Windows 10 Tip: Successfully Clean Install Windows 10

Windows 10 Tip: Successfully Clean Install Windows 10

With Microsoft issuing ISO media for Windows 10, many people who qualify for the free upgrade are attempting to clean install the OS rather than upgrade. That may not work, but you can achieve a clean install of Windows 10 legally and easily enough.

As I noted yesterday in Microsoft Delivers Windows 10 on ISO, the availability of a Windows 10 setup media download tool opens up a number of possibilities. As with the similar tool for Windows 8.1, this tool is designed for individuals who have acquired Windows 10 in a variety of ways, including:

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Upgraders. During the first year of Windows 10’s availability, anyone running Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 or Windows 8.1 can upgrade for free to this new OS. While you will typically upgrade electronically using Windows Update and the Windows 10 reservation system, you can also optionally use this tool to upgrade to Windows 10 immediately.

Windows 10 PC buyers. If you buy a new PC and wish to perform a crapware-free clean install of Windows 10 as I’ve outlined for previous Windows versions in my Clean PC series, you can use this tool to create USB- or DVD-based Windows 10 Setup media and then clean install the OS on that PC, blowing away your PC maker’s potentially dirty install with a clean version.

Windows 10 buyers. Microsoft and its retail partners will soon be selling Windows 10 Home ($120) and Windows 10 Pro ($200) electronically and in packaged USB-based form for those who wish to purchase the OS and install or upgrade. (During the free upgrade time period, this option is of course less enticing to many, but if you have a newer PC running Windows Vista, Linux, or some other unsupported OS, this is an option.) There are also OEM versions of Windows 10 Home and Pro available from NewEgg and other retailers which can be used to install the system on newly-built PCs or virtual machines. (These options are cheaper than the retail versions.)

I’m going to write separately about those first two options since I think many readers are interested in these topics. But for now, let’s focus on a non-standard use of the Windows 10 setup media tool. And that’s this: you’re one of millions of people who own a qualifying PC and would like to take advantage of the free upgrade to Windows 10. But you want to perform a clean install of the OS, not an upgrade.

I get it. I want the same thing.

And in an ideal world, you would be able to do just that: create bootable Windows 10 setup media with this tool, boot your PC with it, clean install Windows 10, and have the OS magically activate so you can get on with life.

I can’t guarantee that will work. I can guarantee that most of it will work, but that the sticking point is going to be that activation bit. While Windows 10 should be able to find your PC’s product key in the BIOS/firmware, I’ve gotten multiple reports from readers that Windows 10 does not, in fact, activate. And while I saw something similar in the few weeks leading up to July 29, and those systems did ultimately activate, it’s not clear that that’s the intended/final behavior. And I don’t want to lead you down some path where you can’t get it to work.

So this method will always work.

First, we’re working from the assumption that you want to perform a clean install of the operating system. That means you’re blowing away whatever OS is on there right now and starting from scratch with a virgin install of Windows 10.

First, completely backup your PC before upgrading. Windows 7 and 8.1 include a system backup feature in that can be used to create a complete backup of your PC—to a USB hard drive, preferably, though you can use DVD discs too—that you can use to restore your PC later if anything goes wrong. In Windows 7, you will find this utility in the Backup and Restore control panel. In Windows 8.1, it’s a bit more hidden: Open the File History control panel and then click the link “System Image Backup” in the lower-left corner of the window.

Then, create a USB- or disc-based system repair disk. This can be used to boot your PC and restore it using the system image backup you made. Again, just in case. In Windows 7, you will find a link to creating this tool in the Backup and Restore control panel or just use Start search and search for repair disk. In Windows 8.1, this tool was renamed to recovery drive, so just search for that.

Next, you need to find out which edition of Windows you’re currently running, as well as the architecture (32-bit or 64-bit) since this will determine which version of Windows 10 you can upgrade to. If you have Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, or Home Premium, you can install Windows 10 Home, while those with Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate will get Windows 10 Pro. Ditto for Windows 8.1: “Core” versions of the OS will upgrade to Windows 10 Home, while Windows 8.1 Pro will upgrade to—wait for it—Windows 10 Pro. You do this from the System control panel (find it with Start search).

Now, navigate to Download Windows 10 on the Microsoft web site and click one of the “Download Tool Now” buttons. (Which you click will depend on the PC you’re using to do this, not necessarily the PC on which Setup will occur. That’s because it’s possible to use this tool to create the media on a different PC.) Then, run the Media Creation app that downloads.

As I wrote earlier in Microsoft Delivers Windows 10 on ISO, there are a number of steps to this wizard-based application:

What do you want to do? Here, you can choose “Upgrade this PC now” or “Create installation media for another PC.” If you are performing this on the PC on which you intend to install Windows 10, you can choose “Upgrade this PC now.” But I’m going to document the second choice, and you can jump ahead if you need to.

Select language, architecture, and edition. Here, you will select your language (e.g. English [United States]), edition (Windows 10 Pro perhaps), and architecture (64-bit or 32-bit) as determined by the needs of your PC. Choose option two and three correctly, or Windows 10 will not activate.

Choose which media to use. Here, you can write the setup media directly to a USB flash drive—which I recommend, since that will work with any PC—or to an ISO file, which you can later burn to DVD (or write to USB using a third-party tool like Rufus). Either one should work fine for the purposes of this topic, but I will document USB since that is what I used. (And I know it always works.)

The Media Creation tool will then create the setup media. When that’s done, open the setup flash drive in File Explorer, run Setup.exe and upgrade your system to Windows 10. This Setup routine has a number of steps, but the important one is Choose what to keep. Here, you can choose “Keep personal files and apps,” “Keep personal files only,” or “Nothing.” Since this is a clean install, you will choose “Nothing.”


Then, Windows 10 will install. How long this takes will vary according to your PC’s components. But you will eventually be welcomed to Windows 10, will sign-in, and will be presented with the Windows 10 desktop.

This is essentially a clean install of Windows 10. I say “essentially” because there is a Windows.old folder that is taking up many gigabtyes of space on disk—it will be removed in 30 days automatically or you can do so manually with the Disk Cleanup utility now—and some other small housekeeping tasks to perform. But you could also just Reset the OS, a process that should take 15-20 minutes at most, for a slightly cleaner clean install. If you will.

This isn’t totally necessary, but if you like to be complete, launch Settings (WINKEY + I) and navigate to Update & Security and then Recovery. Then, select “Get Started” under Reset this PC and follow the steps.

Regardless of whether you perform the reset, you should run Windows Update, rebooting and repeating as necessary until you have all of the available updates. You should also check Device Manager to make sure all of your hardware components are properly outfitted with drivers. And you should create a recovery drive (Cortana/Start Search, recovery drive) immediately as well. Only then should you start installing applications, configuring OneDrive, and otherwise move on with actually using the system.

No, this isn’t quite as simple as booting from the USB drive and nuking the PC from space. But it achieves the same end. Best of all, it will always work.

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