Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

What should I back up before reformatting?


I plan to do a clean re-install of XP but am not sure of what absolutely
must be backed up. Most of my important documents are on another drive but
Firefox and Thunderbird in particular throw me. Where is my bookmarks folder
and how do I back up my e-mail and address book? I assume that the program
files folder should be backed up and I get the settings folder but I seem to
have several.

This can get complicated, but it boils down to a very simple statement:

Backup everything, but expect to move only your data.

Oh, and it’ll be a tad time consuming.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

You haven’t indicated why you’re doing a reinstall, but you’re definitely
asking the right question to avoid data loss.

Let’s start with the backup.

Prior to a reformat I backup everything. The entire hard drive. I might clear temporary files and browser caches and the like first to save
some space, but ultimately I do not rely on myself to predict exactly what I
should and shouldn’t back up. I just grab it all. I dump it to CDs, DVDs, or
even another machine on my local network.

These days it’s actually a little easier since I use a true backup program
it’s already backing everything up nightly. (I heartily recommend you do
something similar, regardless of whether you’re reformatting your machine.) All
I need do is simply make sure that I have the latest backup preserved before I

“… a day, a week, or a month or more later I can
recover whatever it was I forgot …”

The bottom line is that a day, a week, or a month or more later I can recover
whatever it was I forgot from the image of my machine just before I reformatted

The data files for Thunderbird are easy to locate – backed up or not. In
Thunderbird, go to Tools, Account Settings,
and then click on Local Folders in the left hand pane. You
should see “Message Storage” on the right which will indicate the location on
disk where all the messages are kept.

Interestingly enough, I’ve had great success simply copying the contents of
the grand-parent folder and getting not only all my messages moved, but
extensions and other Thunderbird settings as well. For example, my Message
Storage Local Directory might be:

…\Thunderbird\Mail\Local Folders

However if I copy the entire folder tree from “…\Thunderbird”, then I seem to
get everything, including my mail.

I’ve not confirmed this as officially supported, but it works for me. Your
mileage, as they say, might vary. Use with caution and of course, backup
first. Smile

The news is not so good for the rest of your programs.

While there are tools out there that claim to move entire applications from
machine to machine, that’s not what this is about. You’re reformatting a single
machine and looking to save and restore programs and settings.

Aside from the very occasional trick as I outlined for Thunderbird, I’ve not
found a reliable way to do this.

The problem is that programs and their settings are scattered throughout
your hard disk, Windows and within the Windows registry. It’s extremely
difficult to know exactly what needs moving.

The bottom line is that a reformat is more properly thought of as a
“reformat and reinstall of everything“. That means:

  • Back up

  • Reformat your hard disk (possibly as part of the Windows installation

  • Install Windows from it’s original CD or other media

  • Install all your programs from their original CDs or other media

  • Re-customize all your programs

Reinstalling everything assumes, of course, that you have the CDs or
whatever to reinstall from. In fact, this whole process is one of the big
reasons you really want to take care to save every installation CD and every
downloaded program. You’ll need them again someday.

Re-customizing can be painful. After each re-install I find myself
customizing less and less. Some programs make it easy-ish (Microsoft Word, for
example, stores many of your customizations in its template –
restore that from your backup and many, though not all, of your settings are
restored). Other programs don’t, and you have to redo it all.

Having said all that, I know that there are utilities that are designed to
move applications and settings from one machine to another or from one drive
to another. I don’t have any direct experience with these tools myself, so I
can’t recommend one. I also don’t know if any of them will operate in this
situation of saving and restoring applications and settings to the same machine
and drive.

While many have reported success with application-moving applications, I tend
to avoid them. Often the very reason for a reformat is to force everything to a
clean initial state. It’s unclear exactly what these utilities will move, and
if I’m going to go through the pain of a reformat I prefer that my applications
also be in that clean initial state as well.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

8 comments on “What should I back up before reformatting?”

  1. When I reformat (like last weekend), I just printed off my extensions that I use in Firefox, and then just re-install the most current version of each extension. That way, the new profile is BRAND new, and none of the old stuff is carried over. IN Vista, it’s located in “user>application data>roaming>mozilla (for Fierfox and Sunbird), or Thunderbird (for the email client)>profiles. Save the profiles folder on the external drive. When you re-install the new programs, you MUST start them to activate the profile folder. Then, open up the saved folder, and cut and paste the old stuff into the new folder (replacing all the current stuff).

    Hash: SHA1

    You’re correct. Spinrite does the moral equivalent of a reformat, without
    destroying any data.

    Though some people think of reformating as equivalent to erasing everything


    Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)


  3. Mozilla products like Firefox & Thunderbird officially support copying the profiles in the method described – just look around in the Mozilla Knowledgebase at the profile manager and you will see this sort of thing falls within what they expect you to be able to do with it. (although its not directly obvious that you can do this, its certainly supposed to work).

    Windows is a bit more tricky but you can actually get your whole user profile to work if you can rename it when the machine isn’t running. Copy the entire folder for your username you want to preserve under Documents and Settings, then on your new machine, create a user account with the same name and whilst the machine is NOT running or logged into a different account you should be able to copy the old folder back “on top” of the new one.

  4. For Mozilla products, i use MozBackup to backup then restore the profiles for Thunderbird and Firefox. I do a backup once a week to be sure.

  5. When I installed windows 7 last week the installation came with Easy Transfer. You could download windows 7 free from MS and use the WIndows Easy Transfer to back up all of your settings and then when you restore you get all of your settings back along with your backed up date. (I still did an everything back up along witn the Easy Transfer backup just in case. I had the room on my 1TB disk for all the files on my 120GB disk and more.) I’m pretty sure Easy Transfer would work to restore on win xp. It was the easiest installation I ever did as all my Office Settings and Outlook and Firefox bookmarks and add-ins wore restored. (and much more)

  6. I have ALL my data in a separate partition on my hard disk, not in the C: (system) drive. This way, I can reformat and reinstall Windows as many times as I please and in principle I will lose nothing, unless there is a total hard disk failure. (But I do backup the data partition anyway, and of course this doesn’t spare me from the trouble of reinstalling all software.)

    The data in the other partition includes My Documents, which few people know but can be moved wherever you please (right-click on it, Properties, Location and you can change it there). Same for My Music, My Videos, My Pictures and other such folders; even though they are usually under My Documents, they won’t necessarily be moved along. My data partition also includes installation programs for all software that I use (except the very large ones, which are on CDs and DVDs).

    Mozilla software, however, insists in storing the profile and everything in the system partition. But I found a way to fool it, and it works like a charm. At this moment, I have Windows XP and Windows 7 RC installed in dual-boot (in different partitions, of course) and they both share the same Firefox and Thunderbird profiles stored in the third (data) partition. The sharing and integration are so seamless that if Firefox crashes on Windows XP and I reopen it on Windows 7 (or vice versa), it even offers me to restore the same tabs of the previous session – and it does. Needless to say, all bookmarks, plugins, settings, stored cookies, Thunderbird messages, they are all there.

    The trick:


    – on Windows XP, look for C:\Documents and Settings\your_username\Application Data\Firefox. Did you find a subfolder named with a weird random sequence of characters there? Move all its contents and sub-subfolders (but not the folder itself) to a \Firefox folder you created somewhere easy to find in the data partition (I put it under My Documents itself.)

    Then delete the empty folder and in the old C:\…\Application Data\Firefox folder, use Notepad to edit or create a text file called profiles.ini (attention, “profileS”, plural!). This file should be the only thing remaining in the folder when it’s done.

    It should contain the following text:



    And presto!

    For Windows Vista and Windows 7, the procedure is the same, but the path is C:\Users\your_username\AppData\Roaming\Mozilla\Firefox instead of C:\Documents and Settings\….

    If there is more than one user/profile, just create separate folders for each profile in the data partition and, in the profiles.ini files, replace the Path= parameter with the proper locations.

    I suggest that you create a ZIP or RAR copy of that/those profiles.ini file(s) that need to be in the C: drive, storing the full path, to make it easier to restore it after you reintall Windows.


    The procedure is the same as for Firefox: move the contents of the weird-named folder to a new Thunderbird folder in the data partition, delete the newly empty folder and create a profiles.ini in the old one. The only difference is that you should also preserve a registry.dat file.

    Location on Windows XP: C:\Documents and Settings\your_username\Application Data\Thunderbird

    On Windows Vista and Windows 7: C:\Users\your_username\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird (no, for Thunderbird there is no \Mozilla\ intermediate folder).

    The contents of the profiles.ini file are exactly the same as for Firefox, only replacing the value of the Path= parameter with the appropriate location.

    After reformatting and reinstalling, you should let each program run once with the default settings. Then do the restore of the profiles.ini files.

    Try making a backup of these folders first to be sure, then try my tips. I assure you that it will work.

  7. I’m a dinosaur who hasn’t ever used a flash drive. Google “BartPE flash drive” for free flash drive backup boot shoftware.

    See my website for info on secure (encrypted) backup both to optical disk and free online storage:

    Unless you’re lucky to have a recent professional version of windows, backing up the entire OS drive requires downloading a couple of freeware products and using carefully spelt out steps discussed by “Gismo” at:

    Computers seldom crash these days if good computing is performed, and when they do crash then most of the time performing measures in the safe mode like system restore and others fixes it.

    BUT SOMETIMES PUTERS DO IRREPARABLY CRASH, and without a bootable OS backup, the OS has to be reinstalled from the OS cd that came with the puter or, in most laptop cases, the Recovery drive (the D drive on my Dell Inspiron) by pressing the F8 key after startup.

    The problem with reformatting is the hours and hours of time it takes to get the puter OS and software (including service packs) installed and updated.

    Also back up all your drives. Check out for a great free driver backup utility.

    At any rate, I’d say the first step is to back up ENCRYPTED personal files (email, AV, docs, pics, anything personal) onto CD (and if you have, flash drive/external drive/another computer) and importantly onto certain free online backup programs.

    Best wishes to all and thanks for the great comments here!


  8. Of course you need to backup before reformatting . But if you don’t have anything to backup then you can format without any backup.
    If you don’t know what software you can use , a good idea is , their software is free and you can store the backup online on their servers for free up to 3gb, if you need larger packs they provide them too at a good price.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.