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How To Reinstall Windows Without an Installation Disc

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I need to reinstall Windows, but I don’t have an installation disc. I never got one. What do I do?

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.

Windows 10 DVDThat 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.

Creating a Recovery Drive in Windows 10
Creating a recovery drive in Windows 10.

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.

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7 comments on “How To Reinstall Windows Without an Installation Disc”

  1. “That means that it won’t have all the additional tools, bells, and whistles that might have been added by your computer’s manufacturer.”

    In many cases, that might exactly what you want. It’s a great way to get rid of all the crapware that comes pre-installed with a new computer. In most cases, none of those bells and whistles are useful and just get in the way.

    The first thing I do when I turn on my new computer, thanks to Leo’s suggestion, is to create a backup of my factory condition system. In the case of some laptops, you might discover, you needed some of those pre-installed programs, usually drivers, but so far, I’ve found I could go to the laptop manufacturer’s website and get any drivers and other programs which are necessary.

    I’ve heard that you can’t activate a retail version of Windows on a computer which came with an OEM licensed version of Windows but from experience, I’ve always been able to activate those.

  2. If you have Windows 10 you can also just reset your computer which effectively re installs the Operating system with defaults. Apparently with the latest iteration of Win 10 you can cloud install.

    “The Windows 10 20H1 Update will introduce a new cloud recovery feature that allow users to reset their PC using Windows files downloaded from Microsoft’s servers.”
    https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/microsoft/windows-10-gets-a-cloud-reset-feature-here-s-how-it-works/

  3. I had an SSD failure last week. Unfortunately my restore disk was way old and improperly done so I was out of luck. I did some research and downloaded Windows 10 to a DVD, then booted from that for the install on a new SSD. When prompted, I entered my license from Windows 7. Install went perfect. I keep my data on a separate HDD drive, so it was simply a matter of reinstalling my apps & linking to the data.

    This week I’ll be getting a new USB stick to make a restore drive!

  4. Very good article to Re-Install windows. I have been lucky with system failures and managed to re-install.
    I have orignal windows disk(XP Copy) and then went on to upgrade to Windows 7 and which i run on my
    lap tops and PC. I am staying-put with Windows 7. Why change something that meets my needs and demands. I was offered a free download of Windows 10 but did not take- up the offer. At the time, due to adverse opinions and reports decided to stay clear. I have no regrets refusing a “free be”
    Happy with what i have, since it serves me well.

  5. A bit off-topic, but worthy of a comment.
    After reading & learning about HDD failure, repair, and reinstalling the OS – I thought I was ready. Oops. I drew a blank on pretty much everything. Old age [72 yrs] and feeble memory were failing me at a crucial time and with my only PC dead, I couldn’t research the forgotten steps online.

    My point? First, never again [btw-I do backup]. Also, unless you perform this task frequently enough to memorize, I found it best to write down each step – from the proper function key to reinstalling the OS. So, any senior not too proud to admit what you think you know today may not be there at a later time when needed – plan now, work out any glitches, procedures, and any quirks common for the proper brand PC and OS you have.

    • Oh I can so relate. Having grown up from an initial Amstrad 464 through various iterations of Windows to now Win 10, and having recently turned 65 I find myself going “ok, now what the f*** do I do next?” one heck of a lot. Some yes, is older age. Others it is Mickeysoft changing perfectly sensible and recognised ways of working for the latest whizz bang method. Mostly that whizz is mostly bang, bang of my head.

      Personally my Win 10 machine was installed from a registration copy purchased from ebay from dead computer. This is, I was surprised to find out, perfectly legal. You get the unique installation serial number, download the generic Windows installation file from MS and away you go.

      Also have an Acer laptop given to me by my Brother In Law who sadly now has quite advanced dementia. He’d bought it without coming to see me first. Big, big mistake. Purchased from a chain store, and wasn’t happy as it was so slow. Went back to them and they did a “wonderful deal.” NOT! Replaced his hard drive with a SSD and said he was good to go, oh and that’ll be $300 thank you. While faster, certainly not fast. Anyway as dementia progressed he gave to me and oops, slow as a snail. Decided to install from the recovery partition. Oh dear, they didn’t put “that” on the SSD. So used keyfinder to get the unique installation number and used the previous generic installation file and voila, one laptop working (relatively) faster. Of course some drivers were missing, but Win 10 upgrades fixed all except the trackpad driver. Downloaded that from Acer, and it sits on the hard drive waiting to be installed, maybe. Coz I have issues with typing and brushing the trackpad I’ve decided not to install and use a mouse instead. Works for me. And honestly it is a backup machine should my main machine go down for any reason. And taking on trips away. Had enough of using tablets… absolute PITA.

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