(Note: This article first appeared in the BCAB Newsletter, January 2018)
For many years now, it has been possible to upgrade from one version of the Windows operating system to another by doing an upgrade installation using speech. However, it was not possible to do a completely clean installation of Windows, that is, to do a brand new installation on a blank hard drive, without sighted assistance. Since March 2017 and the so called “Creator’s Update,” however, that has now changed. Since this version of the operating system, Microsoft has included audio support and installed a copy of Narrator in the recovery environment (called the WinRE), that now allows a blind person to do a clean install of Windows 10 unaided. This article will walk you through the steps required to do such an installation on a PC. The steps for a Mac using BootCamp are somewhat different and are not covered in this article.
Backup, Backup, Backup!
Before making any changes to your system, ensure you have a working backup of any important files or documents. This is a destructive process which cannot be undone. If you have the option to create recovery media, then I highly recommend you run this option as well and create a USB drive containing the original factory setup from the manufacturer. The restoration process from the recovery media will most likely not be accessible, but it is there if you need to go back to the original software at any point. You do this at your own risk: BCAB cannot be held responsible for any data loss following this article.
Although I am describing the steps required at this time (January 2018), these steps will change without warning as Microsoft upgrades Windows 10 with new versions. Windows 10 is an evolving operating system which has several major releases throughout the year, and it is only possible to download the latest version in most cases.
Getting The BIOS Out Of The Way
The BIOS (basic input output system) is a piece of software held in ROM (Read Only Memory) that your computer runs when it first switches on. It is responsible for very low-level functions such as how the system boots, and what hardware is available to the computer. The BIOS outputs some information to the screen, in most cases these days it is just a manufacturer logo, but it is possible to access other functions of the system which give further information. As this is a very low-level system, however, there is no speech output available. This is common across all computer platforms whether Mac or Windows.
This poses an issue because, in most cases, you need to access the BIOS to boot from a USB pen drive or DVD to install Windows. There are a few ways round this, however, the main one is to boot the computer with a completely empty hard drive, and the installation media plugged in either with a DVD or a USB pen drive. This will force the BIOS to boot from the install media. It is also possible to force the BIOS to boot into a menu where you can choose to boot from a specific boot media, by pressing a specific key on the keyboard. For example, on most Dell systems, pressing F12 will allow you to choose a boot device. If you get sighted help to learn the layout of this menu, it isn’t hard to navigate and typically stays the same if you need to do the process again. Unfortunately, as of now there is no other way around this inaccessible step.
Getting The Media
I mentioned boot or install media in the last section. Of course, if you are doing a clean install of Windows 10, you are going to need to install it from some media. This can either be a DVD or, more typically these days, a USB bootable pen drive. It is possible to create installation media for Windows 10 by downloading it from the Microsoft website. From a machine running any version of Windows, head over to: https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/software-download/windows10
Then download the Windows Media Creation Tool. This is a small tool which, when run, will give you the option of creating Windows 10 installation media either on a DVD or USB pen drive. I highly recommend you create media from the USB pen drive, and you will need an 8GB drive available. The software will also ask what language you wish to create installation media for. If you choose United Kingdom at this point, it will create a UK localised version of the install media with the UK speech synthesisers and languages already installed. If you choose the US version, or just English, it will create media with US English speech.
This is an optional step, but I also recommend creating a USB stick with your screenreader and other software ready to install. Download links for this are out of scope for the article, but the latest versions should be readily available on the Internet. My installation USB disk usually contains such programs as JFW, NVDA, appropriate versions of Firefox and the Office installation package.
Once the media has been downloaded, it is now possible to boot from the media to start the setup process. I highly recommend removing any peripheral devices from the system before starting this process except for the keyboard, mouse, monitor and the installation drive. If you use Ethernet to connect to the Internet, you can leave that connection in place. It is important to remove any external hard drives, as these could unintentionally be overwritten during the setup process. Once you have got the media and can boot from it, you will land in the Windows setup language chooser screen. There is no sound to alert you when you reach this state, so you will just need to start Narrator by pressing Control, Windows and enter keys. If your system sound is detected by the setup program, then Narrator will start speaking. However, if Narrator doesn’t speak, it may be that your sound card is not supported. I have seen this happen with a machine with an expensive SoundBlaster card, and on a Mac. If this happens, it is possible to plug in a cheap pair of USB headphones or a USB soundcard, and this usually sorts the problem out. However, if you are still unable to get sound at this point, I would recommend getting sighted help, so you can debug the issue before going further.
The language chooser screen allows you to choose the language used for setup. If you used the Media Creation tool, it is likely nothing needs to be changed at this point.
Starting the Setup Program
Once you choose your language, you need to tab to the Next button. Once done, you are landed on a page where you can either troubleshoot Windows, or choose the install button to start the setup program. At this point, standard Windows navigation keys will work just fine. It is also possible to plug in a Braille display and see Braille feedback if Narrator supports the display. I am just going to cover the setup program in this article. Once you start the setup program, you will need to wait a moment and then the software license agreement appears. There is a checkbox to agree to the license, and then a Next button.
Entering the Windows Key
Depending on how you obtained your copy of Windows, you may be asked for a Windows key. If you upgraded from Windows 7 or 8, you don’t need to enter a key at this point as your system is already licensed for Windows, and it will activate with a digital license when it connects to the Internet. In some cases, you will not be asked for a key at all if your system was shipped with Windows 8 or newer, because the key is burned into the ROM of the system BIOS. However, if you purchased Windows 10 as a new version from the Windows Store, then you will need to enter the product key at this stage. Once entered, there is a Next button to take you to the next step. If you are getting this screen but don’t need to enter a key as discussed, then use the option to skip the entry of the product key.
Choosing the Installation Type
On the following screen, it is possible to decide to install Windows by doing an upgrade installation or a custom clean installation. At this point, if you choose to do an upgrade installation, you will reach a screen which asks you to reboot the computer to complete the installation from Windows, so the only option that really works at this stage is to do a custom clean installation. Use the arrow keys to choose the option you want, then use the Next button to continue.
Partitioning Your Hard Drive
Windows now needs to know where to install to, and you need to select a disk or partition to do this. I could write an article on the different options available to partition your drive, but it is beyond the scope of this piece. The screen which now appears is a table listing all your partitions, and you can navigate this by using the arrow keys. If you tab, you will see the Next button which is how you tell Windows to move on once selecting a disk or partition. There is also an option to show advanced options, where you can create, delete or format partitions. To keep this simple, we will look at the scenarios required to completely wipe all partitions from the system and do a clean installation. To do this, navigate to each partition in turn, and choose the delete option, once you do this, you will be asked for confirmation since this is a destructive process. Once this is done, where the partition was before, you will see a table entry for free space. You probably have two or three partitions on the system, continue to do this until eventually the table will collapse into 1 row giving you disk 0 with free space occupying the total size of the disk. It is for this reason I recommend not having other USB disks plugged into the system as these show up as additional drives which you can manipulate the partitions on as well. Once you are in this state where you have the whole disk with free space, you can click Next to continue installation and a default partition layout will be created for you automatically and the Windows installation is then started.
During the installation phase, the Windows files are copied to your hard drive. You get sporadic speech feedback during this phase and can’t really manipulate this, but it is enough to get you going. Once the Windows files are copied, the system will let you know that a reboot will happen in a few seconds. At this point, I recommend removing the Windows installation media from the DVD or USB drive since it won’t be required again, and can sometimes cause the wrong drive letter to be assigned to USB devices later. The system should then boot automatically, and the initial Windows customisation process will start. At this point, it may reboot the computer several times whilst preparing hardware. Once done, you will be at the welcome screen ready for you to configure Windows for the first time. Usually during this point, Cortana will start talking to you. It is possible to follow some of the setup process by speaking to Cortana, however, this isn’t completely accessible without sight, so I recommend at this point starting Narrator by pressing Control, Windows and enter.
The Out-Of-The-Box Experience
The Windows setup at this point is called the Out-Of-The-Box Experience or OOBE. The steps required are simple and self-explanatory. You need to choose the Windows language and keyboard language which are usually pre-set. If you don’t connect via Ethernet, then you will be asked for wireless details. You will then be asked to sign into Windows with your Microsoft account, and updates are downloaded if available. You can choose the options by using standard Windows navigation keys. Sometimes, Cortana gets in the way of this process, especially if using a laptop with a microphone. I haven’t found an easy way using a screenreader of shutting Cortana up, which is a shame as this is now the default experience anyone switching on a Windows computer for the first time will get.
Depending on the updates which are downloaded, and the time taken to complete this experience, the system may have to reboot, or it may put you at the Windows desktop ready to continue. If it puts you at the Windows desktop, you should know that as soon as you connect to a network that Windows will attempt to download the latest drivers required for your hardware. This can sometimes take several minutes, and if you listen carefully when at the desktop or if you are slow to go through the setup screens, that you hear a sound from the computer as if someone has plugged in a USB stick. This is nothing to worry about, as it is hardware being installed and set up. The most common hardware that takes a long time to download is the driver for the graphics card which is responsible for the output of the computer to the monitor. I highly recommend waiting if you get to the Windows desktop and haven’t heard this sound for a few minutes before installing any screenreader, to allow time for the graphics card drivers etc to be installed. You should also note that if the system does reboot, then you may need to start Narrator again.
Finishing Up – Installing Software
Once you are ready to continue, its time to personalise your system by installing software such as screenreaders etc. I typically install the screenreader from a USB stick, and navigate to the installation file on the stick using Narrator. Once the screenreader speaks, it is possible to use the alt and tab keys to move to the Narrator window where it can be shut off, allowing your screenreader installation process to take over.
Once you have your screenreader installed, you can then install your other software either via USB stick or alternative method. There are several methods to choose from: I have a script that installs the software I need automatically from a Network Attached Drive (NAS), and there is a service called Ninite from www.ninite.com, with a version tailored to accessible software, (though I noticed it doesn’t give you the option to install the ESR version of Firefox which is currently required by most screenreaders) at www.ninite.com/accessible. This service allows you to choose the software you want to install, and a single executable file which is downloaded will take care of the installation of all the software automatically. You can, for example, go to this page before you do the clean install to download the executable, then run it once you have your new Windows ready.
Although not for everyone, I hope I have demonstrated in this article that it is perfectly possible for any blind user with no other specialist equipment to take a computer and install Windows on it themselves. This is a major step in allowing blind people to be more self-sufficient, and allows future employment for blind technicians etc. I am really impressed with the ease and speed that it is now possible to come up with a new installation of Windows. I would be interested to hear from anyone who successfully managed to do a clean installation of Windows after following this article!