Windows 10 clean install processSource: Windows Central

On Windows 10, a clean installation defines the process to wipe out the hard drive and start from scratch with a new setup when the device is having problems. For instance, this method can resolve memory, startup, shut down, apps, and performance issues. In addition, a fresh install can improve battery life, and it's perhaps the best approach to eliminating viruses and other types of malware.

It's also a good solution to start fresh with a new copy of Windows 10 on a new computer that may have come preloaded with bloatware, when you're readying a device for safely decommission, or when replacing a hard drive.

Furthermore, if you had the same setup for a long time, a clean installation is the better option to upgrade to the latest version of Windows 10 or upgrade from an older version (such as Windows 7 and Windows 8.1), minimizing the risks of issues during and after the process.

In this Windows 10 guide, we'll walk you through the complete process to perform a clean installation, whether you want to upgrade to Windows 10 October 2020 Update, or you're about to make the leap to Windows 8.1 or Windows 7.

How to prepare computer for clean install of Windows 10

Before proceeding with the clean installation of Windows 10, it's recommended to complete some essential tasks to minimize the chances of issues and data loss.

If you already have a backup of the device and files. You have an activation key. The computer is configured to start from a USB flash drive, and non-essential peripherals are disconnected. Then you can skip this part and jump to bootable media creation and a clean install process.

Create backup

On Windows 10, the install process deletes everything on the hard drive, which means that backing up the entire device (or at least your files) is crucial. Of course, that's unless you don't have anything important you want to keep.

Backup entire system

You should create a temporary backup of the current installation to revert the settings or recover files if something goes wrong.

Windows 10 backup featureSource: Windows Central

You can choose from many solutions, but the easiest way to create a full backup is to use the legacy System Image Backup tool available on Windows 10. The tool is also available for Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

Backup files to OneDrive

For backing up your documents, pictures, and other important files, you can upload the data to OneDrive or another cloud storage service.

If you use OneDrive, you can also use the backup settings page to sync your profile folders, including Documents, Pictures, and Desktop, to the cloud automatically.

To configure OneDrive backup on Windows 10, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Backup.
  4. Under the "Back up files to OneDrive" section, click the Back up files option.

    Windows 10 backup files to OneDrive optionSource: Windows Central

    Quick tip: This option is available starting with version 2004 and higher releases. If you have an older version, you can still access the settings, but they'll be available using the OneDrive icon in the taskbar.

  5. (Optional) Click to clear the folder you don't want to backup in the cloud.
  6. Click the Start backup button.

    Mange folder backup on OneDriveSource: Windows Central

Once you complete the steps, OneDrive will backup the files on the Desktop, Documents, and Pictures user folders into the cloud and across devices.

Backup files to external storage

If you have a large number of files, then syncing them to the cloud can take a long time and expensive. If this is the case, then perhaps the best option would be making a copy of the files to an external USB hard drive.

To create a file backup manually, connect a drive with enough storage, and 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.

    File Explorer select all foldersSource: Windows Central

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

    Copy to external driveSource: Windows Central

  7. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, repeat the instructions to backup the remaining accounts (if applicable). In addition to making a copy of your files, it's also a good idea to create a list of the installed programs with their respective product keys (if applicable) to know the apps you may need to reinstall after the installation.

If you usually don't sync passwords and bookmarks with an online service, it's now a good time to export your browser credentials and links as you'll need them later to access your online services.

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Check Windows 10 activation

After Windows 10 has been activated, you no longer have to provide the product key for future installations on the same device. Once the new installation completes, the system will automatically reactivate as soon as it connects to the internet.

To confirm if Windows 10 is properly activated, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Activation.
  4. Under the "Windows" section, confirm the activation. If the device has been properly activated, you'll see one of these messages:

    • Windows is activated with a digital license: The installation has been activated, but it 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

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

Obtain Windows 10 genuine key

When setting up Windows 10 on a new device that never had an OS, or you are upgrading from Windows 8.1 or Windows 7, you will have purchase a valid license from the Microsoft Store, Amazon, or another retailer.

Download essential drivers

Windows 10 does a good job detecting and installing most device drivers automatically. However, it's usually recommended to download at least the essential drivers before the process, such as for the network adapter and graphics card, as a precaution, in case the setup fails to add these drivers correctly, especially on custom PC builds.

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

Here's a list of websites from the most popular manufacturers to download the latest device drivers.

Confirm Windows 10 requirements

If the computer already has a Windows 10 setup, then a future release will likely meet the minimum hardware requirements. However, if you're about to upgrade a computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you want to make sure that the device meets the minimum requirements.

Here are the minimum requirements to install the Windows 10 October 2020 Update (and higher):

  • 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 check the device technical specifications to make sure you can do a clean install of Windows 10.

Change boot order on firmware

It's also important to make sure that the computer can boot from a USB flash drive. If this is not the case, you'll need to change the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) or Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) on the motherboard.

Change boot order using UEFI

On devices already running Windows 10 or Windows 8.1, you can access the settings to change the boot order from within the desktop environment.

UEFI settings on Windows 10

To change the UEFI boot settings on Windows 10, 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.

    Windows 10 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 in the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  10. Set the boot order to start from the USB flash drive with the Windows 10 installation files.

    UEFI settingsSource: Windows Central

  11. Save the changes.

After you complete the steps, the computer should now be able to start from a USB bootable media.

UEFI settings on Windows 8.1

To change the UEFI boot settings on Windows 8.1, 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 in the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  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 computer will start from a USB flash drive to proceed with the clean installation process.

UEFI settings on Windows 7

To change the UEFI boot settings on Windows 7, use these steps:

  1. Start the computer.
  2. As soon as it starts, press the F1, F2, F3, F10, or F12, the ESC, or Delete key to access the firmware.

    Quick tip: You may need to check your manufacturer support website for more specific steps to access the firmware settings.

  3. While in the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  4. Set the boot order to start from the USB media with the Windows 10 installation files.

After you complete the steps, you should be able to start the device using a bootable media.

Configure boot order using BIOS

If you're dealing with a legacy BIOS firmware, you can change the boot order with these steps:

  1. Start the computer.
  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.
  3. While in the motherboard firmware settings, open the Boot page.
  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, the device should be able to start from the USB flash drive.

Disconnect non-essential peripherals

Connected peripherals usually are the reason for problems during the Windows 10 installation process. If you have non-essential peripherals connected to the computer (such as removable storage and other USB and Bluetooth devices as well as printers, scanners, cameras, and others), it's recommended to remove them.

When preparing to do a clean install of Windows 10, you only need a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and an internet connection. After the setup, you can reconnect the peripherals (one at a time) to make sure they don't cause any issues.

How to create USB for clean install of Windows 10

On Windows 10, you will need a USB bootable media to perform a clean installation, which you can easily create using many tools, including the Microsoft Media Creation Tool and Rufus.

Create Windows 10 USB with Media Creation Tool

To create an installation media using the Media Creation Tool, connect a USB flash drive of at least 8GB of space, and 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 the device.
  3. Double-click the MediaCreationToolxxxx.exe file to launch the tool.
  4. Click the Accept button to agree to the terms.
  5. Select the Create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file) for another PC option.

    Media Creation Tool create media for another PC optionSource: Windows Central

  6. Click the Next button.
  7. (Optional) Clear the Use the recommended options for this PC option.
  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 several devices running the 32-bit or 64-bit architecture, 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 USB flash drive (or click the "Refresh drive list" option to make it available).

    Select USB to create boot mediaSource: Windows Central

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

Once you complete the steps, the tool will download the files and create an installer with the latest installation files, which you can then use to start the device and configure a fresh copy of Windows 10.

Create Windows 10 USB with Rufus

Alternatively, you can use the Rufus tool to create an installation media for devices with motherboards featuring UEFI or BIOS firmware.

Rufus is a tool available for free with many options to help you create a bootable media of Windows 10 faster. However, it's important to remember that it's a third-party option, which Microsoft does not support, so use it at your own risk.

To create a Windows 10 USB installer with Rufus, 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 link to save the latest release on your device.

    Rufus download pageSource: Windows Central

  3. Double-click the Rufus-x.xx.exe file to launch the tool.
  4. Click the Settings button (third button from the left) at the bottom of the page.

    Rufus Settings buttonSource: Windows Central

  5. Under the "Settings" section, use the Check for updates drop-down menu and select the Daily option.

    Enable Rufus Download OptionSource: Windows Central

    Quick tip: These steps are necessary to enable the option to use the tool to download the ISO file of Windows 10.

  6. Click the Close button.
  7. Close the Rufus tool.
  8. Relaunch the Rufus tool.
  9. Under the "Device" section, use the drop-down menu to select the USB flash drive.
  10. Under the "Boot selection" section, click the down arrow button on the right and select the Download option.

    Rufus Windows 10 ISO download optionSource: Windows Central

    Quick tip: If you already have an ISO file, click the Select button, select the Windows 10 ISO file, and continue with step No. 24.

  11. Click the Download button.
  12. Use the "Version" drop-down menu and select the Windows 10 option.
  13. Click the Continue button.
  14. Select the 20H2 (Build 19042.xxx - xxxx.xx) option to download the Windows 10 October 2020 Update.
  15. Click the Continue button.
  16. Use the "Edition" drop-down menu and select the Windows 10 Home/Pro option.
  17. Click the Continue button.
  18. Use the "Language" drop-down menu and select your installation language.

    Quick tip: If you're in the United States, select the "English" option, not "English International."

  19. Click the Continue button.
  20. Use the "Architecture" drop-down menu and select the 32-bit or 64-bit (recommended).
  21. Click the Download button.

    Rufus ISO download wizardSource: Windows Central

  22. Select a folder location to download the ISO file.
  23. Click the Save button.
  24. Use the "Image option" drop-down menu to select the Standard Windows installation option.
  25. Use the "Partition scheme" drop-down menu to select the GPT option.
  26. Use the "Target system" drop-down menu to select the UEFI (non CSM) option.

    Rufus Windows 10 USB with UEFI settingsSource: Windows Central

    Quick note: If the computer includes a legacy BIOS, select the MBR option for partition scheme and BIOS (or UEFI-CSM) option target system.

  27. Under the "Show Advanced drive properties" section, don't change the default settings.
  28. Under the "Volume label" field, enter a descriptive name for the drive — for example, "win10_usb."
  29. Under the "File system" and "Cluster size" section, don't change the default settings.
  30. Click the Show advanced format options button.
  31. Select the Quick format and Create extended label and icon files options.
  32. Click the Start button.
  33. Click the OK button to confirm.
  34. Click the Close button.

After you complete the steps, Rufus will download the ISO file from the Microsoft servers, and it'll create the bootable media to perform a clean install of Windows 10.

How to perform clean install of Windows 10

The installation process of Windows 10 has two main parts, including the setup and out-of-box experience (OOBE). In the setup process, that's where you will select some of the basic settings, and you'll find the options to erase the hard drive, configure the partitions, and clean install Windows 10. The out-of-box experience happens after the setup is complete, and it's the stage where you'll configure your settings, such as region, network, account, privacy, and other settings.

Windows 10 clean install process

Once you went through the preparation instructions, the clean install of Windows 10 is actually a straightforward process.

Warning: This is another friendly reminder that this process will erase everything on the 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 device with 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

    Quick tip: If your language, time and currency, and keyboard are different from the default selections, make sure to select the correct settings before continuing.

  4. Click the Install now button.

    Windows 10 Setup install now optionSource: Windows Central

  5. If you're doing a reinstallation, click the I don't have a product key option to continue (assuming that your device was already activated). Otherwise, in the case that this is your first time installing Windows 10, enter the product key.

    Windows 10 product key optionSource: Windows Central

  6. Click the Next button.
  7. Select the edition of Windows 10 (If applicable).

    Windows 10 Setup select editionSource: Windows Central

    Quick note: This selection must match the edition that the product key activates. If you don't select the correct edition, Windows 10 won't activate, and you'll have to redo the entire process one more time.

  8. Click the Next button.
  9. Select the I accept the license terms option to continue.
  10. Click the Next button.
  11. Click the Custom: Install Windows only (Advanced) option to continue with a clean installation.

    Windows 10 clean 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 partition to allow the setup to use the entire hard drive for the new clean installation. The Windows 10 setup will create the required partitions automatically during the process. Also, it's not necessary to delete the partitions on secondary drives.

  13. Click the Yes button.

    Delete partitions to clean 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 install a fresh copy of Windows 10 on the computer.

If you plan to decommission the device, you can stop now and let the new owner complete the out-of-box experience. However, in the case that you're upgrading your system, then continue with the instructions below.

Windows 10 out-of-box experience

After the setup, you have to continue with the out-of-box experience to configure your preferences and create a new account.

This guide follows the out-of-box experience available with the Windows 10 October 2020 Update. However, depending on the release you are installing, the steps may be slightly different.

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

  1. Select your Region option.

    OOBE regionSource: Windows Central

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

    OOBE keyboard layoutSource: Windows Central

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

    Quick note: If you're not using a wired network connection, you'll have to sign in to the wireless network.

  6. Select the Set up for personal use option.

    Windows 10 personal use setupSource: Windows Central

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

    OOBE create new Windows 10 accountSource: Windows Central

    Quick note: The recommended process is to use a Microsoft account. However, if you want to use a traditional local account, you'll need to click the Offline account option from the bottom-left corner and then continue with the on-screen directions.

  9. Click the Next button.
  10. Confirm your account password.

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

    Windows 10 October 2020 Update Privacy OobeSource: Windows Central

  16. (Optional) You can provide your phone number and then click the Send button to link your phone with your device. If you want to skip this option, click the Do it later button in the screen's bottom-left corner.

    OOBE link phoneSource: Windows Central

  17. (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 prefer not to upload files to the cloud, click the Only save files to this PC option in the screen's bottom-left corner.

    OOBE OneDrive setupSource: Windows Central

  18. Click the No, thanks button to skip the Microsoft 365 setup (as necessary).

    Microsoft 365 Install Offer OobeSource: Windows Central

    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.

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

    Clean Windows 10 install Cortana setupSource: Windows Central

After you complete the steps, the new settings will apply to the clean installation of Windows 10, and you should be able to see the default desktop experience.

How to complete setup after install of Windows 10

After the installation, it's also a good idea to check that Windows 10 isn't missing any critical updates or drivers and properly activated.

Install updates

To check for 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 updates on Windows 10Source: Windows Central

Once you complete the steps, if Windows Update finds any updates, it'll automatically download and install them. A restart may be required to complete the update process.

Check missing drivers

To determine whether drivers are missing, use these steps:

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

    Device ManagerSource: Windows Central

If one or multiple devices have problems, you may need to manually 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.

Install missing drivers

On Windows 10, drivers can also be part of the optional updates. If you're missing one or multiple drivers, you may be able to download them from Windows Update.

To download missing drivers using Windows Update, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Click on Update & Security.
  3. Click on Windows Update.
  4. Click the View optional updates option. If the option isn't available, then Windows Update doesn't have any driver updates for your device.

    Windows 10 Optional Updates OptionSource: Windows Central

  5. Click the Driver updates section.
  6. Select the missing driver.

    Windows 10 install missing drivers after clean installSource: Windows Central

  7. Click the Download and install button.

After you complete the steps, Windows Update will download and install the missing drivers automatically.

Confirm activation

To confirm Windows 10 was properly activated, use these steps:

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

    • Windows is activated with a digital license: The installation has been activated, but it 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, the device will try to reactivate at a later time. If you're still having issues after a couple of days, you can use the Activation Troubleshooter to activate.

Reinstall apps

It's now time to reinstall your applications, including your preferred web browser, such as Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera to browse the web.

If you use Spotify or iTunes to listen to tunes while working or surfing the internet, 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.

Restore files from backup

The last thing left to do is to restore your files from backup. If you previously configured file backup with OneDrive, then the data should already be available inside the OneDrive folder, but if the app didn't configure automatically, you can use this guide.

In the case that you have a backup of your files on an external drive, reconnect the storage to restore the data into the account default 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 with the files.
  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, the Documents folder.
  7. Click the Copy button.

After you complete the steps, the files will restore in the location you specified.

Although you can start a clean installation using the Media Creation Tool without a USB media and even the Reset this PC option from the recovery settings, these methods have their limitations and no always work as expected.

If you want to make sure that you're performing a truly clean installation, using the bootable media is a better alternative.

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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