It all starts with preparation.
Yes, there is.
It’s not what most people expect or even want, but it’s guaranteed to not mess up the new installation. The results will be exactly what you’re looking for.
It just requires some preparation.
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Transferring data across a clean install
Prepare by backing up data to an external drive or cloud service. Ideally, take an image backup of the entire machine so as not to overlook anything. After the new Windows installation, reinstall applications using their original media or downloads and restore your data from the backup.
A “clean” install
A “clean” install of Windows treats the system hard disk as if it were empty. For example if you replace the hard disk with a truly empty one, or you want to erase everything because you no longer trust that’s there due to malware.
If it’s not empty, then a clean install either actively erases the disk by reformatting it before installing, or it just ignores everything on the disk, overwriting it all as it installs.
- Everything on the disk is ignored or erased.
- Your previous data is gone.
A new machine?
You’ll notice that this is essentially what you have when you get a new machine. While it may have the operating system pre-installed, it won’t have your data or the programs you’ve installed on your old machine.
Preparing to move to a new machine is almost identical to preparing for a clean install.
Preparing for a clean install means you save your data somewhere else first. There are several approaches.
- Copy your data elsewhere, perhaps to an external drive.
- Do all your work in folders associated with cloud services like OneDrive so it is saved in the cloud (and possibly to other synced machines).
- Back up your entire computer.
The problem with the first two options is that they assume you know exactly what you need and where all your data lives. If you overlook something, it’ll be lost as part of the clean install.
An image backup, on the other hand, contains absolutely everything on the hard disk whether you need it or not. No matter what you later discover you need, it’ll be in the backup.
As a practical matter, I tend to do all three. Any data I don’t have in my OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google Drive folders gets copied somewhere. Then I do an image backup just in case.
It’s about more than data
There’s an additional important step you need to take before you perform that clean install.
So far, we’ve copied your data somewhere else, but what about all those programs you’ve installed over time? For each one you want to move, you’ll need to locate the original installation media or download file. Alternatively, you may want to re-download the latest version of the software you use from wherever you got it originally.
Erasing the hard disk will erase everything, and that includes all the programs on the machine as well. With the original installation files, you’ll be prepared.
Now, with your data safely preserved somewhere and a collection of installation programs for the software you need, you’re ready to proceed.
Here’s the full process.
- Back up — This way, you know you won’t lose any of your data, and you’ll have a place to revert to should your new installation fail for any reason.
- Clean installation of Windows — Reformat the hard disk if needed, erasing everything. (If you’re getting a new machine with Windows pre-installed, this step will have already been done for you.)
- Install applications — Using the installation media you collected, reinstall all of your applications from scratch.1
- Restore your data –– Copy your data from your backup. That could be as simple as installing and configuring OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, or others, or it could mean copying files from your external hard drive or wherever you backed them up.
The result of this process is a clean machine running the new operating system with all your applications reinstalled cleanly and all your data transferred safely.
I’ll admit, it is a bit of work, but I find this process results in the cleanest, most stable system.
Footnotes & References
1: You can do this all at once, of course, but my preference is to do it as needed. That way, I only install the programs I actually use.