When Is It OK To Borrow Or Download A Windows Installation Disk

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download a windows installation diskWhen was the last time you bought an operating system? For non-Mac users that practically never happens because you don’t buy an operating system or an upgrade, you buy a computer that comes with the operating system pre-installed and that’s it.

Nowadays, most manufacturers no longer ship their computers with installation discs. Instead they deposit a recovery partition on the hard drive or provide software that allows you to create your own recovery media. Now what do you do when the hard drive breaks and you never prepared recovery CDs?

Do You Have a Windows Product Key?

First, you need to check whether or not you have a Windows product key. If you bought a laptop, there should be a ‘Proof of License Certificate of Authenticity’ sticker from Microsoft at the bottom of the device where the hard drive sits.

If your netbook or laptop has a removable cover at the bottom (e.g. HP Mini), you might have to take it off to see the sticker sitting on or close to the hard drive.

If you bought a desktop computer, you should find that sticker at the back of the computer, close to the power button.

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The sticker specifies the version of Windows installed on the computer and the 25 digit product key. If you don’t find that sticker and if you don’t have a proof of license anywhere else, for example on your Windows manual, you’re already in a semi-legal situation and should consider buying the operating system.

How Can I Obtain a Legal Windows Installation Disk

So you found the sticker containing the product key? Congratulations! You technically own a legal copy of Windows. Practically, however, there are few legal ways to obtain an installation disk. You’re stuck in a rut.

A perfectly legal solution would be to contact the manufacturer of your computer and ask whether they offer installation disks in case that the original disk is broken or the recovery partition was compromised. They will probably sell you the recovery media for a small fee. You may also be able to obtain a replacement through Microsoft: How to replace Microsoft software or hardware, order service packs, and replace product manuals

download a windows installation disk

A semi-legal solution would be to borrow an installation disc from a friend to install Windows. Just make sure you use your own product key. Once installed, no one can tell whether or not you used a legal source for the installation and since you own the product key, all is well.

If you don’t have access to an installation disk and don’t want to buy recovery media from the manufacturer, you can download Windows installation files. You will find respective .iso (disk image file) downloads on Torrents and various websites, for example here. This procedure, however, is 100% illegal. Unfortunately, downloading an illegal copy of Windows doesn’t become legal just because you own a genuine product key.


When you buy a computer, make sure it comes with a genuine copy of Windows, i.e. with the ‘Proof of License Certificate of Authenticity’ sticker from Microsoft. If the computer comes with software to create recovery media (e.g. HP PC Recovery CD Creator) or the manufacturer offers such software on their homepage, take advantage and create those recovery media as soon as possible. Otherwise, create a backup of your operating system or clone the recovery partition using software such as Clonezilla.

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Comments (30)
  • James Bruce

    I think issue is with windows versions that come as OEM – reinstalling them requires the original OEM disks, and Im fairly certainly simply reinstalling a regular retail disk with that key is not permitted – just as using that key on antoher machine is not permitted. 

    • Anonymous

      You’re almost right. There’s actually two answers to the problem. No, a disk set up for any other version of Windows will not be accepted. You must have a disk for the exact version matching the product key. Windows checks the key value when it’s entered, you DO NOT have to be connected to the internet (and in fact, shouldn’t be) for this check to happen. It will tell you if the key doesn’t match the version installed.

      That said, there’s another way to do it. If you are in a position to manipulate iso files, then change the ei.cfg file in SOURCES as follows:
      1. Make sure the Edition ID section matches the version on the product key sticker.
      2. Make sure the Channel item says OEM
      3. Unless you’re an enterprise customer, VL is always 0

      The official definition of ei.cfg is thus:
      [EditionID]{Edition ID}[Channel]{Channel Type}[VL]{Volume License}Where {Edition ID} must be a valid Windows Edition ID. Use ImageX /info or DISM /Get-WimInfo to get the current EditionID. {Channel Type} can be OEM or Retail. {Volume License} can be 1 (True) or 0 (False). For example,

      If you remove the ei.cfg file, you will get a menu asking which retail version you want to install (Retail is the default). If you leave the file there, but remove the Edition ID item and change Channel to OEM, you can install any of the OEM versions.

      Once the changes are made, regenerate the iso file and burn it to a DVD. Now install with your original product key.

    • Anonymous

      As a followup, i compared the contents of two Windows 7 disks, one retail-64 and one OEM-64. The ONLY difference between them was the Channel item in ei.cfg. So it’s safe to say that you can modify the iso for a retail product, by changing Retail to OEM in ei.cfg, and get a valid install image.

      BTW, the exact phrases to use for Edition ID are as follows:


      That should do it.

  • EPS

    There is a difference between being illegal or against a license agreement. Those are permanent official links. For example, it is illegal to steal the Mac OS X Lion. However, buying it and installing it on your own superior and more inexpensive hardware is against the EULA. When I downloaded my academic copy of Windows 7 Professional, they gave me a temporary link that expired after some time. I think they intended to leave those links available to customers. Many companies have things available to their customers without advertising it. Having a trusted source to get the images could also help limit malware being spread by infected unofficial copies found who knows where online. I think MS is perfectly fine with you having a backup copy of the install disk. Distributing or selling could be an entirely different story. EULAs are meant to be all inclusive, not literally enforced. They are for “just in case” situations. Companies don’t want to hassle their customers to an intolerable extent.

  • Anonymous

    The stickers that come with OEM versions of Windows, include the version name. Product keys shipped with full versions do not, but the sticker on the package does. Except calling Microsoft and asking, I know of no way to translate a full product key to a version name. If you make a universal install disk, you can try each version for a valid activation. DO NOT connect the test machine to the internet. You don’t want to really activate it. Windows itself will know if the key is for the version installed.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but the media used, and the source thereof is totally immaterial. IF you own a valid product key, and that’s a big IF, then you may use ANY source disk or iso file to install Windows. Microsoft doesn’t care. All installation dvds are identical, except the 32/64 bit difference. The illegal part comes in when you use a pirated product key. Remember, the OS has to be activated and validated to continue running after 30 days. That’s where Microsoft exerts control. It doesn’t care about the media.

    The version installed is controlled by a very small configuration file on the disk. It is possible to remove that file and make a universal install disk that will present you with a menu asking for the version to install. I have done this, and loaded the resulting images in two USB flash drives and two DVDs, one each for 32-bit and one each for 64-bit. They will install any version of Windows 7 I want. The controlling factor is the product key. If you install a version that doesn’t match the product key, it complains and won’t allow activation.

    If you happen to have a Home Premium product key, but would like to know what the fuss is all about with Windows Ultimate, you can install Ultimate for 30 days and try it out. You just can’t activate it. You have to reinstall Home Premium, or get an Ultimate key, to validate.

    • Shil

      No matter how much you elaborate, she is hell bent on not accepting the simple fact. Ah! 100% illegal!!

    • Tina


      what you write makes total sense: software source doesn’t matter, any source is legal as long as you use a valid product key with your installation. It could be so easy!

      The official License Agreement, however, doesn’t follow this logic. It explicitly speaks about software, not product key. Publishing the software for others to copy
      or working around any technical limitations is illegal (see point 8. Scope of License). In my understanding this also means that creating a universal install disk is illegal.

      You could argue that the person making the software available violates the License Agreement, not the person using the installation files (provided they have a valid product key). But it’s a grey area at the very least.

      You can download the License Agreement here.

      Finally, the article and my comments here are not an opinion. Personally, I support the idea of being able to legally share the installation files and restrict subsequent use of the OS to owners of a valid product key.

    • Anonymous

      You are absolutely correct, as far as you go. However, there’s the EULA requirement, and then there’s what Microsoft accepts as normal.

      On that vein, there are OEM versions of all Microsoft products. Part 14 of the OEM EULA specificly enjoins a seller from selling an OEM version to an individual. Yet Newegg, among many others, does exactly that. It’s a major revenue stream for Microsoft.

      Further, the OEM EULA restricts the software to a single machine and prevents you from moving it to another, or even changing hardware in that machine. Fortunately, if you wait for a minimum of 120 days, you can install the software on another machine and activate it just fine.

      The point is that Microsoft is engaging in a CYA operation with it’s EULAs. If someone is engaged in pirating or other missuse of the software, they have the means to shut them down. If you are simply installing the software, with a valid license, and with a valid copy of the software, Microsoft doesn’t care whar source you use.

      There is a large gap between what’s strictly legal and what’s perfectly acceptable by Microsoft. They really only care about you having and using a valid product key for the installation. That’s why the universal disks work so well. The end-user license is all that matters.

    • Tina

      Point taken. Microsoft doesn’t care.

  • Tina

    Good tip!

    There are several ways to get serial numbers off a running operating system, I have written about 3 of them before.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.