Reinstalling Windows is going to overwrite everything that’s already on that hard drive and you would lose it all. There are some alternatives.
Before I begin, I first have to wag my finger at you. Regular readers of Ask Leo! probably already know what I’m going to say.
The importance of backing up
If you backed up regularly, this wouldn’t be an issue. In fact, if it’s your hard drive that has failed, all of your data may still be lost.
Nothing can help you handle a failure or other computer problem quite like a backup. A daily backup, a weekly or monthly backup could really save your bacon. So, I hope you implement a back-up system from here on out.
Now, there are a couple of different approaches to getting the data off of that hard drive.
All you really need to do is download an image (an ISO) for either of those operating systems, burn it to the appropriate media (CD or DVD), and then boot the machine that you’re having trouble with from that CD or DVD. That will actually fire up a fully functional version of Linux that you can then use to explore your hard drive and copy its contents off to USB drives or potentially even network drives, depending on how you’re set up.
Using backup software
On the other hand, my new approach is to actually use backup software – the very same backup software that I was just admonishing you for not using in the first place.
On another computer, make a recovery disc. Normally, you use a recovery disc to restore a backup image to a repaired or replaced computer. As it turns out, many of the recovery discs that come with backup software (like Macrium Reflect) actually allow you to back up the hard drive.
You’ll do what I just described with the Linux disc: download the software and create a CD or a DVD that contains the backup software. Boot your problematic machine from that recovery disc, and then run a backup. From there, you can backup your internal hard drive to an external drive.
By using image backup software, you get everything that’s on that hard drive. You don’t have to think about what you do or don’t need. You simply say, “Give me a full image of the C drive.” After you complete the backup and safely place it on that external hard drive, you can then rebuild the machine, reinstall Windows, or whatever. After doing that, reinstall or install the backup software. You can then extract the files that you need from the backup image that you took while the machine wasn’t functional.
In this case, you don’t have to guess what you do or don’t need to save; it’s all in the backup image.
And you’ll install backup software, which you need anyway. It’s a great time then to start configuring that software to do regular backups, so you don’t find yourself in this position again.