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How to clean install Windows the right way

Eric Geier | March 22, 2016
Performing a Windows reinstall can make your PC feel like new, but you'll want to do some prep work first to avoid losing precious data and software.

Sometimes, the best way to fix deep-seated Windows issues is to burn everything to the ground and start from scratch. Reinstalling Windows refreshes the operating system, which gets rid of most corruption, errors, and viruses. Microsoft has tried to make this process easier with the Refresh and Reset features starting with Windows 8, but power users still might consider a good ol’ format and clean install. A clean install using a stock Windows disc or flash drive also gets rid of programs and bloatware installed from the factory.

If you take advantage of Microsoft’s free offer to upgrade Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 to Windows 10, the default method is an in-place upgrade. This sounds convenient since it’s supposed to keep all your files and programs intact, but as an IT professional I’ve seen many issues arise from this upgrade method, such as system slowness, errors, and other strange behaviors. A clean install of Windows 10 requires more effort, but eradicates all those potential headaches as well as any lingering bloatware on your PC.

Upgrading to Windows 10 via a clean install is much easier since the big Version 1511 “November update,” which allows you to clean install Windows 10 and activate it using a Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 product key. Before this update, you had to do an in-place upgrade in order to get the free upgrade offer from Microsoft, and then you could do a clean install of Windows 10. Now you can skip the in-between step.

Performing a clean install the right way takes some pre-wipe prep work in order to preserve your files and other saved data, though. Here’s everything you need to know, step-by-step.

Get a backup drive

To save your files and data, you need some type of backup drive, which could be an external USB hard drive, a USB flash drive if it’s big enough, or even a secondary internal hard drive if your PC has one.

If you’re backing up to a secondary internal drive, be sure it’s physically a different drive than your main drive. Drives can be partitioned so they appear as different drives in Windows but are actually the same physical drive. If you save your data to a partitioned space, you could lose the data when doing the clean Windows install. So if you’re unsure what you have, use an external hard drive or flash drive.

Back up personal files and documents

First, back up the usual user folders, which is where you likely have stored all or most of your personal files and documents. Go to the Users directory of Windows—typically C:\Users. Here you’ll see a folder for each Windows user as well as a Public folder. You may see multiple user folders even though you have one Windows user; check each folder.


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