Dear Lifehacker, I recently got a new laptop that came with Windows pre-installed, but it came with a lot of extra bloatware I'd rather not have. Can I do a clean install of Windows over it, or will my product key not work with a vanilla install? Sincerely, Bad Bloatware
The short answer is yes — the product key that came with your computer will, in most cases, work with a vanilla installation of Windows. But we should first mention that there is a simpler solution.
Bloatware is always kind of a pain, but before you start running for the nuclear option, you might want to try uninstalling that bloatware yourself from the Add/Remove Programs menu. If you find bloatware that isn't listed in that menu, Revo Uninstaller might be able to help you. There are also programs like Decrap that will automatically uninstall all that bloatware for you — so I say try those first.
That said, sometimes you still need to do a clean install for one reason or another. In that case, yes, it should be possible on most PCs. Here's the general process (though note that your mileage may vary, every PC may have its own little quirks).
Step 1: Find Your Licence Key
If your computer came with Windows pre-installed, you have a legit Windows licence that you'll need to reinstall. First, check the bottom of your laptop or the back of your computer tower. There should be a sticker that has your Windows version and licence key listed. Write both of those down before continuing.
If you can't find a sticker, try running a utility like Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder. It will scan your computer and find your licence key for you.
Lastly, many Windows 8 PCs come with the product key embedded in the BIOS. We haven't tried to reinstall Windows on one of these PCs, but a quick search reveals that they should automatically apply your product key when you reinstall with an ISO. Your mileage may vary, of course, and you may want to do a cursory search on your particular model to see if this works before you continue.
Note: if there is any bloatware you want to keep — like a DVD playing program, or something of that nature — now would be a good time to open it up and see if you can find a product key in the "About" menu. Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder may also be able to find other product keys for you.
Step 2: Grab a Windows Disc
If your laptop came with a recovery disc or partition, don't use it — it probably comes bundled with all the bloatware you're trying to avoid (and Windows 8's Refresh has the same issue). You'll need a vanilla installation disc, which is easy to get. You can either borrow one from a friend or download an ISO file straight from Digital River, Microsoft's official source for distributing installation discs. From there you can burn it to a DVD or USB drive.
Update: it seems that within the past day or two, the Digital River links no longer work — apparently they were not intended for public use. For now, the best method is to borrow a CD from a friend or find it elsewhere. Sorry about the confusion.
Note that this isn't piracy — you still need a valid licence key to use these ISO files. That means when you get your disc, make sure it's for the same version of Windows as your licence key. If your laptop comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, you'll need a Windows 7 Home Premium disc, and so on.
If you borrow a disc from a friend that doesn't match — or if you need an ISO for Windows 7 Starter or Basic — download the Ei.cfg Removal Utility and run it on your ISO. Then, when you go to install Windows, it'll let you choose which edition you install. Remember, you have to install the version you have a key for, otherwise it won't activate (for obvious reasons).
Step 3: Reinstall Windows
Now that you've got your Windows disc (or USB drive) ready, it's time to install Windows! You're probably familiar with this process, but just in case you aren't: insert your disc or drive and boot from it. If you're prompted to "press any key to boot from CD or DVD", do so, and you should enter the Windows installation.
It's all pretty self-explanatory, except the partition screen. You may see a few different partitions on your disk, including one labelled "Recovery". This is the recovery partition that lets you restore Windows as it was when you bought your computer, bloatware and all. I usually delete the recovery partition and install Windows from scratch, but if you want to keep this recovery partition just in case — and have the hard drive space to spare — you can just highlight the "Windows" partition, click the Format button, and install Windows there.
Run through the rest of the installation process according to the wizard and you should be all set. When you're prompted to activate Windows, type in your product key. Make sure you type in the correct key — those stickers are small and poorly printed, so its very easy to get the numbers and letters wrong the first time.
If it doesn't work, and you're sure it's the right key, tell it you'll wait to activate until later. You may have to click "Activate Over the Phone" and use Microsoft's automated system, which only takes a few minutes.
Step 4: Install Your Drivers
Once Windows is ready to go, your last task is to install the necessary drivers for your computer. Head to your computer manufacturer's website (such as Dell, Asus or HP) and go to their Support section. You should be able to find your model of laptop or desktop, and find a list of available drivers.
You'll almost certainly need drivers for the chipset, LAN, Wi-Fi, graphics and audio. If you have a laptop, you may also need touchpad drivers for specific features, Bluetooth drivers, USB 3.0 or anything else that your computer may require. This varies from model to model, so be sure to check through the entire list and download whatever you think you might need.
Once you've installed all your drivers, you may also want to head to Windows Update and download the necessary updates. You may have to restart and check for updates again a number of times to get them all.
After that, you're all set to start using your computer! Check out our Lifehacker Pack to download other essential apps (like web browsers, antivirus software, and productivity tools) all in one package. Enjoy!
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