“I need to reinstall Windows, but I don’t have an installation disc. I never got one. What do I do?”
There are circumstances where you may have a legal installation of Windows without installation media. This can cause some panic when you’re later instructed to make sure that you have the CD or DVD before installing some other software or hardware, or if you have to reinstall your system from scratch.
I’ll tell you how to prepare for this day and what straws you may have to grasp at should you arrive unprepared.
How you got here
“I strongly recommend that when you purchase a new computer, you insist on getting installation media.”
The most common scenario is a manufacturer that pre-installs Windows for you and then does not give you the actual installation media to go with it.
I think this is a bad practice, but I understand that it may save the manufacturer (and ultimately you) a little bit of money.
Unfortunately, these short-term savings often have a long-term cost.
The ideal solution: insist on installation media
I strongly recommend that when you purchase a new computer, you insist on getting installation media. That’s the media that would allow you to reinstall Windows on a completely empty hard drive.
That “completely empty” part is important – many of the recovery disks that do come with your system assume that the original hard disk is still in place and do not much more than copy over a hidden copy of the installation. If the hard disk has been replaced, that hidden copy no longer exists and the recovery disks are useless.
Many manufacturers include installation media as an option.
Unfortunately, you can see that there is confusion in terms. In some cases a manifacturer such as Dell is refers to the media as “Recovery media” – the key is that it fully spells out that it’s a recovery disk for “Genuine Windows 7 Professional” – implying that Windows itself is on the recovery disk. If it were a recovery disk for your particular computer model without specifically mentioning Windows, then it’s not likely to be what you want.
When in doubt, or if the option is not provided, ask specifically for reinstallation media that can be used to restore to “bare metal”, also known as an empty hard disk.
The costly solution: buy a retail copy
If you did not, or cannot, get an official Windows installation disc from your computer manufacturer, then the only true alternative is to purchase a retail copy.
You can try eBay for older copies or purchase from other legitimate online vendors.
Be careful: so called “OEM” copies are often illegal and may not work with all PCs; each OEM copy is tailored to the computer manufacturer that originally sold it.
Unfortunately, this may not be useful should your pre-loaded copy of Windows ask for installation media – your computer probably has an OEM copy from a specific manufacturer. However, should you ever need to reinstall from scratch, the retail copy will work. After that, you would presumably download and install any manufacturer-specific device drivers if you decide that you need them.
Practical preparation: the system image
If you cannot get installation media from your computer manufacturer, then my recommendation is that you instead use a system backup and imaging program like Macrium Reflect to take a complete image of all of the partitions on the machine and save that.
I’d also do it as soon as possible after receiving that new machine.
That backup image takes the place of installation media in the case of system failures. If you ever need to reinstall from scratch, then you can simply restore that backup image and your machine will be exactly as it was when you took that backup.
Best of all, restoring a backup image can be performed onto an empty replacement hard disk.
Like the retail option, a system image does not help when Windows asks you to insert the original media. Instead, it’s important protection from future system and hard drive failures.
One straw to grasp at: the I386 folder
Hard disks are so big these days that some manufacturers simply copy the Windows installation image to your hard disk.
One of the common places to find an image of the installation media is the folder named I386; this is typically in the root of the C: drive on Windows XP systems. (There may be several others elsewhere on the machine, but the one that we care about will contain close to 7,000 files, two of which will be winnt.exe and winnt32.exe.)
The I386 directory is typically one of the top-level directories on the distribution media, but most importantly, it is the directory that contains the distributed copy of Windows. Winnt.exe and winnt32.exe are the DOS and protected mode setup programs, respectively. (You’d only need those if you were planning to re-install Windows XP from scratch – I use them here as an easy way to identify that we have the right directory.)
Unfortunately, you have no way to create a bootable disc image from the I386 folder. You can certainly burn to CD or DVD for backup and I encourage you to do so, but this does not create the equivalent of true Windows installation media.
Using the I386 in place of installation media when Windows asks for the original is fairly straightforward. Typically, the “Insert disc” message has only an OK and Cancel button. Press OK, allowing it to fail because you didn’t insert a disk. The next dialog will typically ask you to provide the location of the CD-ROM; just type in the full path of the I386 directory that you discovered above.
Unfortunately, the I386 folder appears to have disappeared in Windows 7.
About that manufacturer supplied restore disc
The restore disk that was supplied by the manufacturer is typically not a reinstallation disc – meaning that you cannot use it to reinstall Windows onto an empty hard drive.
However, if the hard drive has not been damaged, then the manufacturer supplied restore disc can be useful.
As I mentioned earlier, manufacturer’s often include a copy of the Windows installation disc on your hard disk. Sometimes, it’s in the I386 folder, but more frequently of late, it’s in a hidden partition on your hard drive.
A hidden partition that the restore disc knows how to access.
The net result is that the manufacturer-supplied system restore disc can be used to restore your system to it’s factory-original condition as long as the original hard disk remains intact.
While this doesn’t help you if the hard disk fails, it’s a valuable approach to restoring your system after software-related issues, such as software rot, or a bad malware infection.
If you’re still stuck…
Unfortunately, the most common scenario is that people reach a problem point that requires installation media, they have none, and they have not prepared.
Your options at this point are few.
Contact your computer manufacturer and see if they will supply installation media. While it’s not common, I have actually heard of this scenario working.
Purchase a copy of Windows. If you must choose OEM, make sure it’s the OEM version for your machine.
Borrow an installation disc that matches what’s installed on your machine – right down to the Windows version and OEM manufacturer. This exact match is required to ensure that your product key will work to activate the installation. You should extract or write down the product key from your existing system prior to any reinstall. (Warning: Depending on many factors, this could actually be illegal. It seems moral to me, because you’re simply replacing or repairing a copy of Windows that you already own, but copy protection laws in certain locales often categorize this as a violation.)
And naturally, next time, either insist on getting actual installation media when you get your machine, or at least take that system image backup as soon as it arrives.