Love it or loathe it, Windows 10 is your only choice in the Microsoft stable these days: Windows 7 is no longer supported at all, so running it without security patches is a bad idea, and there's absolutely no way you'd choose Windows 8 over 10.
Anyway, you're reading this because you want to know how to reinstall Windows and, thankfully, Microsoft has given you a few different ways to reset and refresh Windows including a 'hidden' option which completely installs Windows 10 fresh, but keeps your files and some settings. That's the method we recommend using as it updates to the latest version, gets rid of a lot of clutter and problems and doesn't take too long.
The actual amount of time required will depend upon the speed of your internet connection and whether or not you have SSD storage or an older, mechanical hard drive, because SSDs are much quicker at installing Windows. Set aside 1-2 hours for this, plus time to reinstall your apps.
Warning: Before you reinstall Windows using the process below, you should back up all your files, music, photos, videos, savegames and web bookmarks. Although your files will be kept, it's too great a risk not to make a backup of any documents that you cannot replace.
You may already have a backup of those, but since all your apps will be removed, you should also:
- Deregister any apps which will need to be activated again after you reinstall them (such as older versions of Photoshop)
- Research how to back up progress in your games so you don't have to start fresh
- Save web bookmarks (or sign into Chrome or Firefox so they are saved to the cloud)
- Look for any activation keys you might need to reinstall apps once Windows is reinstalled
- Download and save drivers for your network adapter (either Ethernet or Wi-Fi) to ensure you can get reconnected to the internet
Link your Windows 10 product key with your Microsoft account
There's one more job before you start. If you haven't done so already, you should link your Windows 10 product key with your Microsoft account. If you don't do this, Windows 10 might not be able to re-activate after you reinstall it. Windows 10 doesn't necessarily have a product key and if you upgraded from Windows 7 or 8, you certainly won't have one.
Whether you have a Windows 10 product key or not, head to Settings > Update & Security > Activation. If the status says "Windows is activated with a digital licence" but says no more, then it isn't linked to your Microsoft account.
To fix that, go to Settings > Accounts > Your Info. Click "Sign in with a Microsoft account" and follow the prompts. Once done, you can check under Activation and you should now see that the message reads "Windows is activated with a digital licence associated with your Microsoft account".
Here are some tips for fixing Windows 10 activation problems.
Where is the option to reinstall Windows 10?
Assuming your computer can boot into Windows 10, open the Settings app (the cog icon to the bottom-left of the Start menu), then click on Update & Security. Click on Recovery, and scroll down until you see a link for 'Learn how to start afresh with a clean installation of Windows'.
(Alternatively, you can try the 'Reset this PC' option, but we recommend using the method described here for a proper clean installation.)
You'll see a pop-up asking if you want to switch apps to Windows Security. Click Yes.
Now you'll see the Fresh Start option. And no, we don't know why it is located in the Windows Security app either!
Click the Get started button, and you'll see a warning describing the process and explaining all your apps will be removed. Click Next.
After a short while, you'll see a list of the apps which will be removed. This will include everything that isn't an app that's included with Windows 10.
Click Next and the latest version of Windows 10 will be downloaded. This can take a while if you have slow broadband, but you can continue to use your PC while the download is happening.
When that's done, you should get a notification that Windows is ready to be reinstalled. Just follow the instructions and heed the notice that your PC will reboot 2-3 times. Just make sure any USB sticks are removed from any USB ports which might cause problems at reboots.
After 20-40 minutes, Windows will be reinstalled and you'll see the login screen. Again, follow the prompts as for a new PC to choose your region, language, keyboard layout, password and the other information that Windows 10 needs before you are taken to your fresh desktop.
As this really is a clean installation, no drivers will be installed for your hardware. That isn't a problem with Windows 10, as it should be able to automatically install and configure everything automatically - so long as it can connect to the internet.
To check, click the icon to the left of the speaker (volume) icon as shown below. Your icon may look different, depending on how your PC connects to the internet and whether it is actually connected or not.
If there are no Wi-Fi networks in the list and a message saying there are no connections available, either wait and see if Windows manages to install network drivers automatically, or install them manually (because you did download them as we advised earlier, right?).
Once you have a working internet connection, leave Windows to do its thing for at least half an hour. Then check Device Manager (right-click the Windows icon at the bottom-left of the desktop to see it in the menu). If all is well, there will be no yellow exclamation marks next to any devices. Here, you can see that the driver is missing for the network controller.
If yours is like this, double-click on the name of the network controller to bring up the properties. Click Update Driver in the window that opens and direct it to the drivers you downloaded earlier - you may have to unzip the files if the download had a .zip file extension. And to do that just double-click on the downloaded file and choose where to extract the contents.
Reinstall Windows 10 on a non-working PC
If you can't boot into Windows 10 and so cannot follow the steps above then try the following.
First, turn on your computer and look for any messages which appear before the Windows logo. Some laptops and PCs come with a 'hidden' hard drive on which is a full backup of Windows. Typically there will be a message such as "Press F10 for restore options". Each PC is different, but you may find an option to reset the PC to factory settings. What this does is to delete everything on the hard drive and copy the hidden version of Windows back on to the hard drive so your computer will be exactly the same as the day it left the factory.
You can also try pressing the F8 key to access the advanced boot options menu, which should include a 'Repair Your Computer' option.
If none of that works, try these steps:
1. Download Microsoft's Media Creation tool which will create a bootable USB flash drive with Windows 10 on it. You may need to use a working computer to do this if yours won't boot into Windows. Keep this drive safe for future reinstalls, too. You can also use the drive for upgrading an existing Windows installation simply by running Setup.exe from the drive when running Windows 7 or 8.
2. Boot the non-working PC from your USB flash drive. But before you do, ensure you've backed up everything, as the process will wipe your C: drive. If you haven't backed up any files, you may have to remove the hard drive and connect it to a working PC in order to copy them off.
3. If the PC won't boot from the USB drive, enter the BIOS by pressing Delete, F2 (or the key shown on the boot-up screen) and then look for 'boot' or 'startup' options where you can select a removable USB drive as the first boot device.
4. When the PC has successfully booted from your USB flash drive, you'll see a Windows logo and then a screen like the one below where you choose your language. Simply follow the instructions and but make sure you choose the correct hard drive and partition on which to install Windows. If it's a new drive, it will be blank, so you choose the only option available: the large unallocated space.
4. Once the installation starts, your PC will reboot. You'll see a Windows logo and a large circular progress indicator. Keep an eye on the install as it will reboot your computer several times and may ask you to remove the DVD or flash drive.