Windows 10 updates: How to install, reinstall, upgrade, and activate

For any Windows 10 version, including version 2004 (aka the May 2020 Update), here's everything you need to know before you repair, reinstall, or upgrade -- including details about activation and product keys.

Windows 10 after five years: Nothing turned out as expected, and that’s OK

This article, updated to reflect Windows 10 version 2004 (aka May 2020 Update), covers the most common scenarios you're likely to encounter when installing, reinstalling, and activating Windows 10.

Is it still possible to upgrade a PC to Windows 10 from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1?

For the first year after the release of Windows 10, Microsoft offered free upgrades using the Get Windows 10 app, which appeared in the taskbar as a notification icon and in Windows Update. With the end of the free upgrade offer, the Get Windows 10 app is no longer available, and you cannot upgrade from an older Windows version using Windows Update.

The good news is that you can still upgrade to Windows 10 on a device that has a license for Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. You'll need to download the installation files and run the Setup program from within Windows or use the Upgrade Assistant available from Microsoft's accessibility page. For details, see "Here's how you can still get a free Windows 10 upgrade."

As of late May 2020, readers have confirmed to me that this procedure still works.

PCs that have a license to run Windows XP or Windows Vista are not eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10.

Where can I get installation files for Windows 10?

If you've built a new PC or you're installing Windows 10 in a virtual machine on a Mac, you can purchase a license from third-party sellers or from Microsoft itself, via the Microsoft Store. Windows 10 Home costs $120 from Microsoft, and Windows 10 Pro costs $200. Prices from third-party sellers, including Amazon, are typically lower. Depending on how you purchase, you'll receive installation media (DVD or USB key) or a product key and instructions for downloading installation media.

Windows 10 tips: Setup and configuration: Don't settle for default settings | Performance and troubleshooting | Productivity | Networking and security

If you already have a Windows 10 product key or you are planning to reinstall Windows 10 on a machine that already has a digital license (more on that later), visit the Download Windows 10 page and download the Media Creation Tool. This free download allows you to create a bootable USB flash drive directly.

As an alternative, I recommend that you download an ISO file instead. That file can be mounted directly in File Explorer (see "Windows 10 tip: Mount and unmount any ISO file instantly" for instructions); an ISO file can also be used to create a bootable USB flash drive, a bootable DVD, or a virtual DVD drive mounted in a virtual machine.

After running the Media Creation Tool, choose Create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file) for another PC. By default, the pre-selected options choose an architecture (32-bit or 64-bit) that matches that of the current PC. Open the drop-down list shown here if you want to choose a different architecture or download an ISO file that includes both architectures.

media-creation-tool-options-1803.jpg

Use this drop-down list to download a specific Windows 10 architecture.

The ISO file for an x86 (32-bit) edition is approximately 3 GB in size. The x64 (64-bit) edition is delivered as an ISO file approximately 4 GB in size. The combined installer is just over 6 GB in size.

Developers and IT pros with a Visual Studio (MSDN) subscription can download installation media in ISO format from the subscriber portal. Note that the installer files downloaded from this source are too large to be copied to a bootable USB flash drive formatted using the FAT32 file system (FAT32 is required for booting on a system with UEFI firmware). For a workaround, see "Windows 10 installer files too big for USB flash drive? Here's the fix."

Windows 10 Enterprise editions are available through the Volume Licensing Service Center. A free 90-day trial edition is also available from the Microsoft Evaluation Center.

What's the most recent Windows 10 version?

Microsoft made Windows 10 version 2004 (also known as the Windows 10 May 2020 Update) available to the Release Preview ring of the Windows Insider Program on April 16, 2020, and plans to begin making it widely available to consumers via Windows Update at the end of May. 

This major update succeeds version 1909 (also known as the Windows 10 November 2019 Update). That version was released to the general public on November 12, 2019. The previous version was version 1903, which was released on May 21, 2019. The version 1909 release was deliberately scaled down to include only "a scoped set of features for select performance improvements, enterprise features, and quality enhancements." Anyone running version 1903 received the version 1909 update as a lightweight "enablement package," which installed in only a few minutes.

In its first two years, Windows 10 had separate release schedules for consumer and business editions. In mid-2017, Microsoft consolidated these two channels into a single one. Business and enterprise customers can opt to defer the appearance of new releases in Windows Update for up to 365 days after the general release date using the Windows Update for Business feature set.

For a full listing of release dates for major versions, see the official Windows 10 release information page.

Each major release is associated with a build number. The initial July 2015 release was build 10240. The build numbers of subsequent updates are as follows:

  • Version 1511 - build 10586
  • Version 1607 - build 14393
  • Version 1703 - build 15063
  • Version 1709 - build 16299
  • Version 1803 - build 17134
  • Version 1809 - build 17763
  • Version 1903 - build 18362
  • Version 1909 - build 18363
  • Version 2004 - build 19041

A number after the major build number identifies the most recent update installed.

To check which version of Windows 10 is installed on a device, open Settings > System > About. As an alternative, you can click in the search box and type settings:about. The same information is also available using the winver command, which displays results in a compact About Windows dialog box.

The system shown below, for example, is running the May 2019 Update, version 1903, with the 2019-04 Cumulative Update applied.

windows-10-build-info-1903.jpg

This PC is running the Windows 10 May 2019 Update.

Will Microsoft automatically update my PC to the latest release of Windows 10?

If you're currently running Windows 7 or 8.1, you will not be offered an upgrade to Windows 10.

If you are running any unmanaged edition of Windows 10 using default settings, these feature updates (the new, official terminology for what were once called upgrades) are delivered through Windows Update. In versions prior to 1903, feature updates download and install automatically. You can schedule the installation for a more convenient time or postpone it for a few days, but you cannot delay the update indefinitely.

Beginning with version 1903, Microsoft began offering feature updates for installation separately from security and reliability updates. The company says these updates will not be downloaded or installed automatically unless the current version is at or near the end of its support window. For more details about these changes, see "Windows 10 Home edition users are big winners as Microsoft overhauls its update process."

On systems running Windows 10 Home and Pro, the support period for each version is 18 months. Windows 10 Enterprise and Education editions have a longer support period of 30 months for the version released in the second half of each year. To manage feature updates based on these support calendars, see "When will you get the next version of Windows 10? Here's how to take control."

When a feature update is released, it may take several weeks or months to roll out to the huge worldwide installed base of Windows 10 users, a process Microsoft calls "throttling." 

windows10-update-now.jpg

Use the Update Assistant to manually download and install the latest feature update.

Each feature update delivered through Windows Update requires roughly 3 GB of bandwidth and disk space. If your PC is running an outdated version (as might be the case if you restored it using the manufacturer's recovery media) and you don't want to wait for Windows Update, you can use the Windows 10 Update Assistant to get the latest version. Visit the Download Windows 10 page and click Update Now to start the process.

That action downloads a very small installer file that runs a compatibility check and then, assuming the device passes all compatibility tests, begins the full upgrade. The Update Assistant is a straightforward wizard that doesn't require technical knowledge to use; it does, however, require an administrator's credentials to install.

Do I need a product key to install or reinstall Windows 10?

If you upgrade over a properly activated copy of Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you can run Setup from within your current Windows installation and you will not be prompted to enter a product key. After the upgrade is complete, your new copy of Windows 10 will be activated with what Microsoft calls a "digital license."

If you are using bootable installation media to perform a clean install on a PC that previously had a properly activated copy of Windows 10, you do not need to enter a product key. (When you see the prompt to enter a key, click the I don't have a product key option.)

Because the PC received a digital license as part of its earlier upgrade, Windows 10 will be automatically activated after the installation is complete.

If you are using bootable installation media to perform a clean install on a PC that has never been upgraded to Windows 10 and activated, you will need to enter a product key. You can enter a product key from Windows 10 or from a matching edition of Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1. Residents of the United States who don't own a qualifying Windows license can skip entering a product key and purchase a license online from the Windows Store after setup is complete.

How do digital licenses work?

When you upgrade over an existing, activated copy of Windows, the Setup program checks the current activation status. If it determines the installation is properly activated, it contacts a Microsoft activation server and generates a license certificate that is linked to that hardware. (A Microsoft account is not required for this step; the license is generated for the device, not for its owner.)

This automatic activation process is identical whether you use an ISO file to start the upgrade or do so from the downloaded upgrade files.

After that first activation is complete, you can perform a clean install on that same hardware using Windows 10 installation media. As long as the hardware "fingerprint" matches the previous installation ID, the installation is activated automatically. (Microsoft does not provide details of what goes into the hardware ID, except to confirm that it does not contain any personally identifiable information and is not used for tracking purposes.)

To check the activation status of a Windows 10 PC, open Settings > Update & Security > Activation.

activation-digital-license-2017.jpg

A digital license indicates that no product key is necessary.

How long does a Windows 10 upgrade take?

That's primarily dependent on the performance of your system. Windows Setup uses hardlinks to migrate data files, so the amount of data files shouldn't have a significant effect on install times. Over the past few versions, Microsoft has made some changes that speed the process up significantly for the twice-yearly feature updates (see "Windows 10 feature updates painfully slow? Relief is in sight").

In my experience, the update can take as little as 30 minutes and as much as two hours. Anything more than that indicates a problem (or very old, slow hardware). In version 2004, most of the work occurs in the background, and the final stage, which occurs after a reboot, can take less than 10 minutes on modern hardware.

Except for a few questions at the beginning, the upgrade process runs completely unattended.

What's the difference between Windows 10 and Windows 10 N and Windows 10 S?

The N editions of Windows lack media playback capabilities. Microsoft is required to offer these editions as part of a settlement in a European antitrust trial.

You don't want Windows 10 N. Nobody does.

Windows 10 S is a special configuration of Windows 10 that allows users to install only programs that are downloaded from the Microsoft Store and blocks access to many command-line tools. You can convert a PC running Windows 10 S to the full version of the underlying edition (Home or Pro) by signing in as an administrator and using an option in Settings > Activation

Can Windows 10 Home be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro?

Yes. In fact, you can apply that upgrade using a spare key from an earlier edition of Windows, including Windows 7 Pro or Ultimate, Windows 8 Pro, or Windows 8.1 Pro. Follow the instructions in this article carefully: "How to upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro for free."

This procedure is especially useful when restoring Windows 10 on a system that originally shipped with Home edition and was manually upgraded to Pro. In this scenario, you might need to use a generic product key first to upgrade to Pro. After the upgrade is complete, you can activate using the stored digital license or a product key.

My upgrade is complete. Can I delete the setup files?

I recommend that you leave them for now unless disk space is so tight that you absolutely must remove them.

The Windows.old folder contains files needed to roll back to your previous version if necessary. It will delete itself automatically in 10 days. You can do so manually by running Disk Cleanup Manager in administrator mode and choosing the option to remove your old Windows version. You can also perform the same action by going to Settings > System > Storage; click the system drive and then select Temporary Files, where Previous Windows Installation(s) is an option.

But don't do this just because you like a tidy system.

To open Disk Cleanup Manager, click in the search box (next to the Start button) and type Cleanmgr. Right-click the Disk Cleanup entry at the top of the list and choose Run As Administrator.

cleanmgr-admin.jpg

Use the Disk Cleanup Manager to remove unneeded files after an update.

The setup files themselves are in a hidden folder called C:\$Windows.~BT. Because of the way Windows assigns permissions to these folders, you can't delete them from File Explorer but instead must use one of the previously mentioned system tools.

Having installation files available comes in handy if you need to reset your PC or if you are in the Windows Insider Program and need to roll back a build. I recommend that you leave them intact unless you're critically low on disk space.

Should I upgrade or do a clean install?

That's up to you. Windows 10 supports upgrades over Windows 7 Service Pack 1 or later as well as clean installs. To do a clean install, you will need bootable media.

Can I set up Windows 10 as part of a dual- or multi-boot installation?

Yes, but only if you follow some strictly defined procedures.

First, you must boot from installation media and choose the Custom option in Setup.

Second, you must install Windows 10 on a separate disk partition or physical drive; if you choose the same partition that contains an existing Windows version, you will lose access to that Windows installation. (Your existing data files and all current Windows system files will be moved to the Windows old folder.)

Windows 10 will add itself to the boot menu if you install it in a separate volume on a system that already has a previous version of Windows installed.

Is it possible to uninstall Windows 10?

Yes. For 10 days after the upgrade, you can roll back to your previous Windows version; if you experience problems, you'll find the option to roll back in Settings > Update & security > Recovery.

Can I install Windows 10 in a virtual machine?

Yes, as long as the virtualization software is compatible. On a PC, the desktop Hyper-V feature in Windows 10 Pro/Enterprise is ideal. On a Mac, you can use third-party software like Parallels Desktop

How do I send feedback to Microsoft?

You'll see occasional pop-up prompts that ask questions about your experience with Windows 10. You can click those tiles to send comments, or use the Feedback Hub app (you'll find it on the new Start menu.)

More questions? Ask away in the comments below or, better yet, open my bio page and click the email icon below my name. Please enter a working email address in the contact form so that I can contact you with follow-up questions. Your email address will not be used for any other purposes.