The Internet is full of how to articles on how to rebuild or reload your operating system; some of them good, some of them not so good, some of them too complex for novis users.   I rebuild my PCs at home on a regular basis, because a clean PC is a happy and healthy PC.  I also build and rebuild PCs at work all day long for various reasons.  It is a process I’ve repeated hundreds of times with many different operating systems on various PC makes.  Sometimes it’s easier to just wipe it out and start from scratch than to take time to troubleshoot a nagging problem.  And let’s face it, if you want to truly be certain you’ve gotten rid of a virus, then a rebuild is the best way to go. 
Over time your PC becomes cluttered with temp files, cookies, unused software or other crap that will slow down the performance.  Many people get frustrated with this and up spending money needlessly on a new PC or they turn to less than reputable software that claims to clean up and speed up your PC.  These programs usually promise a lot more than they deliver and leave you in the same boat, or they further infect your computer with other malware or spyware and make the situation worse.  Remember the old saying “knowledge is power”.  Retail stores such as Best Buy and the now defunct Circuit City charge an absolute fortune for simple work that you can do yourself.  This practice by these retail chains really gets my blood boiling because they are preying on the uninformed consumer and they love an uninformed consumer.  They charge outrageous fees to do work that any PC user with a little bit of knowledge can do themselves.  The people they hire to do the work that they claim to be elite computer gurus are no more than amateurs with slightly more knowledge than your own.  For some it is their first job in the field and they have little or no experience.  Some even take the opportunity to snoop at the contents of your computer for their own ill gotten gains.  This is certainly not true of everyone out there, but more often than not, just like with car mechanics, there are some that use the customers’ lack of knowledge against them. 
Now be warned this is not a wham, bam, thank you man kind of procedure, but it’s not as hard as you might think it is.  All it takes a little bit of prep work and some time.  You don’t have to be a PC genius to do your own PC maintenance.  All you need is a good working knowledge of things and someone willing to help you if you run into problems.  I am going to walk you through it and if you’re eager to learn, you can save yourself a lot of headaches and maybe a little bit of money.
Locate and identify drivers and software
The first thing you want to do is make sure you have drivers for the hardware in your computer.  It’s best to do this ahead of time, otherwise like my brother Mike always does, you’ll realize that you don’t have your network card driver and can’t get to the Internet to download one without it.  This usually involves him calling me to help talk him through finding his network card driver.  Network card, video card and chipset drivers are the most important to have, you can usually download the latest version of other hardware drivers once you get the PC to a working state.
Most PCs like Dell, HP, etc. come with CD or DVD disks that have the drivers on them.  You need to make sure you have these disks on hand before starting your rebuild or you’re going to be spending a lot of time trying to find them later.  Sometimes the OS isn’t clear about what device is missing a driver and you can really make a mess of things by guessing and installing random drivers until you find the right one.  So have your drivers on hand is a good basic rule to stick to.  Another good rule is once you have them all together; put them in a safe place that you can get to them easily.  Go buy yourself a cheap CD disk binder and keep them stored there, but don’t misplace the binder.
Another set of files and disks you want to have on hand is your software.  The OS disk is the most important because if you don’t have it, then you’re dead in the water.  Like the driver disks, most OEM PCs come with a disk that contains the OS that came installed on it.  It’s also a good idea but not required that you have the latest service pack for your OS, it will save you a little time when you’re downloading updates later in this process.  Often times the basic software titles that came with the PC are also included.  Hopefully you kept these disks and have them available.  Any other software not on a CD or DVD or any other kind of storage medium such as software you’ve downloaded and have stored on your hard drive we’ll cover in the next step.
In addition to your software disks, you will also need any license keys, serial numbers or authorization codes needed for reinstalling your software.  Having these is very important because if you don’t it will bring your rebuild to a grinding halt in some cases.
Backup your files
Back up procedures is a pretty lengthy subject, but it’s necessary to this process so I’ll try to get you through it as quickly as possible.  This has got to be one of the most important steps we’re going to cover, so pay close attention to what I am going to tell you.  This also applies to times when you’re not rebuilding your PC.
Back up your files, back up your files, back up your files.  I cannot stress it enough.  One of the things I hear the most from people is, “My computer got a virus and I had to reload the OS, is there any way you can recover my files?”  This is the time I clench my fist and through gritted teeth I politely say “No”.
We are in an era when people have music, pictures, text documents and everything else stored on their PCs.  Some people have the sum of their existence stored on their hard drive.  Financial records, resumes, email, calendars, address books and more.  No one writes anything down anymore because it’s easier to type it and store on the PC.  No one really bothers to think about losing that data until it’s too late.  Having a good back up plan and system worked out ahead of time is a really good idea.  There is nothing more frustrating than losing music that took you time and money to accumulate or family pictures that are irreplaceable.
With that being said, sometimes backing up files is a little more difficult than some people realize because they don’t know what to back up.  Software these days store data in places you may not think to look in.  There are also all kinds of things beyond just personal data and music you might want to back up.  I will try to cover this in as much detail as I can without giving you a migraine.
Step one, create a folder somewhere on let’s say your desktop and name it ‘Backup’.  You’re going to find all your data and either copy or move it to this folder.  I would suggest you copy rather than cutting and pasting the data in case something goes wrong in the transfer.  It is better to be safe, than sorry.  Knowing where your data is is crucial.
Let’s first cover your profile.  This is the area of your PC where the OS stores the majority of your files.  Since Windows 2000, Microsoft has made the user profile more and more prevalent and even more critical.  All types of information is stored in your profile.  This generally isn’t a good practice because a large user profile can slow down boot times considerably.  But we’ll save that subject for another lesson.  Some people tend to just back up the entire profile and that will certainly work, but you often have information that you just simply don’t need.  The most commonly used and missed areas in your profile are located in the My Documents folder.  This folder often has subfolders that have music, pictures and videos.  You want to make sure you get these folders in your backup plan.  You also want to get the Favorites folder, this has all of your Internet shortcuts and if you’re like most people, you have a ton of them, so back this folder up also.  You will also want to grab the Desktop folder and any other folders you may have created that contain data you want to keep.  For those of you who have Windows Vista or Windows 7, the “downloads” folder is likely to have some files in it so don’t forget it.  Microsoft also has a tool called the User State Migration Tool.  This is a handy little program that will locate and back up any data you want it to find.  It is also a good alternative to hunting around yourself trying to find your data.
Next you will want to go into whatever program you’re using for email and make sure you back up your email, calendar and contact list.  You will have to rely on your own knowledge for this because there are simply too many variables to give you a concise list of instructions.  Most programs have a way to back up or archive your email and other info.  If you’re using Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft Mail, you can easily archive everything into separate files; add these to your backup folder. 
Now comes the time when you have to really think about what’s on your PC.  If you have games, iTunes, Firefox or anything that might store settings or other data you want to keep, you will need to go searching for that data.  Most games these days store settings and saved games in your profile, so you won’t have to look far to find it.  Apple iTunes also stores its data and files in your profile and is usually clearly labeled.  Make sure you go into iTunes and reauthorize your account from your PC.  You can only have 5 PCs authorized to a single account and if you mess up and don’t do this, you might find it difficult to get your iTunes working again once you reinstall it.  For those of you will a Dell PC, there is a folder labeled ‘Dell’ in the root of your Windows or C: drive.  You might want to consider including this in your backup.  This is where Dell stores the drivers for your PC and will save you some time trying to locate your drivers.
Once you have all your files and data in one place; the folder you created on your desktop, back that thing up to a CD or DVD or flash drive or any storage device of your choice.  Be mindful of the size of your back up folder and choose something big enough to hold it all.  Once you have your files backed up, label your backup including the date and keep it safe.
Prepare and reload your OS
Now you’re all ready to start the rebuild process.  You’ll want to locate your OS CD or DVD, put it in the appropriate optical drive and reboot your PC.  For this we’re going to assume that you are using some flavor of Microsoft Windows, probably Vista or Windows 7.  I am also going to assume you know how or have already set your PC to boot from the optical or CD/DVD drive.  You can do this by either changing the boot order in the BIOS or with a key stroke during the boot process.  Once you’ve started the PC booting from your OS disk it will take a few minutes to load.  It is a good idea to unplug your network cable from the back of your PC.  During certain points of the install, your PC will be vulnerable to hackers and viruses.  With no anti-virus installed you are wide open to attack, unplugging your network cable will keep you safe until you install an anti-virus program.
You will probably be required to answer a few questions and click through a few screens prior to the OS beginning to install.  Some operating systems will ask you for the registration code before proceeding with the install so remember when I told you to have all your software codes and serial numbers?  Now is when you will need them.  There is an important step at this point that you’ll need to make a decision on; the decision to partition your hard drive.  Most of you won’t need to do this, but for those of you that want to partition your hard drive, now is the time to do it because doing after the OS is installed is a lot more difficult.  Windows 7 creates two partitions on your hard drive during the install.  One partition is called “system” and is usually around 200MB and the other is labeled “Windows” and contains the remaining space of your drive where the OS will be installed.  Once you have gone through this the OS will begin the install process and you can kick back and either watch, or go make yourself a sandwich.  Depending on the OS you’re installing and the specs of your PC, this process can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes on average.
Installing Drivers
Once your PC has installed the OS and rebooted for the final time you’re left with a nice clean load on your hard drive and are now ready to begin installing service packs, drivers and updates.  There are various schools of thought as to the order to install hardware drivers.  And although I believe that there is an order you should stick to, I have had few problems loading drivers out of the recommended order.  So if you are in doubt, you can play it by ear.  If you have the latest service pack for your OS you’ll want to go ahead and install it first.  It will install a fair number of OS updates and hot fixes and will save you a lot of downloading time when installing updates later.  If your OS has already installed a driver for a piece of hardware you probably won’t need to overwrite what has already been installed, but it is a good idea to install the latest drivers from the manufacturer.  Sometimes the signed drivers from Microsoft aren’t ideal.  It is also a good idea to keep certain pieces of hardware current with the latest drivers; your video card for example.  Follow the order I’ve listed below.  If prompted to reboot by any of the installs, do so before proceeding to the next.
1.       Service pack
2.       Chipset driver
3.       Network card driver
4.       Video card driver
5.       Sound card driver
6.       TV tuner card driver
7.       Mouse and keyboard driver
8.       Any remaining hardware drivers
Installing anti-virus and OS updates
Now that you’ve got your hardware up and running you’ll need to install an anti-virus program.  If you don’t already have one there are literally dozens of choices.  I generally recommend Microsoft Security Essentials because it works well with nearly every version of Windows, it does a good job against viruses and spyware and most importantly it’s free.
There is something that needs to be said about anti-virus software.  This is the one area that people are the most lacking in keeping up with.  A good and updated anti-virus program is absolutely necessary if you spend any time at all on the Internet.  Keeping your anti-virus updated is not difficult and you should make sure at least once a week that yours is current with the latest updates.  Nearly all of them can be set to automatically update itself on a schedule you can determine.  For those PCs that came with an anti-virus preinstalled:  these are usually only 60 to 90 day trials at which time require you to purchase them in order to receive updates.  Many people leave it at that and don’t ever check the anti-virus software again, never realizing or ignoring the warnings when the trial runs out.  This leaves them wide open to viruses, malware and spyware.  They are left with a false sense of security that they are protected against viruses and the like.  So make sure you install a good and reputable anti-virus program.  Another important thing to remember is that you should only install but one anti-virus program.  Having more than one does not increase your level of security.  Most often one program will report that the other is a virus and will cause all sorts of mayhem on your PC.
Now that you have your anti-virus software installed, go ahead and plug your network cable back in and update the anti-virus program, rebooting if prompted.  Once you’ve updated your anti-virus software you’re ready to begin downloading updates to your OS.  Assuming you are using Microsoft Windows, there is usually always an icon in the start menu to Windows Updates, or you can go to http://updates.microsoft.com.  Once you click on it, it will open Internet Explorer and take you to the Windows Updates website.  When presented with a choice of an express or custom install, choose custom.  Once there, you will be presented with a list of critical and recommended updates for your OS.  For novis users I recommend installing everything listed, but not all at one time, first start with the critical updated listed at the top, once those are done keep working your way down.  Depending on how many updates are available at the time, this could take a while, especially if you do not have a fast internet connection.  Here is where having the latest service pack could save you some time, but don’t worry if you didn’t, the update site should have the latest one listed for you.  Remember to reboot each time when prompted.  You will have to keep going back to the update site until there are no more updates listed.  If you get a message telling you that certain updates did not install, don’t panic, they will the next time you go back.  You’re now in the home stretch.
Clean Up and other software
When Windows has finally finished installing all of its updates you should be left with a nice shiny new PC load ready to install your preferred software on.  Now is the best time to make little settings adjustments and preferences such as wallpaper, mouse sensitivity, menu preferences, etc.  Once you’ve got everything the way you want it you can begin installing other software. 
At this point, a lot of experienced users like to make an image of their hard drive in this pristine state.  It’s not necessary unless you want to save yourself the trouble of going through all of this again the next time you want to rebuild your PC.  Personally I do not like to do this because the image file or files created are usually rather large and you don’t want to store them on your hard drive.  I have a sick sense of what I find fun and rather enjoy rebuilding my PCs. 
A good rule of thumb is if you plan on installing Microsoft Office, now is the time to do it.  Once installed you’ll need to go back to the Windows Update site and get all the latest updates for your flavor of Office.  You can certainly install Office before you download any of your OS updates, I do not like to do that, but it will not harm or disrupt the process.
You can now restore your data from the backup you created and begin installing other programs or games or any other software you choose.  You have a nice fresh install on your PC and it should be running nice and smooth without all the clutter accumulated over months of Internet surfing and programs you no longer use.  I hope this tutorial is helpful to you.  If you have any questions or just run into a snag and you’re not sure what to do next, feel free to email me at wordofthenerd@gmail.com.
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