Windows 10 and 11 tips

How to perform a clean install of Windows 10

At some point in the life of you PC, you’re probably going to need to reinstall the operating system. Find out when a reset or clean install of Windows 10 is needed, and pick up tips for to ensure a smooth transition.

bsod blue screen of death
Paul Fenwick (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Windows 10 and 11 tips

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Every great operating system sputters, falters and fails at one time or another, and Windows 10 is no exception. Whether caused by a Windows Update snag or a good app installation gone bad, you'll probably need to take some substantial steps to fix the OS at some point.

For example, after allowing Microsoft to automatically upgrade Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 on one of our office computers, the PC hummed along just fine for nearly a month before the cracks began to show. That's when the Microsoft Office applications stopped working properly. They crashed frequently, and Windows offered recovery versions of productivity files during nearly every computing session. Uninstalling and reinstalling the applications didn't seem to make a difference. We also noticed a rash of minor annoyances that went away, temporarily, only after rebooting. Then one day the Start menu became inaccessible and Windows 10 displayed this message:

Crucial error: Start Menu and Cortana aren't working

That was the death knell for the current installation of Windows 10. Although several websites offered step-by-step instructions for fixing the problem, none of the solutions worked for this PC and we were left with a machine that barely functioned. Any time we clicked the Start button, which happened a lot owing to force of habit, we had to reboot. Thus, it was time to take recovery measures.

Microsoft offers several recovery options once a computer hits the skids:

  • Restore from a system restore point
  • Reset a PC
  • Revert to a previous version of Windows
  • Reinstall Windows, either from a recovery drive or using installation media

After unsuccessfully restoring from a system restore point and deciding not to revert to Windows 8.1, we decided to reset the PC.

[Related: How to fix Windows 10 printing problems]

The “Reset this PC” feature in Windows 10 combines several recovery options that were separate in Windows 8.1. Choosing to reset a PC in Windows 10 enables you to simply refresh the operating system or return to factory default settings if the PC supports it. When refreshing the operating system, you can choose to keep all personal files, like documents and photos, or remove them along with all other files.

Performing a clean install involves reinstalling Windows using installation media, which you'll learn about shortly.

Reset a PC and keep personal files

If you choose to reset a PC and keep personal files during the process, Windows will reinstall the operating system files but leave the Documents folder and other personal files untouched. You will lose any installed applications, though, even those installed by the PC's manufacturer.

Note: Even the least-invasive of the reset options means you have to reinstall all applications and configure them, so be sure you have all application installation media before electing the Reset this PC option.

To reset the PC:

1. From the Start menu, select Settings > Update & Security > Recovery.

2. Click the Get started button in the Reset this PC section.

windows 10 clean install fig01

The “Reset this PC” feature in Windows 10.

3. Choose to keep your files, remove files, applications and settings, or restore the system to the factory default.

windows 10 clean install fig02

Selecting a “Reset this PC” option.

4. If you choose the option to keep your personal files, Windows lists all of the applications you'll need to reinstall after the PC reset completes. Click Next, follow the remaining prompts and wait for the OS to restart.

windows 10 clean install fig03

Windows lists the applications that must be reinstalled after the reset process.

5. If you choose to remove everything in Step 3, Windows 10 informs you of the steps it's about to take to reset the PC. Once you click the Reset button, Windows removes all files, applications and settings and then reinstalls the OS.

windows 10 clean install fig04

Removing all files, applications and settings during the reset process

One of the great things about Windows 10 is the speed and ease with which devices are automatically detected and drivers installed. Once the PC was reset, it took a few hours to reinstall apps, configure settings and install a few drivers (for a scanner and two printers).

With everything freshly installed and configured, we also created recovery media in case we ran into problems in the future. That was accomplished by searching for "Create a recovery drive" from the Start menu search box, inserting a 32 GB USB flash drive and following the wizard, as it stepped us through that process.

Performing a clean install of Windows 10

Had the reset not worked, the last step we could have taken (and have on other machines) was to perform a clean install. We've resorted to this method when a PC experienced corruption issues that even the reset couldn't handle. Performing a clean install wipes everything from the drive – the operating system, personal files, applications, settings and drivers – and then installs the operating system from installation media.

Before performing a clean install, you need installation media for Windows 10. If you took advantage of the free Windows 10 upgrade from Windows 7 or 8.1, the installer checked your system for a genuine version of Windows during that process and activated Windows. The activation details are stored with Microsoft. You can create bootable Windows 10 installation media for 32-bit or 64-bit systems on a USB device or DVD by going to the Get Windows 10 site and downloading the Media Creation tool.

[Related: How to reduce unnecessary drivers in Windows 10]

With the installation media in hand, just insert the media on the malfunctioning PC, restart it and follow the instructions. The process takes an hour or two. At one point, you'll be prompted for the Windows product key. If you have it, enter it. If you went through the free upgrade, you won't have a product key, so just click Skip. Remember, Microsoft already has the information and will activate the installation when it's complete. During the installation, advanced users can elect to change partitions and drives, which lets you boot from one drive, for example, but run apps from another.

Moving forward

Using the Reset this PC feature and retaining your personal files is a good quick-fix for most OS issues. If the problem persists or an entirely new issue appears after working through the process (which likely points to some type of system corruption), it's best to perform a clean install. In either case, personal files should always be backed up and be easily accessible to minimize loss. With the ubiquity of backup options and cloud-based storage services, it's easy to safely store all but the most recently created/modified personal files and eliminate the pain of having to re-create or piece together critical documents. Just be sure to put your backups on an external USB drive (or its cloud- or network-based equivalent) and you should be able to access anything you might need without undue difficulty.

This story, "How to perform a clean install of Windows 10" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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