Windows 10 has been a critical success since its release, but if you need (or simply want) to install an older version of Windows, it’s a surprisingly straightforward process. Unfortunately there’s no automatic system for older versions — you’ll have to back up your files, track down some installation media, and find your software key to get back to your “old” computer.
Though the guide below is written with Windows 8 in mind, the basic steps work for any Windows operating system going as far back as Windows XP. However, be aware that new computers, particularly tablets, may contain components that weren’t manufactured when older Windows versions like Windows 7 and Windows Vista were being sold. That being the case, the manufacturer of your computer and/or the OEM supplier that created the parts may not have working drivers available for the older version of Windows.
What you’ll need
Before beginning anything else, back up your important computer files to a separate location. An external drive or a cloud storage service is fine, so long as it’s physically disconnected from the Windows computer you’ll be working on. Unfortunately Windows can’t preserve programs or settings when flashing to an older version (only a newer one), so you’ll also want to get installation media for any crucial programs, especially those that require serial numbers.
It’s also a good idea to download drivers for your computer’s various components before you begin the installation process. This will make it easier to get everything up and running if Windows doesn’t automatically select the appropriate drivers. Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and graphics drivers in particular can make the setup process much easier. Store these drivers on a USB thumb drive for easy access once Windows is finished installing.
Next, get installation media for Windows itself. For Windows 8, Microsoft provides a download service that allows you to send the installation files to a new DVD, or even use a flash drive. If you’re installing an older version of Windows you’ll need the original disc (and possibly an external CD or DVD burner, if your newer laptop doesn’t have a disc drive). Alternatively, you can create a bootable USB drive with a Windows .ISO.
You’ll also need the Windows product key for that version — this is the 25-digit code that came with your Windows retail box, purchase receipt from Microsoft, or is located somewhere on your computer’s case.
Setup (Windows 8)
Once you’ve finished backing up your files and programs, remove all other external storage drives, cards, or discs, and insert the Windows installation disc or drive. Restart your computer and boot it from that drive. This usually requires either entering a keyboard command to open the boot menu, or entering the BIOS (or UEFI on newer laptops and tablets) and manually selecting the drive. For discs, select your CD or DVD drive. For thumb drives, select “USB” or “USB-HDD.”
The Windows setup process will begin. For Windows 8, the first screen lets you select your language, location, and keyboard localization. Click “Next,” then “Install now.” Wait for the setup process to initiate.
Click “I accept the license terms,” then “Next” on the license screen. The next screen has two options, “Upgrade” and “Custom.” Click on “Custom” – the Windows 8 installation system cannot upgrade from a newer version of Windows to an older one.
On this screen you’ll have to select the installation drive or partition. If your computer has only one hard drive or SSD, then this is the largest partition available. You have two options here: click 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 preserve installed programs, and there may be compatibility or permission issues with accessing the old files. Generally it’s better to start fresh by formatting the install drive: do this by clicking “Format,” then “OK.” Wait for the primary drive to be formatted, then click “Next.”
On the next screen the setup program will copy the Windows files from your installation media to your computer and begin installing the operating system itself. This may take quite some time, so if you’ve got something else to do for thirty minutes to an hour, it’s fine to leave your computer alone (so long as it’s plugged in or has plenty of battery power left). Keep an eye on the screen and return when the process is finished. Your computer may restart on its own.
After at least twenty minutes you should see Windows 8 begin its first bootup process. Here you’ll select a few settings and personal touches. Just follow the on-screen instructions, entering your username and password where prompted. Click “Finish.”
Now you should be running Windows 8, fresh and clean. If any of your computer’s components aren’t working, use the drivers that you downloaded during the setup section of this guide. Install the Ethernet or Wi-Fi driver, and you can use an Internet connection to get everything else you’ll need. Move any backup files back onto your computer and reinstall any necessary software from the Internet or the original media.
Once you’ve got your files and programs set up, use Windows update to download any necessary updates to Windows or your device drivers.
For Windows 8.1 upgrades only
If you’ve utilized Microsoft’s free upgrade from Windows 8.1 to Windows 10, you can use a more automated process to downgrade your software from Windows itself. Go to the main Settings menu in Windows 10, click “Recovery,” then click “Go back to Windows 8.1.” Follow the on-screen instructions.
This option is only available for the first month after upgrading, and isn’t compatible with previous versions of Windows (even the original Windows 8.) Microsoft’s process will preserve your local files, but not settings or third-party programs.