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Often when trying to fix someone else's computer - especially consumer machines - the operating system will need to be reinstalled, but the owner will have lost or never created the installation or recovery media.

How can the system be legally restored to the original functionality?

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migrated from Oct 27 '10 at 22:41

This question came from our site for system and network administrators.

I think this needs to be on and voted to move it, but I will say that the media isn't important, the licence is. It's easier/cheaper to legally obtain new media than it is a new licence. You might think I'm splitting hairs but this is fundemental to solving your problem. – RobM Oct 27 '10 at 22:09
Surely if the machine has a license sticker on it, it's legal to reinstall that version from your own media? – pjc50 Nov 12 '10 at 11:11
Yes, but consumer machines often have special media. Often the license number on the sticker will not activate generic Windows media. Also, any pre-installed software that might have been on the machine will be lost. – Andrew Feb 14 '11 at 16:21
The 'legally' is a tricky criterium. Without it, your problem would be solved trivially, but laws, agreements and situations can vary so greatly, a concise and conclusive answer is well beyond what one can reasonably expect in a few paragraphs. – Marcks Thomas Sep 21 '12 at 21:44
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I keep Dell install disc for XP with sp3 handy, it will install on any OEM PC without using a key, it will not activate however, when it fails to activate you will be able to change the key, punch in the key on the COA sticker that is on the PC, it should activate now. This is not an easy way, you still have to find all the drivers, and customers will complain all their OEM pre-installed software is missing.

It is the responsibility of the owner to keep up with discs and keys, not yours.

On many PCs like Dell, HP, Acer, there is a recovery partition on the hard drive that can reload the OS clean. Go to the manufacturers website for instructions.

Link for legal downloads of Windows 7 ISO images of install discs: (I suggest you get copies of these for future use, you will still need a legal key to activate the software.)

For Windows Vista, here is a link to a Dell community web page that describes the process to download and recreate Windows Vista (with SP1) bootable DVDs.

If you have activation problems with legitimate keys, here are the toll free Microsoft activation hotline numbers for the USA:

  • Windows XP: 1(888)571-2048
  • Windows Vista: 1(866)740-1256
  • Windows 7: 1(888)725-1047
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don't forget that you can use something like Jelly Bean or Belarc Advisor to find the OS Key, for reinstalling (if possible). +1 when I get more votes. – studiohack Jan 19 '11 at 16:45
Just so others know, the key "keyfinders" will find is the OEM VLK key, which is different than the OEM single license key found on the COA sticker. This is a great idea for home built PCs and OEM, never hurts to do this. – Moab Jan 19 '11 at 16:50
Here's a link to a Dell webpage containing download links and instructions for creating Windows Vista (with SP1) bootable DVDs. – HeatfanJohn Sep 21 '12 at 20:27

you can try contacting the manufacturer, sometimes they ask for a small fee to send a set of recovery dvds, some even do it for free. I guess it depends how old the computer in question is

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This is the most straightforward idea, but it has the disadvantage of being slow. Most manufacturers won't provide an image, but mail a disc. – Andrew Oct 28 '10 at 2:48

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