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How to prepare for a clean install of Windows 10 Creators Update

How to prepare for a clean install of Windows 10 Creators Update

On April 11, Microsoft will start releasing the Creators Update files for OS upgrade through Windows Update. These tips and tricks will help you prepare for and deal with a clean install of the new version.

With the public release of the Creators Update for Windows 10 arriving Tuesday, April 11, it's time to start prepping for that "feature update" (aka version 1703). There are several steps that you can and should take to get your machines ready.

Let's begin with a discussion of upgrade versus clean install of this new major Windows 10 release and an overview of the pros and cons for each approach.

Clean install versus upgrade install

The fastest and easiest way to move up to the Creators Update is to simply let Windows Update handle it. That is, you'll be offered the Creators Update through Windows Update sometime after the release goes public, when you accept the offer, the update will download itself and get installed on your PC(s).

During an upgrade install, download files are copied locally, and then setup.exe runs to upgrade version 1607 (aka the Current Branch of Windows 10, or the Anniversary Update) to version 1703. The old version will be retained for 10 days in a folder named Windows.old (unless you elect to run Disk Cleanup with administrative privileges or click the "Clean up system files" button before the end of that ten-day period). The new, upgraded side-by-side folder will also inherit the contents of the old WinSxS folder, along with any new elements introduced by the new release.

A clean install differs from an upgrade in several ways. With a clean install, you'll get the option to rebuild your boot drive completely, including the invisible bootup partition, the Windows recovery partition and the OS partition, along with any other partitions on that drive.

You will also get a clean and brand new registry and WinSxS folder, untouched (and untroubled) by remnants of earlier Windows versions that may have resided on the target PC, perhaps even prior to the version 1607/Anniversary Update. Remnants of old Windows versions can suck up a lot of disk space over time. (My wife's PC had been upgraded from Windows 7 to 8 to 8.1 and then to Windows 10, and by the time I decided to clean out her WinSxS folder, it had accumulated over 20 GB of orphaned, obsolete entries.) A clean install gets rid of all this detritus in one fell swoop.

Many Windows experts recommend a clean install for new versions of Windows because it provides a fresh start on a Windows system along with a new version of the OS. So why do so many people upgrade instead? Because unless they take steps in advance to customize the Windows image they install for the new version, they must reinstall every single application running on those machines to put themselves back where they were before that installation occurred.

On production machines that have numerous applications installed, the process of reinstalling applications can take one to two days to work through, not to mention the hassle of digging up all of the license keys necessary to handle this task. Thus, inertia is a profound (and entirely valid) explanation for why so many users choose to upgrade, even when a clean install might offer relief from occasional or even chronic Windows instability or reliability issues.

Prepping for the Creators Update clean install

Let's assume you've decided to perform a clean install of Creators Update, despite the various hurdles that may stand in your way. When it comes to preparing your machine for the update, it's useful to understand how Microsoft stages "flights" of upgrade releases. It now seems clear that Microsoft uses the telemetry built into Windows 10 (which phones home to Microsoft servers to report hardware and software issues as they occur) to identify PCs that are more or less likely to enjoy a successful update experience.

A checklist of clean install prep items

These tips and tricks will help you prepare for and deal with a clean install of the Creators Update release:

  • When performing a clean install, it's always a good idea to disconnect all other disk drives from the PC before firing off setup.exe. This prevents Windows from making bad or wrong decisions about where to put the boot loader and the basic boot partition. (These appear in partitions 2 and 3 in the screenshot below, sized 100 MB and 16 MB, respectively. And they're described in this Microsoft Hardware Dev Center article "UEFI/GPT-based hard drive partitions".) Otherwise you may wind up with an install that requires Drive D: to be present and working before Drive C: can boot, or vice versa.
Windows 10 boot disk layout Ed Tittel

Macrium Reflect shows a Windows 10 boot disk layout, including the hidden 16 MB MSR partition (#3).

  • If you use popular freeware programs or tools, such as Chrome, Firefox, 7-Zip, Java, Dropbox, Google Drive and Notepad++, grab and configure a copy of Ninite to help get them downloaded and installed. Ninite always grabs the most current version of such programs, so it's nice to keep around anyway.
  • Be sure to run Disk Cleanup and do everything you can to slim down your current Windows image, and then make a complete image backup before you perform a clean install. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can restore from that backup and not lose anything (except time) on your PC. I recommend Macrium Reflect as a worthy backup solution: its Rescue Media can restore your old image to bare metal (a non-functional system) if worst comes to worst. The freeware version is adequate for most home/home office users; the commercial versions are more capable yet still quite affordable.
  • Use a driver backup utility to capture all device drivers onto a USB flash drive before performing a clean install. That way, if Windows has any trouble identifying or finding the drivers you need after the clean install has completed, you'll have a source from which to obtain them. I recommend the (free) open source DriverBackup! tool from SourceForge.
  • Make a list of all the applications installed on your PC(s) before performing a clean install so you'll know what needs to be reinstalled afterward. I've found it useful to take screenshots from the Programs and Features widget in Control Panel, and/or use a third-party program such as Revo Uninstaller or Gabe Topala's excellent System Information for Windows Pro (SIW Pro). Where licenses are required, make sure you can lay hands on that information: you'll need it to reinstall the applications (for most software nowadays, this is reasonably easy to do online).

Immediately after you've finished the upgrade and have reinstalled your applications, make an image backup. This provides a pristine point to which you can return in the future should problems arise.

Windows 10 Creators Update sources for clean install

On April 11, Microsoft will start releasing the Creators Update files for OS upgrade through Windows Update. At the same time, ISO files for that update should also become widely available through the usual sources, including MSDN (requires a subscription to access) and the Windows 10 Update Assistant.

Those of you interested in getting an early start can turn to the Media Creation Tool (MCT) to build a bootable USB flash drive from which to clean install the Creators Update as well. It can also upgrade a 1607 install to 15063 (which is the foundation for the Creators Update) or be used to perform a clean install of the new OS to offer a head start on those processes. Enjoy.

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