In this second article in my series about performing a crapware-free clean install of Windows 10 on a new PC, I look at a critical step: Making sure that you can recover that PC to a working state no matter what goes wrong.
The theory here is applicable to any clean install scenario, of course. But to be clear, I’m specifically describing the following situation: You’ve purchased a new Windows 10-based PC and it comes with whatever amount of crapware your PC maker preinstalled. What you’d like to do is clean install Windows 10 without that crapware. That is, you want a clean PC.
The first step, described in Clean PC: Download and Create Clean Windows 10 Setup Media, is to acquire the clean Windows 10 Setup media from Microsoft and make your own USB-based install disk. Here, I describe the next step, which is to prep your PC so that you can recover to your initial Windows 10 install should anything go wrong during the Clean PC process.
Generally speaking, this involves two steps:
1. Create a recovery drive.
2. Create a system image backup.
That sounds easy enough. But as it turns out, this process is a bit more nuanced than that. And there are a few additional steps I really think you should consider.
So it really goes like this.
1. Create a recovery drive
A recovery drive is used to boot your PC into the Windows Recovery Environment, where you can access the Windows troubleshooting tools, which include—among other things—Reset This PC. This tool is used to perform a clean install of the current OS—Windows 10—returning it to the state it was in when you first got it. But because Reset This PC can also be modified by the PC maker, it will almost certainly install all of the crapware we’re trying to eradicate here.
As you may know, the Windows Recovery Environment is actually included right on your PC. And you can boot into this environment in a variety of ways, including by visiting Settings, Update & Security, Recovery and choosing Advanced Startup. Given this, why even make a recovery drive? It’s about redundancy. Remember, the goal here is to make sure you can get your PC back to the way it was should the clean Windows 10 install go south. By making a recovery drive, you can be assured that you will be able to boot your PC and recovery your (original and potentially dirty) install of Windows 10. No matter what.
One other bit about recovery drives. They’re PC-specific, which makes sense when you realize that PC makers can and do modify Reset This PC to include their own stuff. So you will need to make a different recovery drive for every PC you own. And be sure to label them accordingly. (And, as you might expect, you will want to make another recovery drive after you successfully perform a truly clean install of Windows 10 on your PC. That version of the recovery drive will not have any crapware on it.)
To make the recovery drive, open Start, type recovery drive and choose Create a recovery drive from the search results. In the Recovery Drive wizard that appears, be sure to leave the option “Back up system files to the recovery drive” checked: Yes, it requires a bigger USB flash drive, but this option is crucial to system recovery. (The wizard will tell you how big a drive you need.)
Once you’ve created the drive, label it and put it someplace safe. Hopefully you will never need it.
2. Create recovery media using your PC maker’s tools
In addition to the recovery drive—which is a feature of Windows 10—many PC makers allow you to create PC maker-specific recovery media as well. In the good old days, this recovery media would ship in CD/DVD disc form with the PC, but today it’s more common for this task to be left to the customer.
As such, you will need to look around your install of Windows and see what your PC maker provides. With HP PCs, for example, there is a Recovery Manager application that—wait for it—just runs the Recovery Drive wizard described above. So you’re good to go. But other PC makers may include their own tools. Be sure to get that going before you blow away the install.
3. Create a system image backup
The next step is to perform a system image backup, which you can use with that recovery drive from step 1 (or the built-in recovery tools in Windows 10) to restore your PC to it was, exactly, at the time you performed the backup. A system image backup backs up everything on your PC, including the exact partition layout, whatever apps you’ve installed, all of your data and settings … everything. As with the recovery drive, a system image backup is just a failsafe, something you can use if everything turns out wrong.
To do this, open Start, type backup and then choose Backup and Restore (Windows 7) in the search results. In the control panel that appears, select “Set up backup.” The Set Up Backup wizard appears.
You will need an external hard disk or other storage device that can hold the contents of your PC’s hard disk(s). Select that and click Next. Choose “Let Windows choose (recommended)” in the next step and then review what you’re backing up. What you’re looking for is “System image” in the Backup Summary. When you’re good to go, click Save settings and backup.
4. Backup your most important data separately
If you’re using Windows “correctly”—bear with me here for a moment—the system image backup will be unnecessary or at least redundant. That is, if you’re storing all of your documents, music, pictures and videos in OneDrive and/or some other cloud service and syncing the content to your Windows 10 PC as I recommend, everything that is important to you is already in the cloud. And that means it can survive you wiping out the PC and potentially screwing it all up.
But many people aren’t doing this for one reason or another. And to be safe, you might consider manually copying important data from your Windows 10 PC to some other location; a network share, preferably, or a USB-based hard disk or other storage device.
What I do is copy the contents of my Desktop, Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos folders to external storage using File Explorer. Just in case.
5. De-activate any software you’ve installed
Some software—iTunes, for example, Adobe Photoshop—requires you to activate on the PC(s) on which you install as a form of copy protection. Be sure to de-activate any such software. (If you’re using Office 365 and some other software, this isn’t totally necessary, as you can deactivate installs from the web.) Remember, you’re going to be clean installing Windows 10 and wiping out your current install. When you do so, you’re going to lose those activations.
6. Download your PC’s drivers
As a final step in this parade of “just in case” steps, be sure to visit your PC maker’s support web site and download all of the drivers for your exact PC model. I store these in a Drivers folder on the Windows 10 Setup disk created using the instructions in Clean PC: Download and Create Clean Windows 10 Setup Media. If everything goes well, you won’t need them. But I like having even an out-of-date network driver, since you can use that to at least get online and snag whatever else you need. Again. Just in case.
OK, that was a lot of preamble. Next up, we’ll look at the actual process of installing a clean, crapware-free version of Windows 10 on a new Windows 10-based PC.