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Pros and cons of a Windows 10 clean install vs. upgrade

When migrating to Windows 10, IT must decide whether to perform an upgrade install or clean install. The benefits of one are the weaknesses of the other.

IT has two main options when looking to migrate from an older version of Windows to Windows 10: a clean install or an upgrade install.

During an upgrade install, IT uses the PC running an older version of Windows to run the Windows 10 OS installer. The upgrade process takes all the programs and utilities installed on a device -- along with the device's preferences, settings and so forth -- and brings them along as the old OS upgrades. A clean install of Windows 10 reformats the boot and system drives so that it wipes all traces of the previous installation prior to installing the new OS from scratch.

As more organizations prepare for the move to Windows 10, it's important for IT professionals to know which approach best meets their needs.

What does an upgrade install bring?

Above all, an upgrade install offers convenience. To get started, IT can use the Windows 10 Update Assistant or wait for Windows Update to offer the upgrade. The vast majority of Windows 10 upgrades take under an hour to complete. The time it takes to successfully upgrade depends on two factors: the download speed of Windows 10 upgrade files and the hardware platform capability the upgrade runs on.

The three main benefits of an upgrade install are:

Convenience: No special startup or bootable installation media is necessary for an upgrade install.

Simplicity: IT can launch the Upgrade Assistant or tell Windows Update to perform the upgrade. The rest is handled, more or less, automatically, with very little IT interaction or guidance required.

Preservation: An upgrade install preserves all compatible applications and will warn IT of any applications it will lose as a result of the migration during pre-installation checks. This is true for all files, applications, settings and preferences as well.

The main drawback of an upgrade install primarily comes from the fact that the new OS inherits all the old settings and preferences, along with all the changes to the Windows registry. As a result, the upgrade passes the accumulation of old and unused files and applications from the old Windows OS to the new one. Windows systems that were unstable or erratic are likely to pass those traits onto Windows 10.

Windows 10 clean install
Windows 10 clean install

What happens with a Windows 10 clean install?

A Windows 10 clean install does away with the instabilities or inconsistencies that an older Windows OS may develop over time.

A Windows 10 clean install does away with the instabilities or inconsistencies that an older Windows OS may develop over time. It essentially wipes the boot and system drives and starts over with a clean slate. As a result, the biggest -- and some might argue only -- advantage of a clean install of Windows 10 is a fresh start with a completely new Windows OS, unencumbered by the previous install.

The three main things to know about a clean install of Windows 10 are:

More work: A clean install wipes out everything. As a result, IT must compensate by planning and preparing for a clean install before it occurs and deal with the aftermath.

More time and expense: Post-clean install, IT must reinstall all applications that the organization wants to continue using. This includes obtaining any necessary license information. If expired or lost licenses need current paid-up replacements, it can get costly.

Requires bootable install media: A clean install requires IT to reboot the PC and instruct the basic input/output system or Unified Extensible Firmware Interface to boot from bootable media containing the installer for Windows 10.

IT should make a good image backup beforehand, using tools such as Macrium Software's Reflect that let IT mount images as virtual disk drives to recover missing files and other information. Packages such as Ninite or Chocolatey Windows Package Manager help automate application reinstallation as much as possible after the clean install process is over. IT must also document all system settings, tweaks and changes to redo what a clean install automatically undoes.

Next Steps

Explore the options to avoid a Windows 10 migration

Is a Windows 10 upgrade the right choice for every business?

Everything IT needs to know when transitioning to Windows 10

This was last published in November 2017

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