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The Politics of Clean Install

For years and years, I’ve subscribed to the notion that a clean Windows install — as opposed to an upgrade — can be a desirable thing. In cruising the Web, I see that my belief is still shared by the vast majority of Windows experts and mavens. However, a response to my most recent blog from Windows wizard and security wonk Russ Cooper now has me questioning or rather, researching and rethinking, this notion. Here’s the substance of the interchange between Russ and myself:

1. I post a promo to the blog post that reads: “Finally figures out how you can perform a clean install on a Windows 10 upgrade without supplying a key.”
2. Russ responds by saying that the old paradigms from previous versions of Windows don’t apply to this one, thereby implying that a clean install is no longer necessary.
3. I respond to Russ by asserting conventional wisdom that “the occasional clean install is an effective technique for de-gunking … Windows installations” while giving a nod to Jeff Duntemann (and co-author Joli Ballew) for their excellent books on this topic (run this Amazon search for more info). I show him this recent Reliability History graph for my production PC, upgraded in early September, by way of motivation:

prodpc-religraph

All of the red Xs indicate somewhat serious errors, most originating from IE or hardware errors. This system is none too stable.

In addition, I have been unable to come up with a set of Windows 10 sources that will allow me to run the DISM ... /restorehealth command on this installation to a successful completion, which tells me that I do have lingering corruption issues with this particular install. Though reinstalling the raft of apps on this machine (PSI tells me I have 85 such elements on my PC, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least one or two dozen more installed that it doesn’t track) will take me the better part of a full day, I am still of the opinion that it will be worth the effort to restore my desktop to more normal and stable operation.

All of this said, Russ’s assertion has me questioning this conventional wisdom that a clean install is in fact an effective way to restore sanity and stability to an increasingly wonky Windows installation. That’s why I’d like to throw this topic open to the readership, and ask you collectively for your thoughts and experiences in the pros and cons of clean Windows 10 installations versus upgrades. I’m also reaching out to other Windows wizards I know to get their thinking on this topic and will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

It’s a great subject, though, and one worth digging into. If you’ve got something to say on this subject, or experiences to share, please do post a comment here, or reach out to me via e-mail through my contact page at EdTittel.com. Thanks!

[Note added 9/10/2015:]
In this morning’s edition of the Windows Secrets newsletter Fred Langa provides a definitive explanation of what’s going on with license data in Windows 10 upgrades. Here’s a quote from his piece entitled “How to clean-install a Windows 10 upgrade”:

First, you must— at least temporarily — upgrade your current Win7/8 system to Win10, the standard way. During this initial upgrade, Microsoft’s activation servers create and store a unique and permanent machine ID that’s based on your old Windows key plus the system’s hardware.

During the upgrade, Microsoft will also automatically issue you a new, generic Win10 product key. But it works only after your PC has been successfully upgraded to Win10 and activated. (This is how Microsoft intends to prevent piracy of the free Win10 upgrade.)

After your system has successfully completed an initial upgrade to Win10 and it has been registered with Microsoft’s activation servers, you then can wipe out the Win10 upgrade setup and perform a thorough, from-scratch, clean install.

At the end of that process, your PC will again check in with Microsoft. But because your system was previously whitelisted on the MS activation servers, your new clean-install setup will pass muster — recognized as 100 percent legitimate.

And FWIW, Fred remains a staunch member of the “clean install restores stable, reliable Windows operation club,” as do many other experts whose opinions I’ve researched since writing this blog post (including Ed Bott, Brink at TenForums.com, and lots of other folks).

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I have found that there is a wide range of system use and activities that affect the need to do a clean install. On systems where I am really careful to keep my use to a small toolset, I am able to go years without feeling the need for a clean install. I also do not install and uninstall test software. On the other hand, systems where I do test installs of software for evaluation and the inevitable uninstall, beg for a clean install very quickly. My rule of thumb has become: the more focused your toolset and keeping software testing to a minimum results in more stable systems.

It is also important to carefully evaluate how nicely software plays with others. Very difficult to quantify and describe but with experience you get a sense of who did a good job and who didn't from evaluating various documentation and description factors even before deciding to install. Letting unused software accumulate on a system eventually causes problems. However, uninstall is never completely clean. It kind of reminds me of "safe sex". The only things that is really safe is monogamy.

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Not to mention celibacy (or using no tools except for those you must on the digital side of your metaphor). I agree: nice summary of a tricky situation. As for your earlier dual boot issue, I recommend looking into a program called EasyBCD (neosmart.net/EasyBCD) that will let you set up and manage the boot loader -- and handle dual boot scenarios -- both easily and nicely.

HTH,
--Ed--

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