How to fix Windows 10 with an in-place upgrade install

Reinstalling Windows 10 over itself is an easy and surprisingly effective way to fix all kinds of problems with the OS. Here’s how to do it.

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Sometimes, a Windows installation simply goes off the rails. Menus don’t open properly, icons start moving around the desktop, File Explorer acts up, and so forth and so on. Enough things can go wrong, or turn strange, that it’s important to understand various basic Windows repair strategies.

Over the past few years, one of the chief strategies in my repair arsenal for Windows 10 has become what’s sometimes called an “in-place upgrade install” or an “upgrade repair install.” Before going into the details of how to perform such a maneuver, let’s start with a definition and some explanation.

What is an in-place upgrade install?

An in-place upgrade install involves using the Windows OS installer to replace all the operating system files for Windows 10 on a PC. Basically, you’re using the setup.exe program to reinstall the same OS back over itself. This leaves user files entirely alone, retains many settings and preferences and, best of all, leaves already-installed apps and applications unchanged. It does, however, overwrite operating system files more or less completely. And in so doing, it often repairs a balky or misbehaving OS and returns it to normal, working condition.

Most of the time, it takes less than 15 minutes to perform an in-place upgrade install. This maneuver doesn’t require much post-installation cleanup, tweaking or follow-up activity, either.

Sounds too good to be true: What’s the catch?

Indeed, an in-place upgrade install can provide a quick and effective fix for many, many Windows problems and issues. I use this technique regularly myself, particularly when I notice that a system is starting to misbehave yet proves resistant to basic repair techniques, such as running the system file checker (SFC) or using the deployment image servicing and management (DISM) image cleanup capabilities. But an in-place upgrade install is not a universal panacea, and it doesn’t work to cure all Windows ills, either.

Here are some key limitations related to the suitability of an in-place upgrade install for any particular Windows installation:

  • You must be logged into an administrative account to perform an in-place upgrade install.
  • Windows 10 must be running (and able to keep running) so that you can run the setup.exe installer from inside Windows 10 itself. You cannot run an in-place upgrade install using a bootable Windows installer or when Windows is booted into Safe Mode.
  • You will need at least 9GB plus whatever disk space Windows is using on the drive where it’s running to perform an in-place upgrade install. That’s because the installer renames the running version to Windows.old and lays down a whole new Windows folder for the upgrade it copies to disk. The extra ~9GB or so is needed for work space during the install process.
  • The Windows installer you use must be the same edition (Home, Pro, Education or Enterprise), the same language (for example, en-US for United States English, en-GB for Great Britain English), the same “bittedness” (32- or 64-bit), and the same build (or newer) as the Windows image it will upgrade and repair.
  • If Windows runs on a drive that’s encrypted, you’ll need to suspend or turn off encryption before performing the in-place upgrade install. After the install completes, you can turn it back on again.
  • If the target PC runs UEFI (the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), turn off secure boot before starting the in-place upgrade install. Again, you can turn it back on after it’s done.

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