You understood me correctly.
While I don’t do it as often as I once did, it’s absolutely something that I need to do from time to time.
Why do I do it? In part it’s the nature of software, and in part it’s the nature of what I do.
The good news is that it has nothing to do with malware.
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The villain here is something called “software rot”.
The concept is very simple: over time a computer system becomes less well organized, less coherent and more chaotic. All that leads to degraded performance and instability.
In other words, your computer gets slower and less stable as a result of use over time.
The reasons for software rot vary, but in general it boils down to the applications on your computer – and to some extent Windows itself – constantly saving things, erasing things, moving things around and just generally going about their work, without completely cleaning up after themselves.
Random files might get left in place. Registry settings might be left in an incorrect state. Incomplete downloads might result in program instability or confusion. A failed update might never get re-tried, resulting in a partial update. All of this very slowly accumulates and eventually gets in the way as your computer operates normally.
And there is one particular offender that is easily the worst.
Trying out software
Installing and then uninstalling assorted software will hasten software rot like nothing else.
And, as you might imagine, that’s something I do from time to time as part of my work here with Ask Leo!. I install things. I try things. And I uninstall things.
And my system slowly becomes less and less stable.
One problem is that there’s no actual agreement on what an “uninstall” should do. For example: should it uninstall only the software, leaving your settings and preferences in case you reinstall? Or should it just blow everything away completely?
Leaving components behind contributes to software rot.
Another problem is that setup programs, which are also responsible for uninstalling software, rarely get the respect, or the resources that they deserve. That means that they’re often created by less senior people, and often don’t get developed or tested as thoroughly as the actual product. The net result is that uninstalls often leave things behind. Things that contribute to software rot.
It’s getting better
I’m pleased to report that things are getting better since I wrote that comment.
In years gone by I’d expect to reinstall Windows as often as once a year, though more often I could let two years pass before getting frustrated enough to take the plunge. As you said, it’s a fair amount of effort – I set aside the better part of a day to do it.
More recently I’m not feeling the need as often. That’s due to two things:
- I’m now more likely to use Virtual Machines for my experimentation. Much like an image backup it’s easy to save and revert a VM to a known-good state, such as before the tested software was installed.
- Windows is getting better. There’s no doubt that more recent versions of Windows are more resilient than their predecessors. Not perfect, but definitely better.
The net result is that these days I’m more likely to reinstall for other reasons – like new hardware or OS upgrades – than I am for software rot.
Implications for the average user
As I said, I’m kind of a special case when it comes to my computer.
With Windows version 7 and 8 I think it’s completely reasonable to assume most users won’t have to reinstall due to software rot. It’s more likely that something else will come along, like a new machine or the next version of Windows, before that kind of action is required.
With earlier versions of Windows things are less clear. Once again, with average use I wouldn’t expect to need to reinstall for many years. The problem, of course, is that with both Vista and XP it’s already been many years. Reinstalls might be called for; at which point I’d recommend using that as an opportunity to upgrade to a supported operating system.
And as always, if you’re the kind of person who likes to tinker, installing and uninstalling software often, then you may find yourself at a point where a reformat/reinstall might well be the best option to return your system to the performance of its younger and more stable days. (ProTip: take an image backup immediately after you reformat and reinstall … then the next time simply restore that image rather than go through the reinstallation hassle.)