Windows Reloads Revisited

There's more than one way to fix a wayward Windows setup, so pick the right fix for the job.

Winmag March 19, 2001

After last week's article on reinstalling Windows, many readers wrote in with their own suggestions on how to avoid installaholism. I'm going to look at some of them this week to run down their good and bad points. Ideally, of course, you don't want to do anything but enjoy using the PC. Software should just work, and at worst you'd have to uninstall an application if it turned out to have bugs or be incompatible with your system. But we're living in the real world here. Software breaks in strange and mysterious ways, sometimes taking your whole system down in the process. So, repair we must.

Disk Images

Several readers wrote in to say they avoid Windows reinstalls by using disk imaging software such as Norton Ghost. I agree that Ghost-like utilities can be useful, and I use them extensively for trying out beta versions of Windows and applications on my test systems. But they're a sledge hammer with very little fine-tuning control. If you use them right after installing Windows and your essential applications, you'll have a clean setup that can save you time if you have to recover in the future. But they're not a substitute for backups. You've got to be ab-so-lutely intense about saving your important data, using techniques like the ones I've covered in recent columns. When you restore that saved image back to your disk, there's no hope of recovering any data you had previously on your disk. If you don't have up-to-the-minute backups of important data such as email folders, documents, and registry settings, you'll be back to step one in the system configuration tango.

System Restore

System Restore can be a really useful way to back out of a system problem and avoid a reinstall. One of the few new features that Windows Me added, System Restore performs a checkpoint on your system every few hours or whenever you install new applications or patches from Windows Update. If your system starts to misbehave, you can go to Start | Help to run System Restore and set your system back to a previous configuration of program files. One very good thing about SR is that it doesn't affect your data files the way an image backup will.

Separate Partitions

Another popular technique for system organization suggested by several readers is to keep different types of files on different partitions. For example, Windows itself could be on C:, applications on D:, and your data files on E:. This is a technique I used to use back in the Windows 95 days, and would seem to be a good one today. Drives are so large that it would seem like a good idea to partition them down to smaller sizes. What I've found, though, is that this organization actually makes the system slower. Instead of having all the files close to each other in one partition, you've spread them out over multiple partitions which requires more disk head movement. In particular, this defeats the disk head optimization technique used in the Win98/Me Disk Defragmenter utility. While analyzing results at the PC Pitstop site I've also seen some puzzling behavior from Win98/Me when a disk is split into four or more partitions. It seems that the disk cache becomes less effective, particularly for the C drive. I've never been able to come up with a reason for why this happens, but it does seem occur.

Separate Drives

Although too many partitions can cause trouble, multiple drives are pretty cool. You can keep an image backup of your primary drive on the second drive, along with backups of your data and other important settings. (It seems like you should easily be able to put the WinMe System Restore data there as well, but there's no user interface I can find to change the location. There's a file named C:\Windows\System\Restore\Rest.ini that keeps the root path, and several registry keys have to be changed as well.) I keep the Windows swap file on my second drive, although with 128MB of RAM it isn't used much. The second drive provides a quick and painless way to keep a set of backup files on hand in case there's a problem.

Creeping Crud Collection

If you're a neat freak--not that I'm one of course--you may be bothered by the fact that the Windows and System directories become clogged over time with lots of useless files. Similarly, there are often lots of useless registry keys as well. Most of this is junk left behind from incomplete installs or less-than-stellar uninstalls. The problem is figuring out which is junk and which is really needed. Sometimes you can tell by the name, so it's a good bet you don't need QUICKEN.INI or any of its registry keys if you uninstalled Quicken. Utilities like RegClean (available from Microsoft Downloads) and DLLArchive can help, and they don't go astray too often. Fred Langa's covered quite a bit of detail on this problem with his Scrub Your Hard Disk Clean series of columns.

Cleaning up after sloppy programs is a pain. I don't have a magic bullet here, unfortunately, unless you want to clean-install Windows. But that's the habit we're trying to kick, remember?