While helping a Tallan client configure Windows Autopilot for laptop distribution for its user base, I encountered a strange issue with a Dell laptop I had been using as a test device. I noticed that whenever I reset the computer back to “factory settings” using SupportAssist OS Recovery, the first screen that would appear after the device had been rebooted was the screen that prompted the user to select a wireless network.
Having performed a similar procedure on a non-Dell laptop, I was aware that the first screen I should have seen after the reboot was the screen that prompts the user to select a language or region.
The result is a near-zero-touch deployment of Windows 10 or 11 to the device, where all apps and settings are properly set according to organizational policies and standards.
I also noticed that the ability to enter the Autopilot pre-provisioning mode (aka OOBE) by pressing the Windows key five times was no longer available on the Dell laptop. Yet, I could still use it on the non-Dell laptop. After checking and rechecking the configuration settings within the Endpoint Manager portal, I was left to conclude that something was happening with the Dell laptop, causing this phenomenon.
What Is Autopilot Pre-provisioning?
Windows Autopilot is a suite of technologies and configuration settings bundled within the Microsoft Endpoint Manager portal. It allows you to pre-configure new devices before deploying them to your production environment. Autopilot pre-provisioning is the process of pre-installing and pre-configuring most of the apps and settings on an Autopilot-controlled device to simplify the end-user experience even further. The result is a near-zero-touch deployment of Windows 10 or 11 to the device, where all apps and settings are properly set according to organizational policies and standards.
Using Autopilot pre-provisioning is a great way to provide your end users with a simplified setup process whenever they receive a new Windows-based device. The experience can be customized based on the user’s group membership – Sales users can receive a specific set of apps and policies, while Developers can receive an entirely different set. With a few clicks of the mouse, the user can quickly configure their device and start working immediately.
A Little Too Much Convenience…
After speaking with Dell support about the issue, I discovered that the behavior I witnessed for this particular laptop was actually by design. Dell does offer the ability to purchase computers that come pre-configured to use Autopilot with your Intune tenant. This is part of the overarching goal of delivering devices to your users with little to no intervention from your IT team. Part of this effort includes the pre-configuration of some of the Windows setup screens, which helps reduce the amount of time that the user must spend setting up their own device. The problem is, we want that first screen that asks us for the region, language, or keyboard setting because it is on that screen where the Windows setup process is actively checking for the key sequence that will trigger the pre-provisioning process. Once you go past that screen in the setup, pressing the Windows key five times will not be recognized by it, and you won’t be able to enter the pre-provisioning process.
Windows Autopilot is a suite of technologies and configuration settings bundled within the Microsoft Endpoint Manager portal. It allows you to pre-configure new devices before deploying them to your production environment.
In my case, the Dell laptop I had been using as a test device was also pre-configured when it was originally ordered from Dell so that the language, keyboard, and region options would already be configured whenever the laptop was restored to factory settings. This happened whenever I attempted to use the SupportAssist OS Recovery tool. If you’re unfamiliar with this tool, it is used on Dell computers to reset or restore the computer to a known good state through various options. Because I always wanted to restore the laptop to factory settings, the tool would contact Dell’s website, determine the correct disk image to download based on the laptop’s service tag and restore that image to the laptop’s OS drive. Since this image was already pre-configured with the language, keyboard, and region options, it would always result in the pre-provisioning process beginning at the “Let’s connect you to a network” screen.
Now, I could have opted to perform a reset on the Windows OS, either through the SupportAssist OS Recovery tool or through the Endpoint Manager portal. I could have also chosen to install a generic Windows 10 OS image onto the device. Any of these options could have reset the laptop back to a “clean” state, that might have allowed me to continue with my testing. Being a software QA guy, though, I wanted to have that peace of mind in knowing that the laptop had been fully restored to a “fresh from the factory” state, complete with the drivers, firmware, and software intended for my test laptop. I also wanted to avoid any possible leftover artifacts or remnants that a reset might have left behind that could negatively impact my testing.
Sysprep to the Rescue!
Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to get around this issue – our old friend, the System Preparation tool for Windows (better known as Sysprep). Note that while this article focuses exclusively on Dell devices, I suspect that the following solution could also work on any Windows 10 computer where the language/region/keyboard settings have been pre-filled, causing the setup process to start at the “Let’s connect you to a network” screen.
After powering on the computer and arriving at the “Let’s connect you to a network” setup screen, press Shift+F10 to open a command prompt.
The command prompt should open up at the C:\Windows\System32 folder. Switch to the Sysprep folder by typing “cd sysprep” at the prompt and pressing the Enter key.
Next, type “sysprep -oobe -reboot” at the prompt and press the Enter key.
This command will effectively reset the OOBE pre-provisioning process and cause the computer to reboot when the command completes. Because we’re not passing an answer file with this command, it will have the effect of clearing out the previously stored settings for the language, keyboard, and region.
Once the computer has rebooted and completed the Sysprep processing, it will eventually restart the Windows setup process, only this time, the first screen you’ll probably see will prompt you for the language, keyboard, or region.
Now, you should be able to press the Windows key five times and initiate the pre-provisioning process.
There are multiple ways to reset a device back to a “clean” state, where the Windows installation is refreshed so you can perform the configuration steps as if the device were brand new. However, suppose you really want that “fresh out of the box” experience that comes with purchasing a device from a major vendor such as Dell. In that case, you’ll want to use the vendor-prescribed method of restoring the device to factory settings. In some cases, that restoration method may not allow you to use Autopilot pre-provisioning simply because some setup screens have already been pre-configured for you. Using Sysprep, as outlined above, can help you undo that pre-configuration and allow you to enter the Autopilot pre-provisioning screen.
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