Clean PC Walkthrough: Windows 7 Ultrabook

Posted on February 3, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in The Sams Report, Windows with 0 Comments

In August 2012, I bought the first PC ever sold at the Microsoft Store in Boston. But while that PC was a Signature edition PC and thus cleaner than other PCs of its day, the software preload—Zune, an out of date version of Windows Live Essentials, and more—is outdated today. So I’ve put my Clean PC ideas to action, and have brought that PC back to life.

Here’s how it went.

First, the PC. It’s a 2012-era Samsung Series 9 15-inch Ultrabook with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. It’s served me well over the years, and while I’ve upgraded it in turn to Windows 8, 8.1 and then pre-release versions of Windows 10, when you run the onboard recovery tools it always goes back to the stock Signature build instead of the messier Samsung version. (And Kudos to Microsoft for making that work. Totally seamless.)

sig-clean

What’s interesting about the stock build on this PC isn’t so much what Microsoft removed—though I suspect there was some horrific crapware on there originally—but rather what they left alone. Samsung bundles some PC-specific utilities that are nice to have, including a good trackpad driver (that lets you disable the trackpad when you plug in an external mouse), keyboard backlighting and more. So my first step was to make sure I had all the relevant Samsung drivers and utilities.

Prep the patient

As you might imagine, I already keep copies of these on my home server. But to find the latest versions online, I needed to know the exact model number of the PC—which is NP900X4C-A04US—so I could locate the exact its support page online. And there are a ton of drivers and other utilities there. So I downloaded the most relevant ones—networking, of course, plus some Samsung utilities—with the theory that I’d have something to get started with if Windows 7 didn’t auto-install newer or better drivers.

Then I made sure I had the Windows product key. This is an older PC and I wasn’t sure if the key was electronically tied to the processor/chipset as with newer devices—it was, actually, but that caused problems later on rather than solve them as I’d hoped—so I grabbed it from Windows using a free utility called Magic Jellybean KeyFinder. This tool works well, just be careful to turn down the (irony alert) crapware offer during setup. (Not that it matters, since I was blowing away this PC anyway.) KeyFinder lets you save the key and other data into a text file, which I did.

UPDATE: There is an important extra step. Since the goal here is to replace the install of Windows provided by a PC maker with a clean one provided by Microsoft, there is the possibility—increasingly the certainty—that the PC maker is not using a normal product key but is rather using something called a System Locked Pre-installation (SLP) which lets PC makers pre-activate Windows on PCs before they are shipped to customers. There is some convenience to this, but it’s really designed to prevent software piracy. And for our needs, SLP is a PIA.

So here’s the story: You should compare the product key generated by KeyFinder (called a CD key in KeyFinder’s output) with the product key found on your PC’s COA (certificate of authenticity) sticker. This sticker can be found somewhere on your PC, or perhaps your PC’s power supply, as was the case with my Ultrabook. And sure enough, that number was different from the number that KeyFinder reported. This means Samsung used SLP on this machine. And that I need to use that number, and not the one generated by KeyFinder, to activate Windows later.

coa

(Can’t find your COA? Or maybe it’s been rubbed off over time. Sadly, you’re out of luck, and your options range from the semi futile—calling your PC maker and explaining what happened—to the expensive—buying a new retail copy of Windows 7 from Amazon.com or elswhere. If I had had to do this, I would have gotten the OEM version of Windows 7 Home Premium x64 for $92.)

Next up was acquiring a clean version of Windows 7. I just wrote about this in Clean PC: Download Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 Setup Media Legally, and I grabbed the same version of Windows 7 that was preinstalled on the Samsung: Windows 7 Home Premium (x64/64-bit). In some ways, actually getting this file was the hardest part of the process: as you may have noticed, Digital River doesn’t always work very well. But I eventually got it and verified the file wasn’t corrupt.

After that, I created USB-based install media using the method described in Tools of the Trade: Windows USB/DVD Download Tool. And with that, I was ready to go: I made sure to copy the product key text file and a folder full of the downloaded drivers to the USB Setup media so everything was in one place.

For you, however, the situation may be different. I didn’t care that I was blowing away the install that was already on this Ultrabook, but you may have different needs. For a Windows 7-based PC like this one, I recommend using the built-in Windows Backup utility (Start search, backup) to create as system image backup that you can use to later recover the PC if everything goes south. Alternatively, you could use a built-in backup solution that came with the PC or, less drastically, just copy off important data to a USB or network location just in case.

Regardless, be sure to deauthorize any applications—like Adobe Photoshop Elements or iTunes—that “count” individual PC usage.

Clean-install Windows 7

OK, install time.

The Ultrabook wasn’t configured to boot off of USB media (before the internal drive) so I had to enter the UEFI/BIOS (F2 on the boot screen; yours will/could be different) and changed the boot priority so that USB was first. (After the first boot during Setup, however, I had to remember to change this back so that the internal drive was first. Otherwise, Setup would just run off the key each time it rebooted.) Then, I let the PC boot using the USB key.

Note: On my PC at least, this needs to happen with a USB 2.0 port and not a USB 3.0 port. If I try to boot with a Setup USB drive, I get a driver missing error during Setup, grinding everything to a halt. But it always works from USB 2.0. It only took me two hours to figure that out.

As noted in Clean PC: Download Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 Setup Media Legally, the Windows 7 Setup media that Microsoft provides is multi-language, but of course I was good to go with the defaults of English and US. So I chose Custom (advanced) instead of Upgrade for the install type and then ran into the first big obstacle: The installation location.

partitions-before

Here, you need to be careful. That last partition—Disk 0 Partition 4: SAMSUNG_REC—is the Samsung recovery partition that Microsoft modified with its Signature edition install, and I wanted to be sure that it stayed there just in case. So I selected advanced drive options and deleted the other three partitions and then installed to that.

parts-after

And then Windows installed. No fuss, no muss, and if you’ve installed Windows a million times like I have, you know what to expect.

Post-Setup

For the initial configuration—this was a grand experiment after all—I decided to skip the password creation step and let it go right to the desktop. I strongly recommend using a password/PIN on all digital devices, of course, but I also knew that I’d be rebooting a lot up front and just wanted it to go smoothly. The theory is I’ll add the password later if everything works.

The first thing I noticed was that Windows was running in a very low resolution (800 x 600) and that there was no networking at all, which I somewhat expected based on my years of experience with the device.

But I checked Device Manager to see what was missing. A lot, as it turns out.

dm-01

From here, I could have just installed the drivers I’d downloaded, but I like to see Windows grab as many up to date drivers from Windows Update before I turn to the PC maker’s versions. Of course, for that to work, I needed to be online. So I installed the Wi-Fi driver, connected to my wireless network and fired up Windows Update. Scanning through the 179 important updates it found, I located two driver updates, selected them along with the latest IE version, and got them installed.

wu-3

While that was installing, I also installed Microsoft Security Essentials. This is built into Windows 8 and newer as Windows Defender, but Windows 7 doesn’t come with any protection upfront. Ah, simpler times.

After a reboot, I was down to 3 missing drivers in Device Manager: Ethernet, SM Bus (which I know to be Intel chipset drivers; again, years of experience) and USB controller (ditto; in this case, the Samsung’s USB 3.0 ports are missing in actions until the drivers are installed). In short, nothing surprising at all. Here, again, I could have installed the drivers individually, and since I knew what each was that would have been quite easy. But I decided to try a different tack.

I noted up front that Samsung has some useful utilities, and that Microsoft left them intact in its Signature build of the OS on this machine. One of these utilities is something called SW Update (Software Update), and it examines your PC and then supplies any missing drivers or other utilities you may need. So I gave it shot.

swu

It look quite a while, but SW Update installed only one of the three missing drivers—the USB 3.0 driver—and a bunch of other utilities for things like the keyboard backlighting, the touchpad, and so. That was a bit frustrating, so I finally just gave in and installed the drivers I knew would work. Which they did. A clean Device Manager was achieved.

dm-clean

OK, good for me. But there was still a ton of work to do. So I spent much time installing wave after wave of Windows Updates, rebooting numerous times. And finally, it was over. Windows was installed, and updated. All of the drivers were up to date. Mission accomplished!

Not quite.

Activate Windows

This is the part I was most worried about, to be honest.

Before I figured out that my Samsung was an SLP-based PC, I tried the product key (CD key) generated by KeyFinder to no avail: I tried activating Windows at various points, a fact I left out of the narrative above. I tried when it first booted into Windows, and was rejected after entering the perfectly valid product key I snagged via KeyFinder. I tried after updating the system, and was rejected. This time it told me that the “product key I typed was invalid for activation.”

invalid

Boo.

And then it occurred to me. Even though the PC is fairly old—its build of Windows 7 was made in August 2012, according to the recovery tool, just weeks before I bought it—Samsung had indeed used SLP to pre-activate Windows. And that meant that the “real” product key was on the COA sticker. On the power supply, as noted. Sure enough, it was different.

And sure enough, it worked: Windows activated just fine when I entered this number instead.

Knowing this, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort. But that’s how this stuff works: trial and error. I make these mistakes because I’m not a genius. But you can at least learn from my mistakes too.

Well, this was just one PC. And the better part of 24 hours of work. I know I could do this faster next time around, and now I’m wondering if I can dig up another Windows 7-based PC and perform the same tests. Repeatability is key.

But for now, I will at least declare this one a success. A success with some humility and embarrassment, with some trial and error, some false starts. But a success nonetheless.

And next, I’ll try the same procedure with a Windows 8 PC.

PS: Just to make sure that Samsung’s recovery environment was still available, I also shut down the PC, restarted, and selected the “F4: Recovery” option on the BIOS screen. All is well: If I need to, I can go back to the stock Samsung (well, Signature-modified) Windows install too. All’s well that ends well.

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