How to: Clean installation of Windows 7

This is an article on installing a clean version Windows 7. This is to replace the OEM version of Windows that was included with your new PC. You will lose all data and files on your PC, so make sure you have copies or backups if these are important to you. Why you would want to do this is explained, as well as how to obtain Windows 7 installation media (with SP1 slipstreamed) at no cost.

Most people never buy Windows as a separate product, usually obtaining the latest version when they buy a new PC.

There are a few issues involved with this approach.

Windows media is almost never supplied with a new PC, it is usually necessary to create a set of discs using a utility supplied by the manufacturer. Some manufacturers do not allow this option, expecting that any reinstallation of Windows will be performed from a recovery partition, usually hidden on the hard drive.

I suspect that many people never get around to making the recovery media (I certainly don’t), and if you need to reinstall Windows because your hard drive has failed, you are not going to be able to access the recovery partition. The easiest option for most people is to buy a new PC (bad for the environment) or buy a new copy of Windows (bad for your wallet).

New PCs are renowned for coming with all manner of extra software installed. This is not placed on the PC to make the customer happy – it is usually there because the software vendors want to get their product in front of the customer and will pay the manufacturer to make this happen. Effectively,  the software companies are subsidising your new PC. There is a cost to this, though – this unnecessary software can have a noticeable effect on the system performance, often running unnoticed in the background and phoning home for updates. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen installations of Norton or other AV running on PCs, causing problems, yet doing nothing of any use since the trial period has long ago expired.

Even with today’s surplus of processing power, it pays to keep unnecessary software to a minimum. In fact, much of the shovelware installed on PCs are trial versions of paid software (antivirus, MSOffice), applications that duplicate or replace inbuilt functionality of Windows (CD burning apps used to be common, especially back in the days of XP) or gimmicky games. Almost all of this software is unnecessary, or better replaced by freely available alternatives.

This shovelware is actually such a problem that Microsoft themselves offer a service that allows you to pay them to remove it for you! See Microsoft Signature at http://signature.microsoft.com/under-the-hood.aspx. Microsoft claim that significant performance and reliability improvements are achieved with all this software removed.

If you buy a new PC with Windows 7 installed, you should seriously consider performing a clean installation of a fresh copy of Windows. If you have an older Windows 7 PC that seems to be underperforming, if you ever find yourself needing to re-install Windows, do a clean installation.

Modern PC hardware is surprisingly well supported by Windows 7, with little need for drivers from any of the manufacturers themselves. This makes performing a clean installation quite painless, even if you do need to download one or two drivers for fingerprint readers or other less common hardware. This is very different from how things used to be, when the first thing you’d need to download was a decent graphics, sound, chipset driver, and everything after that. The process was tedious and took hours. Now, the process is quick quick and hassle-free – but be sure to check with your PC manufacturer’s website for any drivers or other software that is essential to access all the features of your PC hardware. It is very unusual to find much that isn’t supported by Windows 7 directly; try the Windows 7 drivers first, and only if necessary download the vendor’s software.

OK, you’ve decided to go for a fresh install of Windows

You can’t use the recovery media the came from the new PC, since that will most likely still have all the shovelware you are trying to get rid of. Where can you get the Windows installation media from? Seems silly to buy a copy, after all, you paid for a copy with your PC – and you even have the activation key on a sticker under the PC. You could borrow a copy from a friend, or download a copy of dubious provenance by Bittorrent (both probably illegal, by the way, and risky). And, as it turns out, unnecessary.

Unnecessary, because Microsoft makes their installation media available online at no cost. Even better – these downloads include the latest (SP1) fixes already slipstreamed.

Installation images are available online

These files are hosted by DigitalRiver, who are a Microsoft partner for Windows distribution. These files are large (they are, after all, DVD images). The most commonly used files are linked to below, but the entire range of Windows 7 is available.

Windows 7 Professional SP1-U ISO

English x86: X17-59183.iso
English x64: X17-59186.iso

Windows 7 Home Premium SP1-U ISO

English x86: X17-58996.iso
English x64: X17-58997.iso

For more details, see the post at http://www.mydigitallife.info/official-windows-7-sp1-iso-from-digital-river/

Be aware that though the image files are free, you still need a valid activation key to use them, and this key must match the edition of Windows being activated. So, if you have a new laptop with a COA sticker underneath it, and Windows Home Premium (32 or 64 bit) installed, you can use the same COA key to activate a fresh installation of windows Home Premium (32 or 64 bit) from the online media. The key does not differentiate between 32 or 64 bit, but will not activate other editions of Windows – Professional or Ultimate, for example.

Installation from USB media

Also, be aware that it is not necessary to burn the image to a DVD – installation from a USB key is much faster, and may be the best option for PCs that do not have a DVD drive fitted. There are several guides on how to do this – start with http://www.intowindows.com/how-to-create-bootable-windows-7-usb-to-install-windows-7-from-usb-flash-drive-using-windows-7-dvdusb-tool/  The tool used to create the USB media is available at http://download.cnet.com/Windows-7-USB-DVD-Download-Tool/3000-18513_4-10972600.html

All editions of Windows reside on each disc

Even better, it is possible to install any edition of Windows from the same media. All editions of Windows 7 are included on each disc – the version that will actually be available for the user to install is determined by a single, hidden configuration file. This file – ei.cfg – can be removed to make all the editions available, so that you choose the edition you require at installation, and activate it with your valid activation key after the installation is complete.

For details on how to do this, see http://www.mydigitallife.info/create-windows-7-universal-iso-with-all-editions-selection-on-install-with-ei-cfg-removal-utility/

The utility to remove the ei.cfg file is available at http://code.kliu.org/misc/win7utils/eicfg_removal_utility.zip

Activation Limits

Microsoft allow a certain number of online activations, which, if exceeded will require using their automated phone system as an alternative, or contact with customer support. To avoid this, it is possible to backup the activation status of a working installation, reinstall Windows 7, then restore the activation status, without having to go online to do this. For more information, see http://www.mydigitallife.info/backup-and-restore-windows-7-retail-oem-and-mak-activation-with-7tokens-manager/, read the forum discussion at http://forums.mydigitallife.info/threads/27341-Advanced-Tokens-Manager-The-Activation-Backup-Solution, and download the utility from http://download.joshcellsoftwares.com/AdvancedTokensManager.

Figuring out how many activations are available to you, or how many different systems they apply to, is left as an exercise for the reader. Software is inexpensive, and there are always free alternatives available. There is no need to illegally use software.

What next?

Do not install any version of commercial anti virus (like Symantec). You are wasting money. Install the free Microsoft Security Essentials – http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials which is an excellent product. It just sits in the background, doesn’t impact the PC’s performance, and updates as part of the Windows system. It is far superior to the commercial alternatives.

Do not install Microsoft Office. You are wasting money. Install LibreOffice, free, and compatible with MS Office formats. It supports a huge range of file formats and has useful extra capabilities (like built in export to PDF, PPT etc). http://www.libreoffice.org/download.   LibreOffice is a fork of the better known OpenOffice, which became unpopular when Oracle acquired Sun (Oracle has a very dodgy track record in its relationship with open software). With a new community around it, LibreOffice has far surpassed the capabilities of OpenOffice.

Always look for lightweight and open or free alternatives to more generally used software. For example, don’t install Acrobat Reader until you’ve tried the lightweight and capable alternatives like Sumatra http://blog.kowalczyk.info/software/sumatrapdf/free-pdf-reader.html or Foxit Reader http://www.foxitsoftware.com/Secure_PDF_Reader/

For more alternatives, or to try software without having to install it on your clean system, try portable applications from http://portableapps.com/.  These run on a USB drive, but run even better when installed on a hard drive. They enable you to run software without making changes to the registry, or needing to install any system files on your new Windows installation.

But what about Windows 8?

The release of Windows 8 is scheduled to occur in various forms over the next few months, many people will have seen demonstrations of the Windows 8 Preview release, or downloaded it and tried it for themselves. Microsoft have made some major changes to the Windows UI, including dropping the Start Menu (no longer necessary), removing Windows Media Centre (since very few people used it – and to think this was the centrepiece of Microsoft’s abysmal HTPC initiative of a few years ago!), and making the desktop less accessible; but there are also improvements in performance and decreased hardware requirements.

On of the biggest changes Microsoft have made is to the price – an article published by Microsoft at http://windowsteamblog.com/windows/b/bloggingwindows/archive/2012/07/02/upgrade-to-windows-8-pro-for-39-99.aspx  indicates:

“…if your PC is running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7 you will qualify to download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for just $39.99 in 131 markets. And if you want, you can add Windows Media Center for free through the “add features” option within Windows 8 Pro after your upgrade.”

This pricing is for early adopters and will apply through to the end of January 2013, after which the price will increase but will still be far below previous releases of Windows.

Windows 8 is going to be a huge and controversial change for Microsoft and users, and it extremely unlikely that any of the information in this article will have any relevance to Windows 8 or future releases of Windows.

If you found this article interesting or useful, please leave a comment.

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