How to install the Microsoft Windows operating system

Updated: 01/31/2019 by Computer Hope

Windows logoEach version of Microsoft Windows is installed on a computer using similar steps. While there are steps in the installation process that can differ between versions of Windows, the following general steps and guidelines will help you to install Windows on your computer.

Tip: If you want to upgrade to a newer version of Windows on your computer, the steps on this page can help you with the upgrade process. The Windows installation process should recognize if you have an older version of Windows already installed on the computer and ask if you want to upgrade or perform a fresh install. The upgrade process will install the newer Windows operating system files over top the old ones and preserve your files.

The steps below are for all recent versions of Windows, including Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10. These steps would even work for earlier versions (e.g., Windows 95) as long as you're using the disc version. The floppy diskette version is similar, but it requires additional steps.

Check Hardware Compatibility

Before installing or upgrading Windows on your computer, you should check the hardware in the computer to make sure it is compatible with that version of Windows. Microsoft provides a Windows Compatible Products List through their website that allows you to check if the specific hardware in your computer is compatible with the chosen version of Windows.

If you find that one or more pieces of hardware in your computer are not compatible with the chosen Windows version, we recommend replacing that hardware with compatible hardware. Having compatible hardware in your computer will help ensure the Windows install or upgrade process is successful.

Genuine Windows CD, DVD, or USB thumb drive

First, you will need a genuine copy of the Microsoft Windows operating system installation CD, DVD, or USB thumb drive. A genuine Windows product key is included with the installation disc, which is required to activate Windows after installation. If you have an OEM computer, the product key for your version of Windows is also often on the back or side of the computer.

If you have an OEM computer (e.g., Acer, Dell, HP, etc.), the computer will not have a genuine Windows CD, DVD, or USB thumb drive. Instead, you would re-install Windows and all the software using a hidden partition or a set of restore discs. The steps mentioned on this page would still work, but you'd need a copy of Windows. You can also borrow a Windows disc from a friend as long as you're installing the same version of Windows that came with the computer and you have the product key for that version of Windows.

Note: With early versions of Windows, you cannot download a copy of Windows to install on a computer. You must purchase a physical copy of Windows. If you are installing Windows 10, you can download the Windows 10 creation tool to create a bootable disc or USB thumb drive.

Warning: Microsoft has Windows 10 available for download only from their website. Any other site that claims to have copies of other versions of Windows should not be trusted. These copies of Windows are pirated software and could contain anything including spyware or malware.

Installing or Upgrading Windows

To start the Windows install or upgrade process, you will need to configure your computer to boot from a CD or DVD before booting to the hard drive. Changing the boot process forces the computer to look for the Windows installation disc before trying to boot from the hard drive.

  1. Access the computer's BIOS setup.
  2. Change the computer's boot order. Set the CD, DVD or disc drive as the first boot device if you are trying to boot from a disc. Or, set the first boot device to your USB drive if you're trying to boot from a USB thumb drive. If the drive you want to set is not shown, make sure the disc is inserted in the drive before you turn on the computer, and the BIOS should recognize it, and include it in the list.
  3. Save the settings change and exit BIOS.

Once you have updated the boot order, you can begin the Windows installation process.

  1. Place the Windows disc in the CD/DVD drive or USB thumb drive into the back of the computer.
  2. Turn on or restart the computer. As the computer is starting up, it should see the installation disc or drive and show a message similar to Press any key to boot from CD. Press any key on the keyboard to have the computer boot from the Windows disc or drive.
  3. The Windows install process will begin. There will be several prompts that you will need to answer. Select either Yes or the appropriate option to install Windows.

Install Note: Make sure you select the Full Install option and not the Repair or Upgrade option.

Upgrade Note: If you are upgrading to a newer version of Windows, select the Upgrade option instead of the Full Install option.

  1. When asked which partition to install Windows onto, select the main partition, which is usually the C: drive or one labeled "Unaollocated partition". If upgrading Windows, select the existing installation of Windows on the hard drive.
  2. You may be asked if you want to erase all contents on the hard drive, then install Windows. It is recommended that you choose this option, as it will also properly format the hard drive to allow the Windows operating system to be installed.
  3. The computer may need to restart several times during the Windows install process. The restarts are normal and if prompted to restart, select the Yes option.
  4. When the install process is nearly complete, the Windows configuration option screens are shown. On these screens, you may be asked to select the time zone you live in, your preferred language, and the name of the account you will use to access Windows. Select the appropriate options and enter the appropriate information on each configuration screen.

The Windows install process will be complete when the computer prompts you to log in with the account you just created on the configuration screens or when it loads directly into Windows.

Final Windows and computer configuration

After Windows has been installed on the computer, you will need to install the drivers and related software for the hardware in the computer. You can use the installation discs that came with the hardware, or you can download the drivers from the hardware manufacturer's website.

Tip: If you cannot download drivers because your network card is not working after installing Windows you can download the drivers on another computer and then copy them to a USB thumb drive and move them over to your computer.

It is strongly recommended that you install the latest drivers for each piece of hardware.

To determine which hardware needs drivers to be installed, check the Device Manager and look for exclamation mark "!" next to hardware devices. The exclamation point means drivers are needed for that device.

After installing the necessary hardware device drivers, install any software programs on the computer that you want to use.

Finally, download and install any available Windows updates. Updating Windows can help improve the performance of the operating system, the hardware in the computer, and software programs you use. It can also improve security by fixing potential security holes and flaws in Windows.

Long-term maintenance of Windows

Microsoft frequently releases new updates for Windows, so it is recommended that you check for and install available updates. Doing so will help keep Windows running better and keep your computer protected.

Also, periodically check for updated hardware device drivers from manufacturers' websites. Keeping hardware drivers updated can help the hardware devices in the computer to run at peak performance and improve compatibility with other hardware and software in the computer.