Clean PC: Download Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 Setup Media Legally

I want every Windows user to have a clean PC. And I especially want those who have purchased a new PC to be rid of the crapware that PC makers foolishly push on their unwilling customers. To this end, I’m starting a new series, Clean PC, which will examine the steps you can take to ensure you have the best and most error-free Windows experience possible. First up: Getting clean versions of the Windows Setup media.

The impetus for this series is the reaction I got to Sorry, Satya: No One Will Ever Love Windows Until You Fix This Problem. We were discussing the issue of crapware ruining the Windows experience on new PCs in last week’s episode of Windows Weekly and the question came up: could one simply install a clean version of Windows 7 or 8.1 using a downloadable ISO file and the product key supplied by their PC maker?

I didn’t think this was possible, but as it turns out this will work in some cases. So here’s the first step towards a cleaner PC: Finding legal Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 Setup media downloads, in ISO format.

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Actually, that may not be the first step. The first step is determining whether you can even do this. That is, is it possible to install a clean (no crapware, as Microsoft intended) version of Windows on your new (or newish) PC and get it activated normally? I’m going to spend some time investigating this important question, but for now it appears that it can work. In certain circumstances.

A few ground rules.

This will not work with Windows 8.1 with Bing. Your PC must have come with Windows 7 (any version) or Windows 8.1 “Core” or Pro. If you have a new low-end PC with Windows 8.1 with Bing, you’re out of luck as there is no legal download for this low/no-cost Windows version. So you’re going to have to examine more traditional methods of cleaning your PC, which I will of course also be writing about.

This will not work with Enterprise versions of Windows. Which makes sense, since you can’t buy a new PC with Windows 7 Enterprise or Windows 8.1 Enterprise anyway.

You must use the correct product edition. If your PC came with the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, you must download and use the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, not some other product edition. You can find this information in the System control panel.

Get your product key. On newish computers, you will see a physical certificate of authenticity (COA) sticker on your PC or power supply that includes your Windows product key. You need this number. If it has smeared or is otherwise unreadable, you can use a software utility such as Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder to get the key. Save the key to a text file, or print it, and make sure you have an offline copy of the key you can access when you’re installing Windows.

New computers without a COA sticker should work fine. If you have a very new computer without a COA sticker, then that means your product key is electronically tied to the PC’s microprocessor and that it will automatically activate. So new computers should always work. But I’ll be testing this to be sure.

Backup. Don’t be a statistic. It’s not possible for me to test this process on your PC, so I really have no way to knowing if this will work for you. Do not try to wipe out a perfectly good PC without first backing it up. You know, just in case.

Download your PC’s drivers. A stock install of Windows will come with some of the drivers your PC needs, and of course you can grab more via Windows Update after the install is done. But you should download a complete set of drivers for your PC—make sure you grab the right versions according to OS version, too—and whatever other PC-specific utilities (keyboard lighting, etc.) you may need or want. At the very least, get your wireless/Ethernet networking drivers so you can get the PC online and then download whatever else you need later.

I’m going to look at the actual process of taking a newish PC and clean-installing a stock version of Windows on there soon. But today is all about the prep work. And beyond the steps noted above, you will need an ISO file for your version of Windows; you can then use a tool like the Windows USB/DVD Download Tool to convert that ISO into USB- or DVD-based Setup media. Microsoft actually does supply these ISO files for public download. It just doesn’t publicize this fact.

So I will.

Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 (SP1)

These ISO files are hosted by Microsoft’s partner, Digital River. I’ve had some issues downloading from this site, so don’t despair if it’s balky for you.

Home Premium 32-bit
Home Premium 64-bit
Professional 32-bit
Professional 64-bit
Ultimate 32-bit
Ultimate 64-bit

Note that each version is multi-language. So you can choose at Setup.


Update: Microsoft also has a Microsoft Software Recovery web site that can help you snag Windows 7 Setup media.

Windows 8.1

Use Microsoft’s Create installation media for Windows 8.1 site to create a Windows Setup USB flash drive or download the ISO file. Here, too, the tool is multi-language, though the ISO you download will be locale-specific, so make the right choices up-front.


More soon.

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