Windows 10 clean install setupSource: Windows Central

On Windows 10, a clean installation is the best option to erase the hard drive to start from scratch when your device is having problems. For instance, using this approach can help to resolve performance, startup, shut down, memory, and apps issues. In addition, it's an effective method to delete viruses and virtually any kind of malware, and it can even help to improve battery life on laptops and tablets.

If you've been using the same configuration for a long time, you can also use a clean installation to upgrade to the latest release or previous version (such as Windows 8.1 and Windows 7) to minimize the risks of issues during and after the upgrade process, usually as a result of drivers or incompatible apps.

It's also the option that you should use to start fresh with a copy of Windows 10 on a hard drive replacement, a new device that came loaded with bloatware, or clean up a computer that you're readying to giveaway.

In this Windows 10 guide, we'll walk you through the entire process a perform a clean installation, whether you're upgrading to the Windows 10 November 2019 Update, or making the leap to Windows 8.1 or Windows 7.

How to prepare device for clean install of Windows 10

If you're planning to install a clean copy of Windows 10, it's recommended to perform a few tasks before the process to minimize the chances of problems and prevent data loss.

Backing up files

The clean installation process erases everything on the main drive, as such before proceeding is advised to create a backup of your files as well as a temporary full backup of the entire system (whenever possible).

Upload files to OneDrive

You can create a backup of documents, pictures, and other files in many ways. However, the easiest way is to move your data to the OneDrive folder or cloud storage service that you use.

Alternatively, you can use the backup option in OneDrive to automatically upload your profile folders, including Documents, Pictures, and Desktop using these steps:

  1. Click the OneDrive cloud icon in the taskbar.
  2. Click the More menu.
  3. Click the Settings option.

    OneDrive settings taskbarSource: Windows Central

  4. Click the Backup tab.
  5. Click the Manage backup button.

    OneDrive backup settingsSource: Windows Central

  6. Select the folders that you want to backup in the cloud.
  7. Click the Start backup button.

    OneDrive backup foldersSource: Windows Central

Once you complete the steps, the files in those locations will upload to your account online.

Copy files to external drive

If you have a large amount of data, perhaps your best option would be making a copy of the files to an external hard drive.

To create a file backup manually, connect an external drive, and then use these steps:

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Type the following path in the address bar and press Enter:

    %HOMEPATH%

    User folderSource: Windows Central

  3. Click the Select All button from the "Home" tab.

    Explorer select all optionSource: Windows Central

  4. Click the Copy to button from the "Home" tab.
  5. Select the Choose location option.
  6. Select the destination location.

    Copy destination Source: Windows Central

  7. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, you may need to repeat the instructions to backup the files for the remaining accounts (if applicable).

Along with making a copy of your files, it's a good idea to make a list of your install apps and their product keys (if applicable) to know the apps you need to reinstall after the installation.

If you're not already saving your passwords and bookmarks with an online service, it's now a good time to export your browser credentials and links.

In the case that you don't have an external hard drive without enough space to backup your files, we recommend the Western Digital My Book Desktop because of its portability, capacity, and price.

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Backing up entire device

While you want to start with a fresh copy of Windows 10, it's also recommended to create a full backup of your current installation, in case something happens, and you need to rollback or to recover files that weren't backed up with the previous steps.

You can choose from a number of solutions, but the easiest way to create a full backup is to use the System Image Backup tool available on Windows 10 as well as on Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

Downloading device drivers

Although Windows 10 does a pretty good job detecting and installing most device drivers automatically, you always want to download at least the essential drivers ahead of time, such as for the network adapter and graphics card, in case the setup fails to add these drivers correctly.

If you need assistance, you can use our guide on how to install device drivers on Windows 10.

Below you'll find a list of websites from the most popular computer manufacturers to download the latest device drivers.

Windows 10 minimum requirements

If you're already running any of the versions of Windows 10, then the release that you're planning to install is likely to be compatible with your hardware configuration. However, if you're about to upgrade an older computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you want to make sure that the device meets the minimum hardware requirements.

These are the minimum requirements to install the Windows 10 November 2019 Update and later releases:

  • Processor: 1GHz or System on a Chip (SoC)
  • Memory: 1GB for 32-bit or 2GB for 64-bit
  • Storage: 32GB for 64-bit or 32-bit
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 800x600

You can use these instructions to learn the steps to check your device technical specifications to make sure that you can install Windows 10.

Confirming Windows 10 activation

Once Windows 10 has been properly activated, it's not necessary to enter the product key again. After the installation, the device will activate automatically as soon as it connects to the internet.

Before you proceed with the clean installation process, you should confirm that your device is activated using these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Activation.
  4. Under the "Windows" section, confirm that your computer is activated.

    Check Windows 10 activationSource: Windows Central

After you complete the steps, if your current setup is activated, then Windows 10 should reactivate automatically after the installation.

Getting Windows 10 product key

If you're about to install Windows 10 on a new computer, or you're trying to upgrade Windows 8.1 or Windows 7, you'll need to purchase a valid license from the Microsoft Store, Amazon, or another retailer.

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Windows 10

Microsoft's bread and butter

Windows is king of the OS castle, and chances are, if you're reading Windows Central, you're probably doing it from a Windows PC. Windows 10 is the most dynamic version of Windows yet, with Microsoft's development focused on shipping new features and updates faster than any previous version of the OS.

Changing boot order to USB

To begin with the installation, you must first start your device with a USB bootable that contains the files to perform a clean installation of Windows 10, but this is only possible if the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) or Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) on the motherboard is configured to boot from USB.

Update boot order using BIOS

If your device uses the legacy BIOS firmware, you can change the boot order using these steps:

  1. Start device.
  2. As soon as the computer starts booting up, press one of the function keys (F1, F2, F3, F10, or F12), the ESC, or Delete key.

    Quick tip: The steps to access the BIOS varies per manufacturer and even per computer model. As a result, you may need to check your manufacturer support website for more specific steps.

  3. While inside the BIOS, find the Boot settings.
  4. Set the boot order to start from the USB media with the Windows 10 installation files.

    BIOS optionsSource: Windows Central

  5. Save the changes.

Once you complete the steps, your computer should be able to start from the USB bootable media.

Update boot order using UEFI

If you're dealing with a UEFI firmware, you may use the same steps as those to access the BIOS firmware, or you can perform the same task more easily from within the Windows 10 or Windows 8.1 desktop.

Access UEFI on Windows 10

On Windows 10, to access the UEFI environment to adjust your device settings to boot from USB, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Recovery.
  4. Under the "Advanced Startup" section, click the Restart now button.

    Recovery settingsSource: Windows Central

  5. Click the Troubleshoot button.

    Troubleshoot settingsSource: Windows Central

  6. Click on Advanced options.

    Advanced settingsSource: Windows Central

  7. Click the UEFI Firmware Settings option.

    Advanced settings UEFI optionSource: Windows Central

  8. Click the Restart button.

    UEFI firmware settingsSource: Windows Central

  9. While inside the firmware environment, open the Boot settings.
  10. Set the boot order to start from the USB media with the Windows 10 installation files.

    UEFI settingsSource: Windows Central

  11. Save the changes.

After you complete the steps, the device should be able to start from a USB flash drive.

Access UEFI on Windows 8.1

On Windows 8.1, to access the UEFI environment to configure your computer to start from USB, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update and recovery.
  3. Click on Recovery.
  4. Under the "Advanced Startup" section, click the Restart now button.

    Advanced settings Windows 8Source: Windows Central

  5. Click the Troubleshoot option.

    Troubleshoot settings Windows 8Source: Windows Central

  6. Click on Advanced options.

    Advanced options Windows 8Source: Windows Central

  7. Click the UEFI Firmware Settings option.

    Advanced settings UEFI optionSource: Windows Central

  8. Click the Restart button.

    UEFI settingsSource: Windows Central

  9. While inside the firmware, open the Boot settings.
  10. Set the boot order to start from the USB media with the Windows 10 installation files.

    UEFI boot order settingsSource: Windows Central

  11. Save the changes.

Once you complete the steps, the device should be able to start from a USB flash drive to proceed with a clean installation of Windows 10.

If you're still using Windows 7, you can refer to the steps to access the BIOS to access the UEFI settings on your device.

Disconnecting non-essential peripherals

Connected peripherals are usually the main reason for problems during the installation process. If you have non-essential peripherals connected to your device, it's recommended to disconnect them, including removable storage and other USB and Bluetooth devices as well as printers, scanners, cameras, and others.

When performing a clean install of Windows 10, you only need a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and an internet connection. After the setup process, you can reconnect the peripherals again.

How to create USB bootable media to clean install of Windows 10

To perform a clean installation of Windows 10, you'll need a USB bootable media, which you can easily create using a number of tools, including the Microsoft Media Creation tool or third-party tools, such as Rufus.

Creating USB installer using Media Creation Tool

To create a Windows 10 setup bootable media using the Media Creation Tool, connect a USB flash drive of at least 8GB of space, and then use these steps:

  1. Open Windows 10 download page.
  2. Under the "Create Windows 10 installation media" section, click the Download tool now button to save the file on your computer.

    Media Creation Tool downloadSource: Windows Central

  3. Double-click the MediaCreationToolxxxx.exe file to launch the tool.
  4. Click the Accept button to agree to the Microsoft terms.
  5. Select the Create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file) for another PC option.

    Create boot media optionSource: Windows Central

  6. Click the Next button.
  7. Clear the Use the recommended options for this PC option (if applicable).
  8. Select the correct language, architecture, and edition of Windows 10.

    Change architecture settings of Windows 10Source: Windows Central

    Quick tip: If you plan to install Windows 10 on multiple computers running the 32-bit or 64-bit architecture, then use the "Architecture" drop-down menu and select the Both option.

  9. Click the Next button.
  10. Select the USB flash drive option.

    Media Creation Tool USB optionSource: Windows Central

  11. Click the Next button
  12. Select the flash drive from the list.

    Select USB to create boot mediaSource: Windows Central

  13. Click the Next button.
  14. Click the Finish button.

Once you complete the steps, the Media Creation Tool will download the required files and create an installer that you can use to start your device and set up a fresh copy of Windows 10.

Creating USB installer using Rufus

If you're having problems using the Media Creation Tool, you can use the Rufus tool to create the installer even if you don't have a Windows 10 ISO file.

Quick note: Rufus is a popular tool with many options to help you create a bootable media of Windows 10 faster. However, it's still a third-party tool, which is not supported by Microsoft. You should use it at your own risk.

To begin, connect a USB flash drive of at least 8GB of space, and then use these steps:

  1. Open Rufus download page.
  2. Under the "Download" section, click the latest release of the tool to save the file on your device.

    Rufus download pageSource: Windows Central

  3. Double-click the Rufus-x.x.exe file to launch the tool.
  4. Under the "Device" section, select the USB flash drive with at least 8GB of space.
  5. Under the "Boot selection" section, click the down arrow button next to the "Select" option on the right and click the Download button.

    Rufus Windows 10 download optionSource: Windows Central

    Quick tip: If you already have an ISO file, then click the Select button, select the Windows 10 ISO file, and continue with step No. 19.

  6. Click the Download button.
  7. Use the "Version" drop-down menu and select Windows 10.
  8. Click the Continue button.
  9. Select the 19H2 (Build 18363.xxx) option to download the Windows 10 November 2019 Update.
  10. Click the Continue button.
  11. Use the "Edition" drop-down menu and select the Windows 10 Home/Pro option.
  12. Click the Continue button.
  13. Use the "Language" drop-down menu and select your installation language.
  14. Click the Continue button.
  15. Use the "Architecture" drop-down menu and select the 32-bit or 64-bit (recommended).
  16. Click the Download button.

    Rufus ISO download scriptSource: Windows Central

  17. Select a folder location to download the ISO file.
  18. Click the Save button.

    Rufus saving ISO optionSource: Windows Central

  19. Use the "Image option" drop-down menu to select the Standard Windows installation option.
  20. Use the "Partition scheme" drop-down menu to select the GPT option.
  21. Use the "Target system" drop-down menu to select the UEFI (non CSM) option.

    Rufus Windows 10 USB with UEFI settingsSource: Windows Central

  22. Under the "Show Advanced drive properties" section, leave the default settings.
  23. Under the "Volume label" field, enter a descriptive name for the drive — for example, "win10_usb."
  24. Under the "File system" and "Cluster size" section, leave the default settings.
  25. Click the Show advanced format options button.
  26. Select the "Quick format" and "Create extended label and icon files" options.
  27. Click the Start button.
  28. Click the OK button to confirm.
  29. Click the Close button.

After you complete the steps, Rufus will run the script to download the ISO file, and it'll create the bootable media to perform a clean install of Windows 10 on any supported device.

How to perform clean install of Windows 10

The clean installation process has two parts. First, you have to go through the setup process that allows you to erase the drive, configure partitions, and install a clean copy of Windows 10. The second part is known as the out-of-box experience (OOBE), which is the process that lets you configure personal settings, such as language, account, privacy, and more.

Windows 10 setup

Once you performed the recommended preparation steps and created the USB bootable media, then you can proceed with the steps to complete a clean installation of Windows 10.

Warning: This is a friendly reminder that this process will erase everything on your computer. It's always recommended to make a temporary full backup of your PC before proceeding.

To do a clean installation of Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Start the computer with the Windows 10 USB media.
  2. On prompt, press any key to boot from the device.
  3. On the "Windows Setup," click the Next button.

    Windows 10 SetupSource: Windows Central

  4. Click the Install now button.

    Windows 10 Setup install optionSource: Windows Central

  5. Type the product key if this is your first time installing Windows 10. If you're reinstalling the OS, you can click the I don't have a product key option to continue (assuming that your device was already activated).

    Windows 10 product key optionSource: Windows Central

  6. Click the Next button.
  7. Select the edition of Windows 10 (If applicable). This selection must match the edition your product key activates.

    Windows 10 Setup select editionSource: Windows Central

  8. Click the Next button.
  9. Select the I accept the license terms option to continue.

    Windows 10 licenseSource: Windows Central

  10. Click the Next button.
  11. Click on the Custom: Install Windows only (Advanced) option.

    Windows 10 setup custom install optionSource: Windows Central

  12. Select the partition with the current installation (usually "Drive 0"), and click the Delete button.

    Quick tip: If "Drive 0" has multiple partitions, you have to select and delete each of the partitions to allow the setup to use the entire drive for the new clean installation. Windows 10 will create the required partitions automatically during the process. It's not necessary to delete the partitions on secondary drives.

  13. Click the Yes button.

    Delete partitions to install Windows 10Source: Windows Central

  14. Select the empty drive (Drive 0 Unallocated Space).

    Begin clean install of Windows 10Source: Windows Central

  15. Click the Next button.

Once you complete the steps, the setup will proceed with the fresh installation of Windows 10 on the device.

If you're planning to get rid of the device, you can stop now and let the new owner complete the setup. If you're upgrading a system that you're planning to use, then you need to continue with out-of-box experience.

Windows 10 out-of-box experience

After the installation is complete, continue with the out-of-box experience to create a new account and configure your preferences.

In this guide, we're following the out-of-box experience available with version 1909 (November 2019 Update), but depending on the release that you're installing, the steps may be slightly different.

To complete the OOBE on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Select your Region.

    OOBE regionSource: Windows Central

  2. Click the Yes button.
  3. Select your keyboard layout.

    OOBE keyboard layoutSource: Windows Central

  4. Click the Yes button.
  5. Click the Skip button (unless you need to add a second keyboard layout).

    OOBE second keyboard layoutSource: Windows Central

  6. Click the Set up for personal use option.

    Windows 10 personal use setupSource: Windows Central

  7. Click the Next button.
  8. Type your Microsoft account information to create an account.

    OOBE create new accountSource: Windows Central

  9. Click the Next button.
  10. Type your Microsoft account password. Or if you use your phone to sign in to Microsoft services, you can click the Use the Microsoft Authenticator app instead option.

    Windows 10 Setup account passwordSource: Windows Central

  11. Click the Next button.
  12. Click the Create PIN button.

    OOBE create PINSource: Windows Central

  13. Create your new four-digit Windows Hello PIN.

    OOBE set a PINSource: Windows Central

    Quick tip: If you want to continue using a traditional password, click the Cancel button to skip the process.

  14. (Optional) If you wish to enable Timeline to access your activity history across devices, click the Yes button. Otherwise, click the No button.

    OOBE activity historySource: Windows Central

  15. (Optional) You can supply your phone number and then click the Send button to link your phone with your computer. If you want to skip this option, click the Do it later button in the bottom-left corner of the screen.

    OOBE link phoneSource: Windows Central

  16. (Optional) Click the Next button to allow OneDrive to backup the Desktop, Documents, and Pictures folders to the cloud. If you use another cloud service, or you're not interested in uploading your files to the cloud, click the Only save files to this PC option in the bottom-left corner of the screen.

    OOBE OneDrive setupSource: Windows Central

  17. Click the No button to skip the Office setup (if applicable).

    Quick tip: If you have an Office product key, you can click the I have a product key option, and then the apps will install automatically on your device.

  18. (Optional) Check the Let Cortana respond to "Hey Cortana" option to use the assistance hands-free.
  19. Click the Accept button to allow Microsoft to collect personal information to make Cortana more personal. If you're not interested in this feature, click the Decline button to continue.

    OOBE Cortana setupSource: Windows Central

  20. Select your privacy settings (and don't forget to scroll down the page to review all the available settings).
  21. Click the Accept button.

    OOBE privacy settingsSource: Windows Central

After you complete the steps, the settings you selected will apply to the installation, and the desktop should now appear.

How to complete setup after clean install of Windows 10

Once the installation is complete, you want to ensure that the device has the latest update, it's been properly activated, and there are no missing drivers.

Installing updates

To install the latest security and maintenance updates on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Windows Update.
  4. Click the Check for updates button.

    Check for updatesSource: Windows Central

After you complete the steps, if there are any updates available, they'll download and install automatically.

Checking activation

To confirm Windows 10 is activated, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Activation.
  4. If Windows 10 activated successfully, you'd see one of the following messages:

    • Windows is activated with a digital license: The installation has been activated, but the license isn't linked to your Microsoft account.
    • Windows is activated with a digital license linked to your Microsoft account: The installation has been activated, and the license is linked to your Microsoft account.

    Check Windows 10 activationSource: Windows Central

In the case that Windows 10 didn't activate, usually, the device will reactivate within a day or two. If you're still having issues, you can use the Activation Troubleshooter to activate.

Checking missing drivers

To determine if Windows 10 was able to configure every component and peripheral, use these steps:

  1. Open Start.
  2. Search for Device Manager and click the top result to open the app.
  3. Confirm that none of the devices have a yellow or red mark, and make sure nothing is listed as unknown.

    Device Manager Source: Windows Central

In the case that one or multiple devices have problems, you'll need to download and install the latest drivers from your computer manufacturer's support website.

You can use this guide to install device drivers on Windows 10.

Installing apps

After making sure that Windows 10 is up-to-date, and devices is installed correctly, it's time to reinstall your applications, including web browser, such as the Edge Chromium, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera to browse the web.

If you use Spotify or iTunes to listen to tunes while working on your computer, you can download these apps and other from Microsoft Store.

Also, it's now a good time to download and install the suite of Office apps to start working with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and managing your emails with Outlook.

Restoring files from backup

Finally, if you created a backup of your files, you can now reconnect the external drive to restore the data to your account folders.

To restore files from a previous backup, use these steps:

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Under the This PC section in the left pane, select the external drive the backup.
  3. Select the folders with the file that you want to restore.
  4. Click the Copy to menu from the Home tab.

    File Explorer copy optionSource: Windows Central

  5. Select the Choose location option.
  6. Select the destination to restore the files — for example, in the Documents folder.
  7. (Optional) Click the Make New Folder button.

    Create new folder Source: Windows Central

  8. Specify a name for the folder (such as Backup) and press Enter.
  9. Select the newly created folder.

    Copy files to destinationSource: Windows Central

  10. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, the files will restore to your computer.

If you backed up your files using OneDrive, then the data should already be available inside the OneDrive folder. However, if the client didn't configure automatically, you can use this guide.

Wrapping things up

Although, technically, you can also use the Media Creation tool to perform a clean installation of Windows 10 without USB media, using this approach has its limitations, and the chances for issues are higher. If you want to make sure that you're performing a true clean installation, using the bootable media is the recommended option.

More Windows 10 resources

For more helpful articles, coverage, and answers to common questions about Windows 10, visit the following resources:

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