Windows 7 Tip of the Week
Restore Windows 7 Without the Crapware
Tip date: July 10, 2010
If you have a retail Windows 7 Setup disc, you can easily wipe out your PC and start over again with a clean install of Windows 7 at any time. This isn't as necessary as it used to be in Windows XP days, of course, but it's still a nice option if you need to do this for whatever reason. Power users, I know, are fond of routinely wiping out Windows and reinstalling, convinced that this keeps the PC running optimally and free of gunk.
If you received Windows 7 with a new PC, however, your PC restore possibilities could be less straightforward. These days, most PCs no longer come with restore media, but instead provide a restore partition on the hard drive and force you to manually create the necessary restore DVD(s) yourself. (So be sure to do so.) Some PCs provide two separate discs, where the first is a standard Windows 7 Setup disc, providing you with the same simple PC restore scenario that retail Windows 7 users enjoy. (The second can contain drivers, applications, and crapware.) Some, however, provide their own front-end to the Microsoft tools. And when you restore the PC using these tools, you may have no say over what gets installed. And for many PCs, that means you're getting it all: The OS, the drivers, the apps, and the crapware.
For those unlucky enough to own a PC with such restore discs, it may seem like the opportunity to easily wipe out your PC and return it to a pristine state is impossible. But it is possible, assuming you don't mind doing a little bit of work up front. That is, you can restore your PC once using your PC maker's restore scheme. Then, you can remove all the crapware and other applications you don't want from the install. Then, you use Windows Backup, part of Windows 7, to create a system image (described below) and a system repair disc, which can be used to boot the PC and re-apply that system image back to the PC. The end result is a pristine PC restore capability that should do exactly what you want.
First a bit of terminology. According to Microsoft, a system image is "an exact image of a drive. [It] includes Windows and your system settings, programs, and files. You can use a system image to restore the contents of your computer if your hard drive or computer ever stops working. When you restore your computer from a system image, it is a complete restoration; you can't choose individual items to restore, and all of your current programs, system settings, and files are replaced."
A system repair disc, meanwhile, is a bootable CD that provides a very minimal Windows boot environment that can be used for various things, including system recovery. You can use this disc to access the system image you'll be creating and restore your PC using that image.
WARNING! If you follow the instructions provided here, you will wipe out your PC and everything on it. For this reason, I can't be held responsible for data loss. You should always backup any important data to a separate physical location before undergoing such a procedure. If you don't know what you're doing, ask first. Where? Here.
OK, let's dive right in.
Step 1: Back up
I'm not going to document this thoroughly here, but be sure to back up all of your important data before you do anything else. Back it up twice or more. Back up to a network-based location if possible. Bring one of the backups to a different physical location. Don't miss anything. And don't proceed unless you are positive you got it all.
Note: I've recommended various backup programs in the past, and of course the Backup and Restore utility in Windows 7 works well too. Check the Windows Weekly archives (2010, 2009) for some backup recommendations.
Seriously. Back up.
Step 2: Restore the PC using the PC Maker's tools
If you haven't done so already, you'll probably need to make a set of restore DVDs using tools provided by your PC maker. The tools and procedures vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but at some point, you will have made the tools and used them to wipe out your PC and return it to its "factory fresh" condition. Of course, there's nothing fresh about it. That's the problem.
I generally prefer Lenovo products, but I'm not that fond of some of the junk PC makers put on their machines.
Step 3: Decrapify
Now it's time to get rid of the stuff you don't want. There are a few strategies here, but in general I'd look at these options at the least:
PC Decrapifier. Using the free utility PC Decrapifier, you can quickly and easily remove much of the junk on your PC, and do so semi-automatically. (You will actually have to manually OK many of the removals. But you only have to go through this process once, so suck it up and be thorough.)
Programs and Features. If you manually visit the Programs and Features control panel (formerly Add or Remove Programs), you will see a list of the non-Windows software that is installed on your PC. Some of it is desirable, of course. But much of might not be, and this is a good way to catch what PC Decrapifier missed.
In both cases, be careful about what you remove: Some components may seem pointless but are in fact necessary for software that you really do want running. Experiment, but reboot here and there to see how what you're doing is impacting the system.
Step 4: Optionally install key applications
This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but in addition to removing junk from your PC, you can also optionally add stuff to it, stuff that you find valuable. This can include key applications like Microsoft Office and Windows Live Essentials, utilities for your printer, scanner, or web cam, or whatever else you want to be part of your default new system image. Remember, however, that anything you add will become out of date over time as new versions and other updates are released. So you will likely spend a bit of time each after time you restore your PC applying updates as well.
You should also take the time to configure Windows as you prefer. This includes the proper theme and whatever other changes you may like to make.
Step 5: Make sure the PC is fully up-to-date
When you think you're just about where you want to be, run Windows Update to make sure there aren't any pending updates to install. Likewise, check the manual updating mechanisms of each application you did install to make sure they're up to date as well. Reboot as needed, and keep checking Windows Update until it's clean.
Step 6: Create the system image
Now it's time to create the system image. To do so, launch Backup and Restore (Start Menu Search, then backup) and click the link titled Create a system image.
In the Create a system image utility that runs, select the drive(s) you'd like to include in the image. Generally speaking you will probably want to include all of the drives on your PC, though the restore partition is often unselected by default, and you may want to eventually discard it if this procedure works out well for you.
After that, select a backup location. This is typically a removable USB hard drive (recommended) but could be a DVD (or DVD set, not recommended) or a network location if you have Windows 7 Professional or better. Then, you confirm your selections and start the backup. This process could take some time, depending on the amount of data that needs to be backup up and the performance capabilities of the backup location.
When the system image backup is complete, the wizard will prompt you to make a system repair disc. If you do not have such a disc, you should make one now. (A CD is fine, but you can create one with any recordable DVD type as well.) You can make the system repair disc separately as well (Start Menu Search, repair.)
Step 7: Restore the PC
Next, you should walk through the restore process, both to familiarize yourself with the process and to make sure it worked as expected. At this point, should something go wrong, it won't matter, since you've just wiped out the PC anyway. (Remember, the worst case scenario here is that you simply have to use the PC maker's lousy restore utility to get your PC back. It will have crapware, but at least it will work.)
To restore the PC, restart it and boot from the system repair disc. (If prompted, press any key to boot from the disc.)
After selecting Next at the opening screen, choose Restore your computer using a system image that you created earlier.
If you haven't already connected the USB-based backup disc, or if you are restoring from DVD or the network, the system image restore wizard will complain that it can't find a system image. Click Cancel. If you are using a USB drive, plug it in and wait. The wizard will find it. Otherwise, choose Select a system image and click Next; then, click the Advanced button in the next screen to locate the image. When the wizard finds an acceptable image, it will display it in the list of image backup locations.
Select the system image to restore from and click Next. In the next screen, choose from the available backups in that location (there may only be one) and click Next.
Click Next in the Choose additional restore options screen and then Finish to begin the restore process. As before, this could take a while depending on the amount of data to restore and the quality of your backup location.
When the wizard is done re-imaging your computer, it will prompt you to restart. Do so, and ignore any message by pressing any key to boot from the disc; you want to boot from the hard drive instead and make sure everything worked properly.
If all goes well, you should be left with a clean, properly-configured PC that can be restored to this same state again and again if need be. Indeed, this process is so useful that even those with retail Windows 7 Setup discs might want to try it, since it's a good way to create a system restore with all the proper drivers and applications you like to use as well.
You may also want to update the system image from time to time. This is advisable from a backup perspective, of course, but also because Windows and your various applications will be updated over time as well, and if you're working from an up-to-date image, you can be up and running that much faster.
Either way, the system image and repair tools are much improved in Windows 7, and good to know about. They're there if you want to use them.