My commentary relates to the common idea that Windows is such a poorly designed and implemented operating system that you must regularly reinstall it to keep it from getting unstable. I was inspired by the Lifehacker article below.
This Lifehacker article is an old one (2009), but the Windows architecture hasn’t changed fundamentally and these rules of thumb still apply. I also added a lot of my own knowledge about this issue below, so please read my whole post if this interests you.
Most people who’ve used Windows for many years know that Windows tends to be like an Etch A Sketch, needing to be turned upside down and shaken periodically to erase it and start over.
I just want to say up front that I like Windows 7, really like it. Windows 8 is a nightmare I will never voluntarily use, but 7 is excellent. The underlying architecture leaves much to be desired, but Windows 7 actually runs well, at least for awhile, and in the long term you can take steps to preserve its health.
Windows’ Fatal Flaw
The absolute worst part of the Windows architecture, at least the worst part that can be fixed without a complete rewrite of the Windows kernel (core), is the Windows Registry, a database of sorts that stores all the configuration information for all parts of the Windows OS and almost all Windows applications. It’s a terrible idea with a poor implementation, and no other operating system uses anything like it, but we’re stuck with it for now because Microsoft characteristically decided to keep it for their own reasons.
Keeping Windows Healthy and Stable Long Term
The real solutions to using Windows long term are more complex and there are two options, one free and pretty easy to implement but requiring some sacrifice in time, and the other non free, requiring more effort, and having some limitations along with some advantages over the easy option.
The Easy Option
Windows 7 has a built in feature called the Restore Point. This feature allows you to take a snapshot of your current Windows system configuration (including installed applications and their configurations) and then return to that Windows system configuration at a later date.
1. Setting a Restore Point gives you a way to return to a known good state of your Windows installation when you run into trouble with Windows itself or a specific Windows application. This can be a real time and frustration saver if you install a malware or other bad application that makes your Windows behave badly and can’t uninstall it easily. After cleaning my son Joshua’s laptop of a zillion malware infections, I set a restore point that he can return to when he invariably gets reinfected with this crap by downloading _free_ stuff to play with.
1. The obvious disadvantage is that when you restore your Windows installation to a Restore Point, you lose all the application installations you made after that Restore Point. This is a necessary trade-off because it’s often adding all those extra applications that made your Windows unstable.
2. Setting Restore Points uses disk space, and can use many GB of storage in some cases, but if you have a modern PC/laptop with a 500GB or larger hard disk, it’s worth setting aside 100GB or so for restore points if you plan to use them.
3. If you use Microsoft’s Bitlocker to encrypt your hard disk so no one can access your personal information, you need to be extra sure to have the Bitlocker Recovery Key available somewhere outside the actual Windows PC because when you restore your system to a previous Restore Point, you will need to enter your Recovery Key to gain access to your restored system. Without this recovery key, you will have no access to your system and will have to start over with a new Windows installation, a very bad result. Again, this warning/disadvantage only applies if you use Bitlocker and most people don’t have the Windows Enterprise or Ultimate editions that include Bitlocker, but I just wanted to include this warning for those who do.
The Not So Easy Option
As I said above, this option is not free (usually) and involves more technical knowledge and more work to maintain, but it gives you a huge amount of flexibility and can also be used along with the Restore Point option above. I recommend this solution to my team at work, and since we regularly use multiple versions of Windows and Linux, servers and clients, sometimes two or more at once, this option works well for us and is worth the effort. I am not going to completely explain this option because it is pretty complex, but I’ll lay out the basics below and if you are interested in learning more, please say so in the comments and I’ll expand this article or, more likely, write a new one focused on this option.
Virtual Machines (VMs) are the key part of this option. (I need to describe hypervisors and virtual machines in another post, but you don’t need to understand much about these to use this option.) Basically, this option involves setting up Windows or another operating system (which can be Linux or Mac OS-X) on your computer and then you create virtual machines of the operating systems you want to work and play with.
The list of pros and cons is longer and more complex for this option. I’ll put the disadvantages list first since it will include the requirements for implementing this option.
1. You need to purchase a tool such as VMware Workstation or download the more limited but potentially usable VMware Player to implement this option.
2. Since you’ll effectively be running multiple operating systems, one as the “host” OS that you boot your computer with and one or more others that you run using the virtual machine tool, you’ll need more RAM (4 GB minimum and more is better), more disk space (500GB or more to be safe for most people), and a decent CPU (Core i3, i5, or i7 Intel or equivalent AMD CPU).
3. You need a license for all non-free operating systems (e.g. Windows) that you use in this setup. This can get expensive, depending on what you want.
4. This takes a good bit of time to set up, depending on what you want, and maintain, depending again on what you want.
5. VM software such as VMware is getting better all the time, but there are still applications, mostly shooter type games, that don’t run well in VMs. You may need to install these on the host/boot operating system and maybe use the Restore Point option above to allow you to get your host Windows OS back to a safe point if the game messes up Windows.
1. This option allows you to run almost any operating system in VMs to take what are called snapshots of the VM that allow you to return to exactly that state.
2. You can copy VMs between computers, share them with friends, and do anything you can do with a directory of files. Most VMs are actually just directories full of files on your host operating system’s hard disk, so you have lots of options on what to do with them.
I’d like to expand or clarify this post to be more helpful, or correct any errors, so if you’ve read this far and think of something that can improve it, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!