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Reinstall Windows Without Losing Your Data

By Lincoln Spector
December 7, 2010 09:20 PM ET

Whether you needed to copy the data from the external drive or not, you should now have a Windows Explorer window open and displaying multiple folders--one for each user logon. For convenience's sake, I'm going to call this window the Backup Location.

Open a second Windows Explorer window, and navigate to C:\Users (Windows 7 or Vista) or C:\Documents and Settings (XP). I'll call this window the Proper Location, because it's where your data should be--and eventually will be.

Do the following for each user:

Open the user's folders in both the Backup and Proper Locations. You will see additional folders, mostly the same ones, inside each. Drag some of the folders from Backup to Proper.

Which folders should you move? The obvious ones are Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. Their names may or may not be prefaced with My. XP users needn't worry about the lack of Music, Pictures, and Videos folders--they're inside Documents.

You should absolutely not move AppData (Windows 7 and Vista) or 'Application Data and Local Settings' (XP). These folders are hidden, so it's likely you won't see them, anyway.

Use your own judgment about other folders. Just remember that the folders you don't move aren't going away immediately, so you can always correct that mistake.

You'll get several error messages as you move the folders. If Windows asks, yes, you do want to merge folders. Replacing a file with one that has the same name is also probably safe, but use your own judgment.

That process will take care of your documents, spreadsheets, pictures, music, and so on. Application data (Firefox settings, Outlook data files, and the like) is more complicated. Each application has its own way of handling the task, so I can give you no general instructions.

Just remember that you still have this data in your Backup Location, and you can restore it when you need it. You'll find it in the AppData folder for Windows 7 and Vista, and the Application Data and Location Settings\Application Data folders in XP. All of these folders are hidden, visible only if you tell Windows Explorer to display hidden files. See "Back Up, Restore, and Migrate Firefox" and "Back Up and Restore Outlook" for instructions involving two popular programs.

Eventually you'll be able to delete your Backup or Windows.old folder. But don't rush. Wait a few months until you're sure it has nothing that you'll need again.

Well, that was a long and difficult slog. Let's hope that you won't have to do it again anytime soon.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes PCWorld's Answer Line column and blog.

Originally published on www.pcworld.com. Click here to read the original story.
Reprinted with permission from PCWorld.com. Story copyright 2012 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.
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