A clean-slate reinstall for Windows 8

Windows 8′s built-in, automated ‘Remove everything and reinstall’ option provides a fast way to give systems a totally fresh start.

Used properly, it can clear up even the worst types of software trouble and malware infections — it can even help improve your privacy and data security.

Win8′s repairing, restoring, and rebuilding tools go beyond those found in previous versions of Windows. For example, Win 8′s built-in Refresh option lets you run a fast, no-reformat, nondestructive reinstall of the operating system.

The Refresh option restores Win8′s core system files to their original condition but doesn’t alter user accounts, passwords, or data. However, it might remove or alter some of your installed programs. (For more on Refresh, see the Aug. 15 Top Story, “A ‘no-reformat reinstall’ for Windows 8.”)

When system problems are too much for the Refresh option, Win8 also offers a second option: Remove everything and reinstall Windows — a highly automated, built-in tool that completely removes your existing setup and reinstalls Win8 from scratch. It even includes a data-overwriting option that’s useful when you’re recycling a PC.

(Although Windows 8 initially refers to this function as Remove everything and reinstall Windows, it’s more succinctly called Reset — which I’ll use from here on out — throughout the remove/reinstall process.)

Reset is primarily useful for two circumstances:

  • Securing personal data when the system is out of your hands: Reset can substantially improve privacy when you sell a PC, give it away, send it in for repair, or otherwise place the system in the hands of others. Not only will it wipe out all your user accounts, data, passwords, and installed programs, selecting the optional disk-wiping function helps ensure that no easily recoverable data is left on the hard drive.
  • Recovering a severely compromised or malfunctioning PC: When other recovery methods prove futile, Win8′s Reset will eliminate all traces of the bad setup and give you a simplified and properly functioning Win8 system. You can then reinstall any additional software you need (being careful to not re-create the previous problem) and then restore your user data from File History or whatever other backup medium you used.

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through a basic Reset operation to show how it works and what options you’ll encounter. In future installments, I’ll cover the rest of what’s new and different about Win8′s enhanced backup/recovery systems.

A few clicks give Win8 a completely new start

You’ll find Win8′s Reset function on the operating system’s PC Settings/General page. To get there, open the Charms bar and click Settings (the gear icon). Select Change PC settings (at the bottom of the Settings bar) and then click the General heading. Scroll down to Remove everything and reinstall Windows (circled in yellow in Figure 1).

Reinstall Windows

Figure 1. Win8’s Remove everything and reinstall Windows function is found on the PC settings/General page.

A full Windows 8 reset is serious business; it’ll begin by deleting everything on your hard drive. Before starting the process, Win8 warns you of what’s in store, as shown in Figure 2. (Note that Win8 now refers to the process as Reset.)

Reset your PC

Figure 2. Before making any changes, Win8 states what the Reset operation will do.

When you click Next, Win8 then looks in common locations for all system files it’ll need for a successful reinstall. Those files might be in a system image or recovery partition; on an attached or network-accessible hard drive; or on Win8 installation media such as a setup DVD, flash drive, .iso file, etc.

If Reset can’t find all needed files, it pauses and requests that you insert recovery/installation media, as shown in Figure 3.

Insert media

Figure 3. Some needed restoration files might be on other media.

Once it has access to all needed files, the Reset operation examines the PC’s hardware configuration. If it finds more than one local drive, you’ll see the dialog box shown in Figure 4, which lets you determine whether the pending remove/reinstall process is applied only to the main Windows drive (typically C:) — or to all drives.

More than one drive

Figure 4. Reset lets you leave nonsystem hard drives untouched.

Clicking the Show me the list of drives that will be affected lets you verify that only the drives you want cleaned will be included in the Reset process.

Once you’ve selected which drive(s) to include, you can choose how thoroughly Reset should clean them. As shown in Figure 5, the two choices are:

  • Just remove my files is an ordinary, quick, file-delete operation. Keep in mind that a simple file deletion typically doesn’t actually remove the file from the hard drive.
  • Fully clean the drive performs a data wipe — a full overwrite operation that fills the entire hard drive with zeros, making recovery of the original data very difficult. (Technical aside: According to an MSDN blog, the Fully clean the drive option is analogous to the old-school DOS command format.exe C:\ /P:0.)

Clean drive

Figure 5. Select Fully clean the drive to completely remove all personal information.

Use the Just remove my files option if you’re going to immediately restore Windows for your personal use. Use the safer (but slower) Fully clean the drive option if you’re sending your PC in for repair, selling it, giving it away, or otherwise handing it over to third parties.

When you’ve made your disk-cleaning choice, Win8 is ready to start the actual process of removing your current setup and installing a virgin Win8 configuration. A final confirmation dialog box, shown in Figure 6, reminds you of what will happen and nags you to make sure you have current backups before you proceed.

Ready for reset

Figure 6. Reset displays a final warning — and a chance to cancel the reinstall process.

Once you click Reset, there’s no further input or intervention required. Note that your PC will reboot several times during the Reset process. If you’re using a Win8 setup DVD (or other bootable medium) to provide required system files, the reboots might prompt you to Press any key to boot from CD or DVD. Ignore the prompts; during Reset, Win8 should boot only from the C: drive.

Throughout the process, Reset’s progress is displayed by a series of minimally informative screens, like those shown in Figures 7 and 8.

Reset process status

Figure 7. One of Reset’s simple process-status screens

Getting ready status indicator

Figure 8: Some of the progress-status screens offer no specific information at all, beyond vague reassurance that something’s happening.

A complete Reset operation can be quite fast, though the time required depends on all the normal system variables: raw system speed, amount of installed RAM, hard-drive and other storage-device speed, and other such variables.

On my test system (64-bit, 8GB of RAM, 20GB hard drive), a complete Reset took about 20 minutes with the simple file-deletion option selected — and about 30 minutes using the data-wipe option.

Larger hard drives take longer to wipe, of course. For example, on a Lenovo support page, the hardware maker estimates that a data wipe–enabled Reset operation will take about seven hours on its 2TB systems — and 10 hours on 3TB PCs.

Final step: Restarting Windows 8 from scratch

You’ll know the Reset process is complete when your PC launches the standard initial setup screens for an unconfigured Windows 8 installation. That includes dialog boxes for entering your product key (see Figure 9), accepting the product-licensing terms, setting up and personalizing user accounts, and so on.

Product key entry

Figure 9. Near the end of the Reset process, Win8 will ask you to re-enter your product key.

You can use the Skip option (see Figure 9) to defer entering the product Key to a later time. That can give you time to ensure the new installation is solid and stable before going through the subsequent Windows Activation process.

With the initial Win8 setup done, your system will revert back to the default Start screen, as shown in Figure 10.

Refreshed Start screen

Figure 10. Reset restores the default Start screen, ready for personalization.

Don’t forget the updates! As you continue to set up and customize your new Win8 system, allow Windows Update to download and install whatever patches and updates the operating system requires. You can let this happen in the background, but it might take days to complete. If you’d rather get updating over with as soon as possible, run Windows Update (Control Panel/System and Security/Windows Update) manually. Click Check for updates to get all patches more or less at once.

From this point onward, you can configure your newly reinstalled Windows 8 setup in any way you wish. For some expert guidance, see Woody Leonhard’s Dec 20, 2012, article, “Eight simple steps for setting up Windows 8,” and his Nov. 1, 2012, Top Story, “Win8 boot guide: Your first hour with the new OS.”

Enjoy your factory-fresh, squeaky-clean, like-new Win8 installation!