (your edition: Home, Pro, Ultimate, and x86, x64, etc.) on-line, download it, and burn the ISO file to a DVD. Note that on computers that come with Windows pre-installed and activated, the key you need will not be the same as the COA (certificate of authority) key on the holographic sticker, but the one the OEM used to pre-install and pre-activate Windows. You will need to use a utility to back up your OEM-SLI key and system certificate beforehand. The key and certificate pair are tied to your particular motherboard and BIOS, so you can’t move the OS to another computer by using this method, but you’ll end up with a Windows install that looks, to Windows Activation, just like the OEM install.
About a week after cloning the SSD, I had to do a complete fresh install, due to Catalyst Control Center (AMD Radeon graphics card software) trashing my system. CCC would install but not run, and in many attempts to get it working, un-installing and re-installing the .NET framework made an irrecoverable mess. I finally “fixed” the problem by ordering an nVidia card, removing the Radeon, and re-installing Windows. Oh well… I was planning on doing a fresh install pretty soon anyway… So here we go. As usual, YMMV, and all the standard disclaimers apply.
I used this method and, after getting UAC nonsense disabled, it worked well. I had the computer back in a familiar state in about 2-3 hours, and all the essential software and data re-installed in 12 hours. Other stuff can wait until I need them (if ever).
- Download an ISO of Windows 7 (or whatever you have, but search for the latest service pack release). It’s well over 3 gigs and will take a few hours hours on broadband. It’s legal to do so because you will be using a license key for which you already paid when you bought the computer, and the key, with its certificate, is tied to your motherboard and BIOS. Here’s a list of W7-SP1 ISOs. If you’re reading this much after July 2012, search for the latest Service Pack release. Make sure to get the same edition (Home, Pro, Ultimate) and type (x86, x64) as you already have. The Windows ISOs are made available by Digital River, and on-line vendors who sell Windows licenses use them to fulfill such sales.
- Then get ImgBurn to burn the ISO to a DVD, and do so (it’s very easy). Also, save the ISO file to your backup drive, in case the DVD ever fails. You now have an official Windows install disk.
- Download the SLIC Toolkit to save your SLI key and certificate (Advanced, Backup). Put the two files it makes on your backup drive. (That link may break after a while, so you may need to just search for the latest SLIC Toolkit.)
- Power down and remove (or at least disconnect) all drives (except the DVD drive) from the computer.
- Plug the new SSD into same cables where your hard drive was connected.
- Power on and immediately hit the correct key to enter the BIOS Setup screen and set the BIOS to boot from the optical drive. Also, make sure the system’s ATA/IDE host adapter is set to AHCI mode. Put the Windows install disk you made in the optical drive, then Save and Exit the BIOS setup. The computer should boot the Windows install disk.
- Install Windows as usual, but do not put in any license key. You’ll have 30 days to activate, but you’ll be injecting your certificate and SLI key soon, and that will activate it.
- After Windows installation completes (about 15 minutes), boot the new Windows installation and attach your back-up drive (or establish your LAN connection) and locate your backed-up SLI and certificate files.
- Open a command prompt (as administrator) and use the Windows utility called
slmgr.vbsto install the certificate and key:
- To install certificate: Type
slmgr.vbs -ilc E:\YOUR_FILE.xrm-ms(where E is your real ext drive letter and a path if needed, and YOUR-FILE is the real name of the .xrm-ms file you earlier backed up with SLIC Toolkit). The script will dialog either an error or success. If it fails, make sure your command window says Administrator in the title-bar.
- To install the OEM-SLI key: Type
slmgr.vbs -ipk XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX(where Xs = your SLI key that you’ll find in
ProductID.txt, also earlier saved with SLIC Toolkit.
- After that, right-click Computer, select Properties, and at the bottom it should say “Windows is Activated” and the ProductID shows the same OEM number as you had before. While there, refresh your Windows Experience Index.
- To install certificate: Type
Note that all this is not some license crack—it’s all legal, since it’s the same way your OEM activated it in the first place. And you’re not trying to boot-leg, you’re trying to use one copy for which you already paid, on the same machine. The SLI key will be the same for all computers made by your OEM, but it’s the system certificate that ties it to your particular computer, and each one is unique, so you cannot use it with another computer (or motherboard).
Alternately, you can simply install Windows and enter the COA key from the case sticker, but now it will be a “retail” install, not an “OEM” install.