Windows 10 has been a critical success since launch, but if you need or want to revert to an older version of Windows, it's easy to learn how to uninstall Windows 10 and roll back to your preferred version. Unfortunately, there is no automatic system for older versions – you have to back up your files, track down some installation media and find your software key to get back to your "old" computer.
Although the guide below is written to roll back to Windows 8.1 in mind, the basic steps for all Windows operating systems go as far back as Windows XP – although we do not recommend going as far back as Microsoft quit support for that recently. Also be aware that new computers (especially tablets) may contain components that were not manufactured when older Windows versions such as Windows 8.1or Windows 7 were sold.
If you decide you want to roll things back and uninstall Windows 10, there are two different ways to do it. If you have upgraded from Windows 8.1 or 7 in the last 30 days, there is a simpler method of scrolling back that takes minimal effort and does not delete your files, which you can read on the other page of this post. However, most users will need to install an older version of Windows or switch to Linux to uninstall Windows 10 without leaving behind an empty hard drive.
What you need
Before you start anything else, back up your important computer files to a separate location. An external device or cloud storage service is excellent, as long as it is physically disconnected from the Windows computer you will be working with. Unfortunately, Windows cannot preserve programs or settings when you flash to an older version (only a newer one), so you also want to get installation media for all important programs, especially those that require serial numbers. It's also worth noting that Microsoft no longer supports Windows 8, only Windows 8.1, as it was part of an automatic update cycle.
It is also a good idea to download the drivers for your computer's various components before you begin the installation process. Doing so will make it easier to get started if Windows does not automatically select the appropriate drivers. Especially motherboard chips, Ethernet, Wi-Fi and graphics drivers can make the installation process much more manageable. Store these drivers on a USB thumb drive for easy access when Windows is done with installation.
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Then download Windows installation media yourself. For Windows 8.1, Microsoft provides a download service that lets you send the installation files to a new DVD or even use a flash drive. If you are installing an older version of Windows, you will need the original disc (and possibly an external CD or DVD recorder, if your newer laptop does not have a disc drive). Alternatively, you can create a bootable USB device with a Windows ISO.
You also need the Windows Product Key for which version you chose – this is the 25-digit code that came with your Windows retail box or Microsoft purchase receipt. It can also be located anywhere in your computer case.
A note on Windows 7
While it may be beginning to show its age, Windows 7 is still temporarily useful among power users who want to replicate or fix old software, or people who are just stuck in their ways. Windows 7 cannot upgrade, install, or maintain files when installed in a system that is already running Windows 10, so a new installation is the only way to achieve such a goal.
Our Windows 7 Installation Guide has all the links, detailed instructions, and some warnings on using older operating systems that can help you troubleshoot esoteric problems. The process of Windows 8 is much simpler.
Return to Windows 8.1
When you are sure to back up your files and programs, remove all other external storage devices, cards or disks and insert the Windows installation disc or run. Restart the computer and restart it from that device.
This usually requires either entering a keyboard command to open the start menu, or entering the BIOS (or UEFI on newer laptops and tablets) and manually selecting the device. Select your CD or DVD drive for discs. For thumb drives, select "USB" or "USB HDD."
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The Windows installation process will then begin. For Windows 8.1, on the first screen, let you select the language, location, and keyboard location. Click "Next" and then "Install Now." Wait until the installation process is initiated.
Click "I accept the license terms" and then "Next" on the license screen. The next screen has two options, "Upgrade" and "Custom." Select Custom – Windows 8.1 installation system cannot upgrade from a newer version of Windows to an older one.
On this screen, you must select the installer or partition. If your computer has only one hard drive or SSD, this is the largest partition available. You have two options here: Click on the drive and then click "next" to preserve old Windows files in a folder in the new installation. This is useful as a secondary backup method, but it will not retain installed programs, and there may be compatibility issues or privileges with access to old files. Generally, it is better to start fresh by formatting the installer: Do this by clicking "Format" and then "OK." Wait for the primary device to be formatted, then click "Next."
On the next screen, the installer will copy the Windows files from the installation media to your computer and start installing the operating system itself. This process can take quite a long time, so if you have something else to do for thirty minutes to an hour, it is good to leave your computer alone, as long as it is connected or has a lot of battery capacity left. Keep an eye on the screen and return when the process is complete. Your computer can restart on your own.
After a few minutes, you should see Windows 8.1 start its first boot process. Here you select some settings and personal touches. Just follow the on-screen instructions and enter your username and password when prompted. Click "Finish."
Only for Windows 8.1 and 7 free upgrades
If you have used Microsoft's free upgrade from Windows 8.1 or 7 to Windows 10, you can use a more automated process to downgrade the software from Windows itself. Although this process is simpler than above, as it will preserve some of your files, it is always a good idea to back up your personal information in case something goes wrong. It's an appealing option, but there are some caveats.
The process used to work up to 30 days after the upgrade, but ever since the Windows 10 anniversary update, which has been reduced to just ten days after the update. Some claim to have methods for extending it, but we would not trust it.
Regardless, after the allotted time, the operating system will delete the previous OS files to allow space on the hard disk. If you have run Windows 10 Disk Cleanup, the files may have been deleted prematurely, but only if you ran it manually.
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This process also does not let you scroll back to Windows 8, only Windows 8.1. Part of the Windows 10 upgrade process involves moving to 8.1, so it's technically the latest OS installed on the system. If you want Windows 8 to be correct, you must use the instructions above, and even then, only if you have the original installation media and turn off updates.
Go to the Windows 10 main menu, click "Reset", then click "Return to Windows 8.1." or "Return to Windows 7" and follow the on-screen instructions.
The system will start the process by asking why you are rolling back to an earlier version. All answers will do, Microsoft is just looking for more information and it does not affect the installation itself. Then it will let you know that your files are still there, but you will need to reinstall applications and all settings will be lost. You may also need your old password if it has changed since you updated to Windows 10.
When you are ready, click "Go Back to Previous Windows" and wait for the system to start rolling back. This process will take quite a long time, and the system often restarts while it works.
This option is only available in the first month after the upgrade and is not compatible with earlier versions of Windows (including the original Windows 8.) Microsoft's process will preserve your local files, but not settings or third-party programs.
Updated 12/14/2017 by Jon Martindale – Updated layout and links and clarified 10-day replay window.