It’s commonplace today to have a completely legal installation of Windows without original installation media. This can cause some panic when you’re later instructed to make sure you have media ready before installing some other software or hardware, or if you ever need to reinstall your system from scratch.
Preparation is the best answer.
I’ll look at how to prepare, and what options you may have should you be unprepared.
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The ideal solution: insist on installation media
When you purchase a new computer, I strongly recommend you do what you can to get installation media. That’s the media that would allow you to reinstall Windows on a completely empty hard drive.
That completely empty part is important. Many recovery discs that come with your system are not installation discs. Instead, they assume that the original hard disk is still in place, and use a hidden partition to perform a reinstallation or restore. The problem is that if the hard disk has been damaged and/or replaced, that hidden partition no longer exists and the recovery disks are useless.
Look or ask specifically for reinstallation media that can be used to restore to “bare metal” — also known as an empty hard disk.
Sadly, getting true bare metal installation media from your computer manufacturer is getting harder and harder as time goes on. Depending on where you got your machine, it might not be possible.
Solution #1: make a recovery drive
In Windows 10, you can make installation media for your system yourself. It’s just called a “recovery drive”.
How To Create a Windows 10 Recovery Drive has the step-by-step details, but I want to call out one important selection along the way.
Make sure that the option “Backup system files to the recovery drive” is checked. Those “system files” are Windows itself, which means that this recovery drive, once created, can be used to reinstall Windows 10 from scratch.
As a bonus, the process lets you create either a bootable DVD or USB stick.
Solution #2: The system image
If you can’t get original installation media and you can’t create a recovery drive, a system image backup is the next best thing.
Use a program like Macrium Reflect or EaseUS Todo (the free editions of either will do for this) to take a complete image backup of all the partitions on the machine’s hard disk. Save that somewhere safe.
Do this as soon as possible after getting a new machine.
That backup image takes the place of installation media in the case of system failure. If you ever need to reinstall from scratch, then you restore that backup image, and your machine will be exactly as it was at the time you took that backup. The backup includes any hidden recovery partitions; you’ll have backed it up as part of backing up the entire hard disk.
Best of all, a backup image can be restored to an empty replacement hard disk — that’s actually what backup images are ideal for. (Note I did not say it’s ideal for restoring to a new machine. See Restoring an Image Backup from One Computer to Another for reasons why.)
Solution #3: Download a retail copy
For Windows versions from 7 onward, you can download a generic retail copy of installation media directly from Microsoft. Where Can I Download Windows? has all the information and links.
There’s an important caveat, though: these are generic retail copies, equivalent to the copy of Windows you would purchase from a retail store or Microsoft itself. That means that it won’t have all the additional tools, bells, and whistles that might have been added by your computer’s manufacturer. You’ll need to decide which of those you want and visit the manufacturer’s website to download them.
Solution #4: Buy a retail copy
If you did not (or cannot) get an official Windows installation disc from your computer manufacturer, the only true alternative is to purchase a retail copy. You can try eBay for older versions of Windows, or purchase one from other legitimate online vendors.
I now strongly discourage this option for all versions of Windows other than those currently available for sale directly for Microsoft. So-called OEM copies are often illegal and may not work with all PCs. Each OEM copy is tailored to the computer manufacturer that originally sold it. If you have a computer from a different manufacturer, the disc may not work.
Solution #5: Upgrade
If you are running a Windows version prior to the currently available version, this might be the time to upgrade if your machine supports it.
Will My Old Computer Run Windows 10? discusses the minimum requirements. You can at least download the retail image of the Windows 10 installation media, discussed above. Attempting to install it should confirm whether or not your machine is capable of running it.
Depending on your system, you may even be able to get Windows 10 for free. Is Windows 10 Still Free? has more.
Solution #6: Abandon ship
No list of solutions would be complete without mentioning the possibility that you abandon Windows and move to Linux.
Linux distributions are free to download and install. Linux is similar, yet different, so depending on your own flexibility and Linux’s ability to run the programs you need (or provide an alternative), it may or may not be a viable solution for you.
Should I Convert to Linux? covers many of the issues you’ll encounter along the way to help you make your decision.