How to reinstall Windows 7 and get your drivers back

When the worst happens, and your computer won’t boot, and Windows 7 is unrepairable, you are faced with the frustrating task of reinstalling Windows. There is often a recovery partition that you can use to go back to factory settings. However, you might want a clean install of Windows, without all the crapware bundled by the manufacturer, plus you usually have to install Windows 7 Service Pack 1. One of the frustrations of reinstalling Windows from DVD, especially on laptops, is that many device drivers are missing after you reinstall, and you have to go to the manufacturers website to download them again, not so easy if you are missing LAN/WiFi drivers…

Sometimes it is a pain even if you know what you are doing. If you look in device manager, right-click on the device that is missing its driver, click properties, details, and then change the drop-down to hardware IDs, you can see a VEN_ID and DEV_ID value, eg for a missing driver on a laptop I’m working on, it  shows PCI\VEN_168C&DEV_0032&CC_0280. There is a great website to look these up, the PCI Vendor and Device Database. This can be a good way to find drivers when the PC manufacturers website is terrible. For the example I gave, this shows the vendor is Atheros, and the Device is an AR9485WB-EG. In this case, both the Asus and Atheros websites were of no help, so I found another solution.

If you can still get data off your old (or about to be formatted) hard drive, you can also get the drivers. Here is the procedure:

  • Copy the following two folders to a removable drive. I’m not sure both are needed, but both contain driver files.
    windows\system32
    windows\inf
  • If you are re-installing due to malware, you need to scan this device for malware using a secure fully patched and protected PC, and preferably by using a Linux live CD or Virtual Machine.
  • Reinstall Windows 7
  • Insert the removable drive
  • In device manager, right-click the device without a driver, and choose update driver software. A dialogue will ask if you want to search automatically or browse my computer. Choose browse my computer and look for the removable drive. From there, Windows 7 will cleverly find the right driver from the list. Repeat this until all the devices have drivers.
    In one case, the driver installed failed on the first run, because it depended on another one being installed first, but it installed fine after a reboot.

Why not use counterfeit Windows software?

I sometimes stumble across computers running counterfeit copies of Windows Vista, 7 and less commonly XP. In most cases, these are machines that have been upgraded by a friend who “knows a lot about computers.” Whether this is because the original machine needed its hard disk wiping due to virus infestation or the hard drive itself had failed. In many cases, a genuine copy of Windows is replaced by a more “premium” counterfeit copy, usually Vista or 7 Ultimate. I can only guess at the reasoning bethind this. It must be because the “friend” has downloaded this cracked copy and can install it on multiple computers. At first glance, this sounds appealing, as it is usually done “on the cheap” and you get enhanced features.

The advantages offered by Ultimate editions over the standard “home premium” or “Business/Professional” editions are seldom used by the average user. For Windows 7, this is:

  • BitLocker – whole drive encryption (the freeware TrueCrypt is highly regarded if you need this functionality)

So in 99% of cases, you can install your genuine copy of Windows and it will do what you need without using counterfeit software with the risks detailed below.

1) Windows updates. Counterfeit Windows software generally works by preventing Windows from activating or by preventing the process detecting activation. You can run into trouble downloading updates, which will render the computer vulnerable to exploits often found on malicious webpages, such as phishing sites (these are sites that appear to come from the likes of Paypal or a bank etc and get you to enter your password so they can steal it)

2) Malware – often cracked copies of Windows come with sneaky malware (viruses or trojans) attached. Often these are undetectable to antivirus software, as they are installed first, with Windows and then they hide themselves very well.

Many end users are grateful to their friend for helping them out of a spot, and I can’t blame them. I would blame PC vendors for not providing installation DVDs for people who need to reinstall. Its all very well to provide a recovery utility on the hard disk, until the hard disk fails! In most cases, you can contact the tech support of the PC supplier and buy a replacement disk (usually for much less than a new copy of Windows e.g  £20) This is one way to stay safe and legit. Another is to contact a PC technician like me, who keeps a set of disks, and can install using your genuine licence key.