Sooner or later, you’ll need to repair, refresh, or reinstall Windows — a task that will require your original Windows installation/setup files.
But most new PCs no longer come with classic Windows setup discs; the vital recovery files are typically stored on the hard drive — where they are vulnerable to loss or damage.
Some PC manufacturers include a small utility on their new machines that lets you create setup/installation discs. But these factory images often put back the adware, co-marketed software, branded tools, and other crapware that originally came with the systems.
Fortunately, there’s now a better option. Because of changes in the way Microsoft distributes Windows setup files, all Windows 8 and Windows 7 users — and some Vista users — can now download copies of the full, free, official, 100 percent legitimate Windows install/setup files.
These “virgin” Windows setups are free of OEM add-on software. Moreover, their installation files can be burned to DVDs or copied to flash drives, which can then be used to repair or refresh a Windows system — or, if needed, do a total, from-scratch reinstall of Windows on an empty hard drive.
Windows setup medium doesn’t replace making regular backup images of your system — it is, however, a vital component of your PC-maintenance toolkit.
Microsoft’s new source for Windows ISOs
IT professionals can acquire ISOs via a pricey (around U.S. $700 and up) MSDN subscription, which includes downloads for Windows and other MS software such as Office and Windows Server. And in the past, everyone else could download Windows ISO images via a relatively low-cost TechNet subscription or from online services such as Digital River. Anyone with a legitimate Windows product key could use these ISOs to create a full, complete Windows setup.
But in late 2013, Microsoft shut down its TechNet subscription service; then, last month, it pulled its ISOs from Digital River.
So, what’s a Windows user to do? This article will show you where and how to obtain full, legitimate setup files for Vista, Win7, and Win8.
First requirement: A valid product key
None of the download methods I’ll discuss lets you upgrade from, say, Win7 Home editions to Win7 Pro — or create a bootleg copy of a Windows edition. In some cases, you’ll be required to enter the key before the download step even begins. (Losing product keys can be costly; always keep them in a safe place.)
So before you do anything, find and make note of your current Windows product key. You’ll usually find it on a sticker affixed to the PC, or on the original installation medium (or its packaging), or on ordering info or the receipt.
If you’ve lost records of the key, or if you have one of the newer Win8 PCs that store the product key in the BIOS (not the Registry, as do previous Windows versions), you can use a key-finder tool to dig it out.