It’s been nearly two and a half years since Microsoft introduced Windows 10, and the operating system’s market share has grown steadily throughout that time period. Nevertheless, there are still some users who either don’t like Windows 10 or ran into bugs and problems affecting their systems.
Here, we’ll walk you through the process of either restoring or dumping Windows 10 altogether, and some things to be aware of before you begin the process. If you upgraded to Windows 10 in the last 10 days, you can simply revert your installation and restore your original OS version. Easy-peasy. Everybody else will need to do this the old-fashioned way.
Look Before You Leap
Blowing the OS off your system and starting over from scratch will wipe your existing data. It’s therefore critical to make certain you transfer all of the data you need to keep on to another drive first — USB 3.0 flash drives are a great option for this kind of transfer, as are external or secondary internal hard drives, provided you are certain which drive letters belong to which drives.
The most important part of this process is often the most overlooked, namely, take time to think about what you want to keep. Look through your Downloads and Documents directory. Backup your favorites and export your browser cookies and passwords, if that’s something you want to do. Check your Pictures and Music folders.
If you’re a gamer, make sure you’ve transferred any saved games you want to keep, and copied your Steam library to a different storage solution. If you keep local chat logs and wish to retain them, make sure you back them up. If you’ve created personal macros in Office, make sure those are saved. Check your installed programs list in case you come across an app you need to either backup or preserve (if, for example, install files are no longer easily available online but you still have them on your local system). This process doesn’t need to take all day, but dedicate some time to checking you’ve actually got all the data you intend to keep. Wiping your OS image and installing another is almost always a one-way trip.
It’s not a bad idea to grab drivers for your new OS image before you nuke the old one. Having the latest Ethernet, Wi-Fi, GPU, and chipset drivers close at hand when the system comes back up simplifies the reinstallation process. Make sure to download the drivers for the OS version you are going to be using, not the OS version you’re using right then. We particularly recommend owners with a self-built PC take this step. If you have a mass-manufactured system, these drivers are typically provided on the support page for your specific laptop or desktop model. If you built your own computer, they’re typically provided by the vendor of your motherboard (for audio, LAN, Wi-Fi, etc) and/or the manufacturer of your GPU (Intel, AMD, or Nvidia).
If you need to make a bootable flash drive for your OS ISO (this is more applicable to self-built systems, as opposed to OEM laptops or desktops), Microsoft has a utility for doing so. Don’t let the Windows 7 branding fool you — it can make boot media for Windows 7, 8, 8.1, or 10.
All done with that? Let’s move on.
Restoring an OEM system
If your system was built by a major OEM (Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc) chances are it contains a recovery partition. These partitions are designed to reinstall the version of Windows that originally shipped with your system. Load into the emergency partition (this is typically presented as a boot option) and choose to erase your primary hard drive and start from scratch. We recommend disconnecting any external drive during this process to prevent the chance of wiping the wrong HDD.
The OEM restoration process is typically automated and will drop you back to whatever version of Windows you had before, with the same software configuration that came with the system. This means you’ll have to remove any included crapware, patch the OS from scratch, and install any updated drivers you wish to use. The good news is that the drivers that shipped with your laptop should work well for connecting to the internet and downloading anything you missed and you’ll be back up and running in fairly short order. Your Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 license will still work perfectly, even if you upgraded to Windows 10. Windows 7 licenses are typically on the bottom of the laptop, while Windows 8/8.1 licenses are typically stored in a laptop’s firmware.
Microsoft’s FAQ notes that the ISO images it makes available can be used to reinstall Windows without any added software on laptops and desktops that originally ran Windows 8.x or Windows 10. It notes, however, that the system image will not include any specialized drivers or software originally installed on the PC. If you’re falling back to Windows 7, Microsoft strongly recommends you contact your system manufacturer for support. If you intend to go this route, make sure you download all necessary drivers for your system.
Reinstalling a Self-Built PC
If you’re reinstalling to a self-built system, you’ll be using the Windows 7 or 8/8.1 installer to walk through the process. Again, we recommend disconnecting all non-essential external drives (even internal drives if you’re feeling nervous), just to be on the safe side. The installer is straightforward, and you’ll be up and running shortly thereafter.
System builders have particular reason to load a USB drive up with drivers before installing a new OS version. There’s a fair-to-good chance at least some of the components in your system were released after the Windows version you’re now using, especially if you’re falling back to Windows 7. If you’ve ever had to go hunting for a motherboard CD you haven’t used in five years while staring at a system that can’t go online because someone forgot Ethernet or Wi-Fi drivers, you’re familiar with how frustrating this can be. If you need ISO images for Windows 7, you can find them here. Windows 8.1 ISOs are here.
If your hardware is older than Kaby Lake or AMD’s Bristol Ridge (2015-2016), you should have no trouble updating Windows normally and reloading your data.
Running Windows 7 or 8.1 on Ryzen, Kaby Lake, and Coffee Lake
There are some things you need to be aware of, if you plan to run an OS other than Windows 10 on a recent AMD or Intel platform. First, Microsoft blocks all updates to these platforms by default, to push users to upgrade to Windows 10. The Zeffy Patch will solve this problem, but it’s not the only issue in play.
First, Intel hasn’t released graphics drivers for 7th or 8th-gen processors running Windows 7 or 8/8.1. It may be possible to hack a functional driver together, but there’s no official solution. AMD has quietly dropped Windows 8 and 8.1 from its own support sheets in many instances. The company’s recent Radeon Software Adrenalin Edition update is available for both Windows 7 and Windows 10, but Windows 8 users with older AMD GPUs are stuck on the midsummer Crimson ReLive edition. Similarly, you can download Vega GPU drivers for Win 10 or Win 7, but not Windows 8. AMD’s chipset drivers are also limited to Windows 10 or Windows 7. Nvidia, in contrast, still offers a unified driver for all Microsoft operating systems.
Finally, be aware that hunting down drivers for specific subsystems or components under Windows 7 or 8.1 may be more difficult, due to the lack of support. This will depend on a great many factors, including which USB ports you use (and what controller they’re attached to), so all we can do is reiterate what we said earlier: Make sure you’ve got functional drivers in-hand before attempting to reinstall Win 7 or 8.1 on a modern Kaby Lake, Coffee Lake, Ryzen, or Bristol Ridge system, and research the topic to make certain you’ll still have a functional PC when you reinstall an older OS.
Remember, There Are Other OS Options
Finally, remember that Microsoft Windows is not your only choice of operating system. A discussion of the various Linux distributions and their strengths and weaknesses on various laptops and hardware configurations is beyond the scope of this article, but we’d be remiss not to mention the option. Linux distros like Mint and Ubuntu have historically been viewed as the most user-friendly, but they’re far from the only choices. Again, you’ll need to research if your laptop or desktop is completely compatible with the distro you’d like to use, and adjusting between Linux and Windows can be challenging depending on your workflow and application requirements.
Now read: Windows 10: The Best Hidden Features, Tips, and Tricks