“Try formatting your hard drive and reinstalling Windows.” It’s a phrase any Microsoft Windows user has heard at least once in their life. But if you actually want to do that, you need a Windows installation disc or USB. Instead of relying on torrents or untrustworthy sources, let’s find out how to download Windows installation media officially from Microsoft.
This guide will help you download Microsoft-certified files to install Windows 7 onwards, but you might still need some other software or tools along the way. This guide doesn’t show how to actually create an installer out of those files. For that, we have a detailed guide, which you might need to refer to often once you have the official files:
A Few Basics Before You Start
- Each version has a different key. So if you have a Windows 8 key, that won’t work with a Windows 8.1 installer. You need to download the right version based on your key.
- Installation media can usually be of two types: a USB drive or a DVD.
- If you are making a bootable pen drive, you will need a 4GB version or larger. We suggest not having anything else on that pen drive, keep it as a dedicated installer.
- As far as possible, download the basic version of any version of Windows. Add-ons can be downloaded later.
- All of these solutions are for existing users who own a legal copy of Windows. If you run a pirated version of the OS, this won’t help you.
Unlike Windows 8 onwards, there is no “Reset” option in Windows 7. So if you are facing one of the common Windows 7 problems and want to reinstall the operating system, you will need installation media.
Now, there are two ways you could have got your Windows 7:
- You purchased a Windows 7 box in retail or bought a key from a Microsoft-authorized online store.
- You bought a PC which came preloaded with official Windows 7.
Depending on your situation, you have different options.
If You Purchased a Windows 7 Box or Key…
Those in category one, good news! Microsoft has made it possible for you to download a Windows 7 ISO from their official site.
Go to Microsoft Software Recovery, enter your 25-character product key, select your preferred language, and click Verify Product Key. Once the key is verified, you will be able to download the ISO file. You can also choose to have an email link for your ISO emailed to you, which is the smarter option so that you don’t have to go through this process again.
Once you have the ISO, use Guy’s guide above to create a bootable USB or DVD and install Windows.
You could even try borrowing a Windows disc from a friend, saving you the trouble of downloading and creating that bootable media.
If You Purchased a Windows 7 Laptop or PC…
Saw this message? Unfortunately, the above method doesn’t work if Windows 7 came installed on that Dell or Lenovo laptop you bought. Microsoft Software Recovery does not support OEM copies (What Are OEM Products?) and that means you need to rely on the company that made the laptop.
Hopefully, your original box came with a Windows Installation Disc. And hopefully, you kept that box intact. Because apart from that installation disc from your manufacturer, your key won’t work on anything else.
While there is no way to download Windows, you can contact your manufacturer and ask them to mail you the installation disc. Some, like Dell, do it for free, while others charge you for basic shipping.
If you need to do this, remember the most important thing: ask for the version of Windows that came installed originally! If you turn your laptop over, you’ll see a Windows sticker somewhere with the product key. On the same sticker, you will see the version of Windows it works on. Make sure you ask only for that version, regardless of whether you have upgraded your Windows to a new version since then.
Windows 8 or Windows 8.1
Thankfully, the OEM nightmare isn’t a problem with Windows 8 and 8.1. With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced the option to restore, refresh or reset your PC. That is the easier choice in most cases, but if you want to create a fresh installation after formatting your drive, then Windows 8 can be downloaded for free.
Important: Your Windows 8 product key does not work on Windows 8.1, and vice versa. So you need to download the version of Windows that the product key is valid for.
On an existing Windows PC:
Go to Microsoft’s download page for Windows 8/8.1. Click and download Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 setup.
Run the setup file on a Windows PC (not necessarily the one you want to upgrade). Go through the steps, add your product key when prompted for on Windows 8. Windows 8.1 does not have a prompt during this process, but will ask you for the key during the installation process. The setup recognizes which version the key is for and will start downloading that version of Windows. In the Windows 8.1 tool, you can choose whether you want a 32-bit or 64-bit installer, or both—choose both.
Once the download is done, you will be prompted to Install Now, Install By Creating Media, or Install Later From Your Desktop.
Choose Install By Creating Media. Choose USB Flash Drive to create a bootable pen drive, or ISO to create a bootable DVD. Insert your pen drive or DVD and select that. Go through the steps and finish.
This bootable pen drive or DVD can now be used to do a clean install of Windows, provided you are already running Windows on the PC. However, if it’s a new hard drive or you weren’t previously running Windows, this pen drive or DVD can’t be used.
Finally, we come to the new kid on the block. There are some good reasons to upgrade to Windows 10 and we have gone over how you can get Windows 10 while keeping your settings and apps. But if all you want is a Windows 10 ISO or a bootable pen drive, here’s what you need to do:
Important: Several users have reported issues after upgrading to Windows 10. The safest way to ensure you get a legal, activated version of Windows 10 that still allows you to downgrade later on, is to upgrade from an ISO file or installation media from within your old Windows version.
On an existing Windows PC:
Go to Microsoft’s download page for Windows 10 ISO and download the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool. Run the tool on a Windows PC (not necessarily the one you want to upgrade) and go through the steps, it’s pretty straightforward.
Choose whether you want a 32-bit or 64-bit installer, or both—choose both. Once the download is done, you will be prompted to Upgrade this PC now or Create installation media for another PC. Choose the second one. Choose USB Flash Drive to create a bootable pen drive, or ISO to create a bootable DVD. Insert your pen drive or DVD, make a respective selection, and go through the subsequent steps as instructed.
And there you have it, Windows 10 on a pen drive or DVD. Remember, you will need to purchase a Windows 10 product key to use this on a new computer. If you want the free upgrade, make sure you are first running an activated Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. If all of this is a little confusing, we have a quick guide: Can you upgrade to Windows 10?
Microsoft Could Make this Easier!
Researching the various hoops you have to jump through to get Windows that you have already paid for, I can’t help but laugh at Microsoft. I am flabbergasted that there isn’t a simple, single program or web app where I can input my product key, get options for the different versions of Windows I am eligible for, and download the one I want. It is infinitely easier to install Ubuntu on a computer, or any other version of Linux—and that’s completely free!
Do you think Microsoft needs to make it simpler to download and install Windows for its legal, paying customers?
Image credits: Microsoft, download.net.pl / Flickr