This is an older guide I wrote a couple of years ago. Recently, the ISOs mentioned in the article have been removed and are now dead links. If you are still interested in installing or repairing Windows via USB, I have created a new guide, which you can read here.
This guide allows you to perform a completely fresh install of Windows 7 or Windows 8 on your PC. This guide:
- Uses no discs. All the required files are downloaded from the internet and saved to a USB stick.
- Can be used for a computer with a new or blank hard disk
- Can be used to start again and wipe over a previous Windows installation
- Assumes you have a licence key and is fully legal
- Download Windows 7 ISO from Digital River
- Copy ISO to USB stick using Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool
- Install Windows 7 with USB stick. Use key if finishing with Windows 7, otherwise no need to add a key
- Once installed, immediately download the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant. Install Windows 8 from here.
What you need
- The computer you want to install Windows on. Its hard drive should be at least 60GB for Windows 7 or around 120GB for Windows 8 (Win8 on 60GB only leaves around 22GB once installed!). Check whether it’s 32 bit or 64 bit.
- Blank USB stick, at least 4GB
- Another portable hard disk (if you need to back up data)
- Another computer, already working, with a decent internet connection
- Licence key for Windows. Bear in mind whether you have a key for Windows 7 or Windows 8. This isn’t a guide on how to use Windows without a key!
A note about licence keys
A licence key is needed to validate that you have a legal and licensed version of Windows. Strictly speaking, this usually means one licence number per computer, and Microsoft maintain a record of which licence key is associated with which computer. When you ‘activate’ a new licence, you are telling Microsoft to tie your licence number with the computer you are activating it upon. Usually this is a one-way process (especially for OEM, student and other such discounted licences), meaning you cannot transfer the licence to another computer. This is also why an internet connection is required to activate Windows.
In reality however, the licence number seems to be tied specifically with the computer’s motherboard. You are free to reinstall Windows and activate your key on a computer as many times as you like, as long as the key was always vaid with that particular machine. Of course, if you try and install Windows using somebody else’s key, the activation is going to fail because Microsoft’s records will indicate that particular key has already been activated on a different computer.
Before you start…
If the computer already has a copy of Windows on it, then back everything up! Copy everything you might want to keep onto the portable hard drive such as music, photos and videos.
If the hard drive is new or blank, then it may need formatting.
Step 1: Download Windows 7
First you need to download an ISO of Windows 7. If you plan to install Windows 7, then make sure you download the version you have the key for. If you plan to eventually install Windows 8, then you can select any file, but make sure you choose between 32 and 64 bit correctly.
Don’t skip this step even if you want Windows 8 – it will make sense later!
Step 2: Download Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool
Download from here:
Contrary to its name, it isn’t a tool for downloading Windows, but it is a tool that copies the ISO file to a USB stick.
When the ISO has downloaded, run the program. In the first screen, click ‘browse’ and find the ISO file.
On the next screen, click USB.
Insert your USB stick (make sure there’s nothing valuable on it before you start!) and select it from the list. You might need to click the ‘refresh’ button if you don’t see it at first.
It should then start copying over. Wait until it’s finished.
Step 3: Install Windows 7
Plug the USB stick into the computer you wish to install Windows on, and turn it on. Hopefully, the computer will automatically start to load from the USB stick. If not, you might have to try and bring up the boot options in the BIOS when the computer starts up. Try mashing some combination of F2, F8, F10, F12 or DEL one at a time and see if you can bring up a menu with an option like ‘boot from USB. Or try googling your laptop/motherboard model number and ‘boot from usb’.
Follow the instructions on screen. If you are prompted for a key, only enter it if you intend to install Windows 7 in the end. This whole step should take about an hour.
Step 4: Download and install Windows 8 (optional)
Download the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant. Run it.
When you get to this screen, it’s worth clicking on ‘see compatibility details’ to make sure Windows 8 is going to run as it should. Make sure nothing’s too shocking, then click ‘next’.
Run through the upgrade assistant and enter the upgrade key when prompted. Again, this should take about an hour in all, and the computer will restart several times.
Step 5: Restore files
One quick last thing – you’ll need to copy your backup files. Just plug in the portable hard drive and copy the files back to your computer.