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Upgrading the Windows Client Operating System

Up until Windows 10, Microsoft historically released several new operating systems per decade. While most PC owners keep the preinstalled version of Windows that came on the system, a large percentage of owners seek to upgrade to the latest version. Most users who upgrade do so to take advantage of the latest functionality that the new system offers. Users who purchase new equipment with the latest operating system can benefit from both additional software functionality and new hardware advancements.

Since Windows Vista, most system hardware has been suitable for upgrading between versions without the need to change processors or increase RAM levels, which means it is easier (and cheaper) for you to upgrade than to purchase a whole new system. The newest devices are often factory sealed, which reduces the option to upgrade hardware components, whereas older systems can still be upgraded with faster hard drives, more RAM, and other components.

Older software can become a serious security risk. Mainstream support for Windows 7 SP1 ended in 2015, and extended support ends on January 14, 2020. It is likely, therefore, that within five years the majority of computers will be running Windows 10. With Windows 10, the free upgrade offer that ran through July 29, 2016, enabled millions of users of Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and Windows 8.1 to upgrade directly to Windows 10. In this tutorial, we will review the options and the tools used to upgrade Windows locally and troubleshoot upgrade issues that you may encounter.

Upgrade vs. Clean Installation

Historically, it has generally been better to perform a clean installation whenever possible. This advice is no longer applicable when considering Windows 10, and Microsoft now recommends that you use the upgrade option if you are upgrading from Windows 7SP1 or Windows 8.1 to the latest version of Windows.

Clean installations are where you install Windows onto a freshly formatted hard drive. This method is still useful if you have one or more of the following scenarios:

  • Installing onto a new hard drive
  • Current installation is infected by malware, such as Ransomware, which is difficult to remove
  • OEM installation is full of unwanted software, sometimes referred to as bloatware
  • Changed system architecture (for example, you added more RAM to your PC, and now want to use an x64 version)
  • Using corporate customized image

It is not possible to provide a definitive rule regarding whether your upgrade will be successful. If your operating system has been in use on your computer for more than two years, it may be more appropriate to perform a clean install or reinstatement of the OEM installation , or to restore from one of your early backups or recovery disks. Reinstating the version of Windows that originally came with the device can be useful for several reasons:

  • Device drivers should work without any compatibility issues.
  • The appropriate system architecture is correctly configured.
  • Your device will be activated using the original or OEM-installed version of Windows.
  • With a full backup, all installed applications will be restored (although this may also include bloatware).

For organizations that have already created customized images of the desktop, the process of reimaging a device can be performed very quickly and reliably. Typically, the process for building, testing, and finalizing a custom deployment image may take in excess of six months. It may be worth considering testing the upgrade process from your current operating system directly to Windows 10 rather than waiting until a new custom Windows 10 image is available. You may find that this works well, within the earlier adopter or pilot group, as a work around for your system until your deployment team fully evaluates and builds their image.

You can perform an in-place upgrade over the Internet or create standalone installation media and then upgrade offline using the downloaded media. You will see in the following sections that much of the upgrade process and end result is the same, regardless how you instigate the upgrade.

Upgrading and Downgrading Windows

There are only certain upgrade paths available, depending upon which edition of Windows is currently installed. We will focus on the upgrade paths that are available to Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1 in this tutorial. If your system is less than five years old, it should meet the minimum specifications for upgrading to a later version of Windows.

You can check whether the device hardware supports Windows 10 by visiting the https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/windows-10- specifications?OCID=win10_null_vanity_win10specs website and reviewing the system requirements listed there.

It is useful to know that even once you have upgraded to Windows 10, you will be able to revert your system back to its original version of Windows.

During the upgrade process, Windows 10 creates a backup of your previous operating system files in the C:\Windows.old folder. After your upgrade to Windows 10, if you are not happy with the new version of Windows, you are able to revert back to the earlier edition. This process is quite painless, and if you revert within 30 days of upgrading, you can navigate to the Recovery section, then the option titled "Go Back to Windows 8.1" within the Settings app.

After 30 days, Windows 10 will automatically delete the previous installed version to release storage space. With the Windows 10, version 1607 (also known as the Anniversary Update), you will only have 10 days to revert to your earlier operating system. On some tablet devices with small hard drives, this is a useful feature. If you need to revert to your previous version after the month has elapsed, you will need to recover from the backup drive that you created prior to the upgrade, or perform a fresh install of your earlier operating system.

If you click the Get Started button for the "Go Back to Windows 8.1" option, you will initiate the process to revert to your earlier operating system. You will be asked to answer a short survey that tells Microsoft why you want to go back. The process will remove any new apps that you have installed and any settings that you have modified since upgrading to Windows 10. Your files should remain after reverting is complete, but it is recommended that you have a backup just in case.

During the reversion process your computer will reboot several times, and it can take some time to complete.

If you want to remove the previous operating system version sooner than the automatic 30 days, you can do so manually by running the Disk Cleanup tool . To run the Disk Cleanup tool follow these steps:

  1. Search for Disk Cleanup in the search area.
  2. Select the option to "Clean up system files" and allow the Disk Cleanup tool to rescan the drive.
  3. Check the "Previous Windows Installation(s)" option (this is not selected by default)
  4. In the Disk Cleanup prompt, "Are you sure you want to permanently delete these files?", select Delete Files.
  5. Disk Cleanup will begin file deletion, and the process will provide you with one more warning and confirmation that deleting the previous version of Windows will prevent you from restoring the machine back to the previous version of Windows.
  6. Click Yes to confirm. The deletion of the files relating to the previous version of Windows can take several minutes.

There is a built-in Scheduled Task that automatically removes the Windows.old folder after 30 days. On a newly upgraded PC, you can locate the task in Task Scheduler at \Microsoft\Windows\Setup\SetupCleanupTask. You may want to edit the scheduled task to run after 60 days or disable the task entirely by removing the enabled check, done within the Triggers tab of the SetupCleanupTask Properties window.