Whether you're upgrading or repairing your computer, at some point in time you'll be faced with the task of reinstalling your operating system, especially in the Windows world.

As I can personally attest, most of the frustration with starting fresh comes from losing your installed programs and customized settings with them. Sure, you can create tweaked installation discs to automate the process and have all your drivers, programs and settings already in place. The problem is that most people won't reinstall Windows more than once or twice a year. When the time comes to use your customized OS disc, new versions of your programs and drivers will have been released.

Despite serious attempts to be organized, almost every time that I reinstall my OS I manage to forget something. It's a phenomenon that forever haunts me, and I know I'm not alone. But being the clever guy that I am, after years of curiously skimming my programs folder trying to determine what's missing, I've decided to create a checklist. Never again will my stomach knot up on the first Windows boot after realizing that I overwrote a year's worth of saved games.

Sadly, the mind behind this list is the same flawed creature responsible for my troubles to begin with; so please, if you have something to add, share it with us in the comments.

The Checklist

  • Typical user folder data:
    All your documents, pictures, music, videos, downloads, contacts and so on.
    If you are a tiny bit organized most of these files should reside in Windows' Documents folder.
  • Email data and Address Book:
    All your emails, address book, rules, accounts, etc.
    Gmail is a godsend but call me old fashioned, I still like to have my local copy of emails stored in Outlook. Luckily it's super easy to save all your emails to a .pst file. Whether you use Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora or any other email client, there's additional data you may want to save like your address book, email rules, or even the mail accounts themselves.
  • Game data:
    Saved games and configuration files.
    Many modern Windows games will save your sessions within the My Documents folder or your user profile's folder. If not, you will have to travel to each game's folder and figure out which are the files needed to be saved.
  • Browser-related data:
    Bookmarks/Favorites, custom settings, and add-ons.
    This can be done painfully easy by a number of Firefox add-ons (scroll down to our Did you Know? tip for a link). For other browsers you may have to resort to less automated processes. Many users will also tell you that you are better off using web-based bookmarking services like delicious.
  • Instant Messaging:
    Sent/received files and chat logs.
    Although logs may not be as important (in fact, wiping them doesn't sound like a bad idea), IM programs tend to save received files at odd locations. With that in mind we suggest you check those folders for potentially unsaved data.
  • Others:
    Every shred of data you may need from financial applications, password manager data, OPML file from your RSS reader, media player library information and playlists.
Other things to consider
  • Take a few screenshots for your reference:
    I have learned over time that it's a good idea to take screenshots to make the reinstall process a breeze. I suggest taking screenshots of your desktop, Start menu, and installed programs list (from the Control Panel). Also anything with a lot of settings (e.g. firewall with a ton of exceptions), and a screenshot of all your Firefox add-ons, despite of having them backed up already.
  • Download installers in advance:
    Backing up may take a long while depending on where you are moving data, so downloading the latest versions of your hardware drivers and software applications in advance will save you time after reloading your OS to a clean state.

Did you know?
FEBE can back up and restore your Firefox bookmarks, cookies, extensions, passwords, preferences, themes and just about anything else. It is a must-have if you're running Firefox beyond a vanilla install.

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