It seems that almost every time I re-install windows on my PC I end up forgetting to back up something. Now I consider myself an experienced pc-user, and I've done this tons of times, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I forget to backup something (sometimes important, sometimes trivial). I take it that it's usually because from the time i decide to re-install to when i start is pretty short, which really isn't a good thing

What I'm looking for is to build a checklist of common backup-todos before making a full re-install so that this hopefully won't happen again.

Update: To clarify a little, I'm interested in a good BASE-checklist I can use as a start. Which cover as many important components as possible. ie: Browser settings, Email, passwords, Contacts etc..

There will always be user-specific customization (apps, skins, plugin settings etc) which cannot be covered by this type of checklist, and that's ok.

  • 1
    Operating system CD key (if required)
    – jason
    Commented Jul 25, 2009 at 20:58
  • That usually comes printed on the side of your computer case / OS software packaging / on the disk...
    – KTC
    Commented Jul 25, 2009 at 21:30

8 Answers 8

  • Password database (e.g. PasswordSafe)
  • Accounting data (Quickbooks, ACCPAC, Pastel)
  • Any important account / login details
    • Paypal
    • Online banking
  • E-mails
  • Calendar, appointments
  • All documents (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, PDF)
  • Video, audio files
  • Any media library databases (Windows Media Player e.g.)
  • Serial numbers / details for unlocking purchased software
  • Downloaded software
  • Device drivers
  • Browser bookmarks
  • Databases (MS Access, SQL)

I recommend a program like SpaceMonger (there are free equivalents, I just prefer this program) which will scan your entire drive, and can present a list of all files by type. Then simply go through the file types that are important and you shouldn't miss too much.

As for registry settings etc, I haven't tried it, but it may be worth looking into the built-in files and settings migration wizard in Windows.

  • this is the closest answer that i feel covers my base needs. But also @Joe's suggestion is ultimately the best backup method "for all the other stuff"
    – pavsaund
    Commented Jul 26, 2009 at 18:21

Personally, I never reinstall without taking a full disk image of my existing OS...onto an external USB drive usually so it stays out of the way of your reinstallation.

So many times, I have needed something that wasn't in the directories I would have manually backed up.

Good hard drive imaging software would be Acronis True Image or Norton Ghost.

Usually with these programs, you can browse through a copy of the image afterwards from your new OS and just pick out the particular files you need without having to restore the entire image.

  • This is a good suggestion, and indeed something I've tried earlier... What I've ended up with though is this large backup, and no real overview of the important backuped up components. But this is really good to have, regardless for those small things that lie around in different directories
    – pavsaund
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 10:45
  • It should be noted that Acronis has gone downhill in the past few years and is no longer a good recommendation. Commented Oct 4, 2013 at 11:34

I backup:

  • my drivers, making installing easier (and browserless)
  • my antivirus installer!
  • program installers that are worth re-installing (or download them again)
  • program settings that only require copying folders
  • documents/pictures and other random files that aren't on a different drive
  • PST files so I don't have to redownload or lose email
  • browser settings like bookmakers (yes yes I should get that done online!)

That's about it

Edit: thanks for the email comment

  • Don't forget those PSTs! (For you Outlook users)
    – Travis
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 14:52
  • I keep running into trouble with my pst files turning into ost :S Then backing up always gives me trouble
    – Ivo Flipse
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 15:00

Instruction for geeks:

  • AppData (%APPDATA%). Most settings go to Roaming, but in some cases copying Local can be useful too. Most apps will use copied settings just fine.

  • Common AppData (%ALLUSERSPROFILE%). Usually nothing useful here, but some apps and games store settings and other data there.

  • Documents (%USERPROFILE%\Documents). Even if you don't use it (it became unusable nowadays), make sure to copy it. Lots of apps and games store settings, save files and other useful data there.

  • User profile (%USERPROFILE%). You don't need to copy the whole thing, but some files are important. AppData was covered above. Some apps (mostly stupid developer tools) keep settings here in *nix fashion (folders starting with dot). Don't forget about Saved Games folder.

  • Registry (HKLM\Software, HKCU). You can backup the whole hive using RegEdit, then load it in new OS to use a source for copying keys. Some apps store settings there, so it'll be much easier to restore their settings. If you export whole hives, you don't need to worry about navigating backuped data or missing something.

  • Apps heavily relying on plugins (Firefox, Total Commander, Miranda IM, World of Warcraft etc.) It takes a lot of time to configure them perfectly, so make sure you backuped them completely. Plugins can be placed within folders with binaries, so it's easy to miss them. If copying is problematic, at least save the complete list of plugins somewhere.

  • Fat games (Steam etc.). Downloading takes lots of time. You can avoid it by copying data. Not all games support copying, but lots do.

  • Fonts (C:\Windows\Fonts). Yes, you can just copy them.

  • hosts (C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc). This config file is very easy to miss.

  • Settings in system folder (C:\Windows\*.ini). Some ancient/stupid software can keep settings there. Some apps store settings even in Program Files, but it's super rare.

  • Exported settings (Visual Studio etc.). Some apps support importing and exporting settings explicitly. It's usually a better idea to rely on that feature rather than experiment with copying registry keys.

  • List of installed software. On modern Windows, it's executing PowerShell's Get-StartApps > list.txt. Not really necessary, but can be useful if you forget some app's name.

  • Everything else. Most likely, you created folders for videos, music, distribs, apps installed by unzipping etc. Usually these folders are created at the drive root, so it's hard to miss them (with porn folder being a notable exception — make sure you dig it out of C:\Windows\System32\Foobar).


If you re-install a lot, you might consider making a backup or image of your base install once you have installed your key applications, before you start using it. This will become a lot easier in windows 7 as you will be able to make a VHD file and use the boot to VHD feature to load the feature.

As to what to backup, it really depends on how much you customise windows and where you put everything.

I would recommend to take the time to audit your installed programs in program files, and write them down as a clean re-install also presents an opportunity to remove files that you don't need.

Depending on how much success you had with your last installation, you might want to take the time to prepare driver disk that has all the latest drivers for your hardware that you have installed on the system.

You should probably do a full backup anyway, just incase something goes wrong.

The mac has this great feature that you can re-install using your last time machine backup, it is shame that windows doesn't have that feature.

  • I'm not particularly concerned about the actual reinstall of applications / OS. I don't reinstall often enough for that to be a "bother". I'm looking more for items i don't want to lose
    – pavsaund
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 18:44

Since I keep my stuff within my user profile and not start randomly creating directories or stuff in the root of the partition it's relatively painless in that I just need to copy my user profile to another disk before reinstall and copy it back again.

I usually make a list of software to install and in which order, though. This helps getting a fresh install up and running within one afternoon.

Starting with Windows Vista there is also a tool that helps migrating everything you have onto a new installation. A friend tried it out when installing Windows 7 and it worked great.

  • browser settings(bookmarks, noscrip-whitelist, adlock-blacklist)
  • game saves
  • documents (all of 'My documents')
  • setting folders (under 'application data')

Most of this usually sits under the user profile directory.


Well, if you have to backup anything just because you're uninstalling the OS, your backup strategy is insufficient. A hard drive, virus, natural disaster or simply user error can happen at any time, and you should have proper automatic cloud backup scheduled for everything that is important to you at any given time. Any other backup strategy, on its own, is not good enough (especially manual ones). Personally I use SOS Online Backup, you can get 5GB for free by backing up your Facebook, Android, or iOS.

Having said that, I recently reinstalled my OS, and there are some things that I found convenient to back up, so that the reinstalling process is more streamlined:

  • List of browser extensions (I took a screenshot, but one could possibly use tools such as FEBE, personally I like a clean slate though)
  • List of installed software (I used Nirsoft's MyUninstaller to automatically generate an HTML report)
  • List of locations to back up (I guess I didn't backup the backup strategy itself!)
  • Exported my Windows Task Scheduler tasks (I have them backed up but exporting is more convenient)

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