Windows 10 is only free until December 31, but the broad success of Microsoft’s upgrade push suggests we’ll still see some people moving off of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 as time passes. Whether you jump for the upgrade now or buy a copy later, we’ve got some tips and advice to walk you through the process.
Before you start the upgrade, it’s a good idea to make certain any peripherals you use are Windows 10-compatible. Printer manufacturers have done a much better job ensuring compatibility with Windows 10 than they did with previous OS updates, but it’s still smart to check. PCMag has manufacturer-specific links and information if you need help finding this data. While Microsoft’s built-in compatibility checker is supposed to catch these issues, it’s still better to check them yourself.
You can safely assume that all mainstream PC hardware will have a Windows 10 driver ready for it, but if you’re running any old or esoteric devices we’d check them as well. This also goes for software. You can assume any mainstream application will work, but if you’ve got a random 32-bit payment processing app from the Windows 3.1 era or a 16-bit program from the practical dawn of time, do a quick Google search first.
Next, you’ll want to install all available Windows updates for the system. This can be done by accessing the Control Panel and choosing Windows Update (assuming you don’t get updates automatically).
I’m updating a Windows 8.1 installation from scratch, which is why there are so many updates to apply. Microsoft also publishes an aggregate update for Windows 8.1 to make it Windows 10-ready. Curiously, it does not seem to provide an equivalent update for Windows 7, though if you’re still using Windows 7 without Service Pack 1, we can at least provide you with a link to that. You can also grab the Windows 7 Convenience Rollup, which gathers all necessary updates through early 2016.
Once your system is fully updated you should be ready to start the upgrade process, which means it’s time to choose what kind of upgrade you want.
Fresh Install or Upgrade in Place?
Now that your machine is ready to upgrade, you have two choices: Do you want a fresh install, or do you want to upgrade the OS you already have?
For decades, the near-automatic answer from anyone who worked in IT would have been “fresh install.” In-place upgrades were notorious for destabilizing formerly stable systems, making already-unstable systems borderline unusable, and causing a wide range of infuriating problems. Windows 10, on the other hand, has carved out a reputation as an exception to the rule.
I personally took the upgrade-in-place option when I installed Windows 10. At the time, I was using a five-year-old Windows 7 installation that I’d already carted across three different motherboards. It worked flawlessly, and I’ve had no Windows 10-related problems these past 18 months. We’ll examine the process for both options, starting with a fresh installation.
The following directions apply to both installation types. Whether you want an upgrade-in-place or a fresh install, start by downloading the Windows 10 Media Creation Tool.
Run the application and choose the “Create Installation Media” option, as shown below:
The next screen will ask you to choose your language, edition, and architecture before prompting you to insert a flash drive for OS installation. You also have the option of downloading an ISO if you want to burn it to a DVD or Blu-ray and install from that medium. Remember, any flash drive you choose for this purpose will be wiped in the process.
Once the flash drive is ready, run the Setup application on the drive and choose whether you want to download and install updates immediately or to handle it later. Accept the license terms and you’ll be greeted with the following screen:
This is where you choose what kind of installation you want — a fresh install, or an upgrade-in-place? If you want to keep your old OS installation or at least your personal files, choose those options. If you want to blow the OS installation and start fresh, this is where you do it.
Before proceeding further, we recommend you read the first part of our guide on how to uninstall Windows 10. It contains useful tips on what types of data you may wish to back up before going through this process.
Select the “Keep Nothing” option shown above and your system will begin the installation process. After rebooting, Cortana will walk you through her own configuration options, assuming you want a digital assistant in the first place. One this is finished, you’ll be able to select your privacy and configuration options and the kind of account you’d like to create.
Despite Microsoft’s ongoing effort to shove people into sign up for a Microsoft account, you’re under no obligation to do so and can bypass this step by clicking on the local account option at the bottom left of the page.
Hilariously, Microsoft simply can’t keep itself from passive-aggressively nagging you. Even while you’re entering a password for a local account, the company really thinks you ought to use an online option.
Upgrade in Place
The upgrade-in-place option is entirely automated and looks identical to the fresh install process. Once the machine finishes applying updates and settings, it reboots and offers you the option to log in or change the active user.
Taking the upgrade option does change some of the initial setup options. You’ll still be asked to choose your privacy settings and to enable or disable Cortana, but Microsoft also gives you the option to set your own default apps or to allow Windows 10 to set new apps for you.
Hit Next, and the system will boot to the main Windows 10 desktop. Congratulations! You’re updated.
We purchased a Windows 8.1 Pro license for this article and had no problems upgrading it to Windows 10 Pro for free. When this loophole closes, you’ll have to enter a Windows 10 license code partway through the installation process, but everything else remains the same.
Overall, Windows 10 offers the smoothest and most reliable upgrade process we’ve yet seen from a Microsoft OS. That said, no OS is perfect. If you do run into problems with an upgrade in place, you have 10 days to revert the OS back to your previous version. Your license key will continue to work; there’s no need to reactivate the OS.
Now read: Windows 10: The Best Hidden Features, Tips, and Tricks