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How to clean install Windows 10 and create boot media: Refresh your Windows 10 PC

Christopher Minasians Chris Finnamore
1 Mar 2017
Windows 10 desktop view
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We show you how to install Windows 10 from scratch on your PC or laptop, plus how to create an install DVD or USB flash drive

Although the procedure of installing Windows 10 from scratch isn't that much different from installing other versions of Windows, there are a few things to go through first before you start. This is largely because most people that have Windows 10 will have upgraded from a previous installation of Windows (7 or 8) and so won't have the boxed copy with the installation media.

As such, our guide covers everything you need to know about installing Windows 10 from scratch, including downloading the installation files, creating boot media and how to clean install if you've previously upgraded to the new OS from Windows 7 or Windows 8.

Please note that this article is not an upgrade guide: if you're planning to upgrade from Windows 7 or 8, follow our Windows 10 upgrade guide

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I've split this guide into clear sections, so it's easy enough to follow everything. I recommend at least skimming through each section so that you don't miss any important information. This guide assumes you have backed up all the files you need and have made a note of any settings and licence keys for applications you want to reinstall later; you'll need to follow the same procedure as for any operating system reinstallation, so if you're not confident doing this, you should perform an in-place upgrade of Windows 10 instead.

Find out about all the best Windows 10 features and how to use them

Windows 10 is available as a boxed product, and also on a USB flash drive, for those who want to buy it outright. For those who are entitled to an upgrade from Windows 7 or 8, it has also been confirmed that they will be able to install Windows 10 from scratch after they have performed the initial upgrade, by creating installation discs using disc images downloaded from Microsoft. We explain all this in the following article. If you've already got Windows 10 installed, you may be able to make things easy for yourself by reading our first installation note.

Windows 10 cost: Is Windows 10 free?

The free upgrade to Windows 10 ended on the 29 July 2016, which means you'll now have to pay for a copy of Windows 10. It costs £120 for Windows 10 Home and £220 for Windows 10 Pro

If you've already upgraded your computer to Windows 10 prior to 29 July 2016 or your computer shipped with it, you can follow these instructions to clean install the OS at any point. Please read the note below, as it will give you a simple way to refresh your computer without having to go through the full clean install steps.

A note for people with Windows 10 installed

If you've got Windows 10 on your computer already, either because you upgraded or because you've already installed a clean copy before, and you want to perform a new clean install, you don't necessarily have to go through the same steps as before.

Instead, Windows 10 has a built-in restore option that can wipe installed applications and files, acting like a clean install in its own right. It also has an option to uninstall all applications, but to leave your files alone, letting you refresh your OS without having to go back to stage one.

As this tool is built into Windows 10 (as it was in Windows 8) and already has a copy of all the install files it needs to do its job, it's quicker and easier than performing a full, clean installation. For most people, then, this option is going to be the best one to start off with. It's not difficult to use the tool, but there are a few options, so we've put detailed instructions in our guide on how to reset Windows 10 to factory settings.

The downside of this tool is that it leaves your computer and hard drives in their current state. If you want to repartition your hard drive or change which drive you boot from, such as if you've just bought an SSD, then the full clean installation instructions below are the best ones to follow, as they give you finer control over the process.

A note for laptop owners

During our tests, we found that installing Windows 10 from scratch was easier on a desktop than on a laptop computer. This is because laptops often have complicated disk drive structures with several recovery partitions, which can make installing Windows 10 difficult, as well as a fussy BIOS which makes it tricky to boot from USB. 

For example, a Dell XPS 13 running Windows 8.1 which we were using for testing had no fewer than seven different partitions. It also wouldn't boot from the Windows 10 USB flash drive we had made until we had gone into the BIOS, disabled Secure Boot and changed from UEFI boot to Legacy.

Unfortunately, as we were in Legacy boot mode, we then couldn't install to the laptop's disk as it was in GPT format; the only solution was to delete every partition before installing. This is not something you want to do if you'd like to keep your laptop's system recovery partitions, in order to make it easy to go back to a factory-fresh state should you wish. 

If you'd like to install Windows 10 on a modern laptop without taking the risk of destroying all your manufacturer's system partitions, you're best off running the installer from within your current operating system, and electing to delete all your apps and files. This will give you a near-clean install with the minimum of fuss. 

How to create a Windows 10 installation disc or drive

To create installation media, you have two options. First, you can download the ISO file to a computer and then use our instructions to create boot media. Secondly, you can run the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool and get it to create the boot USB drive for you. The latter option is the easiest, so that's the method we'll focus on first.

How to create a bootable flash drive using the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool

These instructions show you how to create a bootable flash drive only. If you want to create a DVD, you'll need to follow our instructions below on how to create boot media using the Windows 10 ISO. From a Windows PC download the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool. If you don't have a Windows computer available at the moment, you'll need to follow the instructions below on downloading the ISO file, and follow our alternative instructions. 

Run the Media Creation Tool and select Create installation media for another PC and click Next. On the next screen, select USB flash drive. Insert your USB drive into your computer (it needs to be at least 3GB in size, and you can buy an 8GB USB flash drive from Amazon for less than £4, so cost isn’t a huge issue). Click Next, then choose the language, version of Windows (Home or Pro - you can ignore the N versions) and whether you need the 32-bit or 64-bit version. It's very important that you get this step correct; if you don't, your computer will not activate, as you will not have the right licence for it.

Click Next and select your flash drive from the list (make sure you get the right one) and click Next. Your computer will download the installation files and write them to your flash drive automatically.

Windows 10 media creation tool: upgrade or create installation media

How to create a flash drive or DVD from the Windows 10 ISO

If you want to create a bootable DVD drive, you'll need to download the Windows 10 ISO file. This file is also useful if you want to create boot media whenever you like. There are two ways to download the file. First, from a non-Windows PC you can just download the Windows 10 ISO from Microsoft. You'll most likely need the standard 'Windows 10' ISO, which includes the installation files for the Home and Pro versions of Windows 10.

If you're using a Windows PC, you'll be redirected to a page that asks you to download the Microsoft Media Creation Tool. Once you've downloaded and installed this, you can download the ISO file from inside the software: select Create installation media and click Next, select your language, the Home or Pro version of Windows 10, 32-bit or 64-bit and click Next. On the next page select ISO file and click Next, choose where you want to put the file in the Explorer dialog box and click Save.

Once you've downloaded the image you'll need to either burn it to a DVD or install it to a USB flash drive (see below). You'll be able to install from DVD on any computer with a DVD drive, but you'll need to have a DVD writer to create the install disc, and the installation process takes significantly longer than from a USB drive.

Most computers made in the last 10 years or so will support booting from USB flash drives. Windows 10 requires a 4GB or larger flash drive to use as the install disk, with an 8GB drive costing from as little as £4. As well as making the installation process faster, using a flash drive means you'll be able to use the drive for other purposes after you've installed Windows. There are also plenty of slimline laptops out there that don’t have DVD drives. 

How to create a Windows 10 DVD

The only tricky part of creating an installation DVD is making sure you burn the Windows 10 disc image to your DVD as a bootable image rather than as a file. You can use any disc-burning program you like, and the steps will be broadly similar, but we’ve used the free ImgBurn application.

Step 1 - Download ImgBurn for free

Go to ImgBurn's website and click Download. Click the last Mirror link (Mirror 7 - Provided by ImgBurn - other download links are not safe), save the file to your hard disk and run it. Follow the steps to install the program, but make sure you deselect both the advertising add-ons the setup program tries to install (you'll need to select 'Custom Install (Advanced) to get rid of one of them).

ImgBurn deselect add-ons

Step 2 - Write the ISO file to disc

Run ImgBurn, and click 'Write image file to disk'. Click the icon of a folder with a magnifying glass next to 'Source', and browse to the Windows 10 ISO you downloaded. Double-click the ISO file, put your blank DVD in the drive and click the large write icon at the bottom to make your DVD.

ImgBurn main program window

How to create a Windows 10 USB flash drive

This is a bit more complicated than making a DVD, but the excellent Rufus application simplifies matters somewhat. Remember that you need at least a 4GB flash drive, and that all data already on the drive will be wiped during the process.

Step 1 - Download Rufus for free

Go to rufus.akeo.ie, and download the latest version (2.12 at the time of writing). Save it to your computer and run it. Plug in your flash drive, and it will appear at the top under Device. Rufus will show the USB stick's drive letter in brackets after the flash drive's name. Check in Computer/This PC that this is definitely the drive you want to use for your Windows 10 installer disk as remember that it will be entirely and irretrievably wiped during the installation process.  

Step 2 - Write the ISO file to the flash drive

Under 'Partition scheme and target system type' select 'MBR partition scheme for BIOS or UEFI'. Under 'File system' select 'NTFS'. Check that 'Quick format', 'Create a bootable disk using' and 'Create extended label and icon files' are selected, make sure 'ISO image' is selected in the drop-down next to 'Create a bootable disk using' and click the small icon that looks like a DVD drive with a disc above it. Browse to your ISO and double-click to select it, then click Start. Read the warning about flash drive data destruction, then sit back and wait for your Windows 10 flash drive to be created, which will take around 5 minutes depending on the speed of the drive. 

Browse to your ISO and double-click to select it, then click Start. Read the warning about flash drive data destruction, then sit back and wait for your Windows 10 flash drive to be created, which will take around 5 minutes depending on the speed of the drive. 

Rufus program window

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