Whether you’re installing the latest version of Windows or upgrading your Linux distribution, most geeks agree that you should probably perform a clean installation rather than try your luck with an upgrade.

New operating systems versions want to reduce the pain of upgrading and offer to bring your old files, settings, and programs along with you through an upgrade, but this can often cause problems.

Upgrade vs. Clean Installs on Windows

To a less-experienced user, an upgrade seems like the best type of install. If you want to install Windows 8 on a PC with Windows 7 already on it, you can perform an upgrade installation to bring many of your programs, settings, and files with you rather than reinstalling your programs, changing your computer settings, and copying over your files when you’re done.

In theory, an upgrade will save you time because you can skip much of the set-up work afterwards. In practice, upgrades have often caused problems. When you perform a clean installation, you get a fresh copy of Windows without any clutter. When you upgrade, Windows must attempt to bring your programs and settings with you. You won’t end up with a clean copy of Windows – you’ll end up with the latest version of Windows with your old programs and settings copied over.  Files you haven’t used in years, registry entries created by long since-uninstalled programs, and other junk will remain on your fresh copy of Windows. Some applications may not be compatible and may be uninstalled during the upgrade process or may not work afterwards – you’ll have to reinstall some things anyway.

Some benchmarks have found that upgrade installs perform more slowly than clean installs, which isn’t surprising. An upgrade install might have old bloatware and startup programs running in the background.

We don’t encourage running a registry cleaner and smart users shouldn’t have to reinstall Windows on a regular basis. However, when you’re switching to a new operating system, it’s the ideal time to start things out on the right foot with a fresh operating system.

How to Clean Install Windows

To perform a clean installation of Windows, don’t select the Upgrade option when installing Windows. Select the Custom: Install Windows only (advanced) option and select the hard drive you want to install Windows on. You can even perform a clean install with an Upgrade license. The Upgrade license just requires that your computer must already have a valid license for a previous version of Windows; it doesn’t require that you perform an Upgrade installation.

Be sure that you have backup copies of all your important files before performing a clean installation, as a clean install will wipe your system partition.

Linux-Specific Problems

Clean installs are also useful on Linux distributions. We’ll refer to Ubuntu in particular here, as it’s the most popular distribution, but much of this also applies to other distributions, such as Fedora.

Mark Shuttleworth, who created Ubuntu, recently wrote that “Upgrading today is possible, but to keep the system clean over multiple successive upgrades requires an uncommonly high level of skill with APT.”

In other words, problems can also occur when you upgrade your Linux distribution. A new version of Ubuntu may have dropped a particular package from the default system because it offers duplicate functionality, but such packages will not necessarily be removed from your system during an upgrade. If you have packages from third-party repositories installed, they may prevent you from upgrading. Various package dependency problems can occur and old configuration settings may not be overwritten properly with new default settings if you’ve customized them.

Just as old files, settings, and programs can persist on a Windows machine, the same thing can happen when you upgrade your Linux distribution.

There’s no doubt that Ubuntu’s upgrade process works much better than the upgrade process offered by many older Linux distributions, but it’s nowhere near perfect, as Mark Shuttleworth himself says.

How to Clean Install a Linux Distribution

When you see an upgrade notification, you don’t have to upgrade to the latest version of Ubuntu with the built-in too. You can download the Ubuntu installer from Ubuntu’s website and burn it to a disc (or put it on a USB drive) before installing the new version of Ubuntu over your previous version of Ubuntu.

As with Windows, you should ensure you have backup copies of your important files before installing the new Linux distribution over the previous Linux distribution.

The Previous Version Rule

Note that you can generally only upgrade from the previous version of an operating system. For example, you can upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7, but not from Windows XP. Likewise, you can upgrade to Ubuntu 12.10 from Ubuntu 12.04, but not Ubuntu 11.10 – although you could upgrade 11.10 to 12.04 and then upgrade it to 12.10, if you felt like living dangerously.

Upgrading is tempting, and upgrade installs are becoming more reliable with each new operating system version release. However, clean installs are still the way to go if you want a fresh system without clutter from previous versions of your operating system. A new operating system release is a good excuse to start fresh with a clean OS, anyway.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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