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Installing or Rebuilding
Windows XP Systems

Introduction and scope: Nobody looks forwards to having to Reinstall or Rebuild an Operating system, especially Windows, but with sufficient preparation it is not as bad as it might seem. In fact there are some advantages to periodically reinstalling most versions of Windows as they get clogged up with old software which has not been fully un installed and other dross which slows them down.

In the early days I "practiced" reinstalling and rebuilding my Windows 95 and 98 systems using a spare drive so I knew that the method was robust and that all the backup procedures work. These early examples of are covered at length in one of my 'legacy pages' - Installing or Rebuilding Windows 9x Systems. Both use of an additional drive and of partitioning the existing drive is covered in this article.

Firstly a few caveats: I have tried to put all the information in a logical order but one should read this article from end to end, preferably more than once if this is the first time you are reloading a system - all the implications will not be apparent the first time. If you are an old experienced hand then I welome any comments, corrections or suggestions - I am aware that my more popular pages have many thousands of visitors a year and I want to do the best job possible. I however have to state that I can not take any responsibility if things do not work out as you expect. You must be aware that you will lose all the data and configuration you have not backed up to a CD or other independent back-up device and if any CDs and/or associated software keys have been lost you may not be able to get back to a fully functioning machine.

Differences in installing between Windows 9x and XP: There are a number of differences when one comes to install or reinstall Windows XP. In the case of all Windows versions prior to XP then one started with a Floppy Boot disk which gives one a very basic DOS system as the first stage in 'Bootstrapping' to a full operating system. The standard use of a bootable floppy disk largely removed the need to understanding or making any changes in the BIOS (Basic Input Output System, often also know as the CMOS. This is a small program in permanent memory on the motherboard which allows some very basic operations and the initial 'intelligence' to allow the machine to recognise and read from floppy and hard disks as the first stage in 'bootstrapping or loading the main operating system. In the case of Windows XP the initial loading of the operating system has to from a 'bootable' CD not a floppy. A machine designed or set up by the manufacturer for Windows XP alone may be set up to do this automatically and may not even have a floppy drive, older machines will not check automatically for bootable CDs

Temporary BIOS (Basic Input Output System) changes required to install Windows XP: A temporary change in the BIOS may be required to allow the machine to boot from a CD in preference to from a floppy or hard disk. Most BIOSs allow you to select the boot order which is normally Floppy then Hard drive whilst you need to set it to first check the CD. Normally you will see little evidence of the BIOS except when the machine first starts when you may see a few lines of text as the BIOS does some checks on the machine and identifies hardware. To make changes you have to interupt the process at this time and you will often see a line which says something like DEL to enter BIOS. If you hit the DEL key at this point (or whatever key your particular BIOS uses) you will will enter the BIOS setup program - this is very basic and you will only be able to use the keyboard to navigate the screen(s) and the keys available will normally be shown at the bottom of the screen.

If you have a manual (hardware or on CD) it will tell you the magic proceedure to get into the BIOS and describe the various screens (pages)and the defaults for the values that are set. A modern BIOS may have a dozen screens so you will probably not want to note down all the settings and there is usually a way of getting a basic safe configuration and the normal default which offers higher performance. At this time all you want to do is to find where the Booting order is set so you can change it to boot first from a CD rather than from a Floppy disk and how to save the change and exit (often the Esc key is used to exit and ask whether you wish to save changes). Some BIOSs offer an option to change the boot order once by using another key to DEL which is safer but is dependent on one not missing the very narrow period of time so I favour making the change in the BIOS if one is going to need to boot from the CD several times then changing back at the end.

Once you have found out how how to access the BIOS and to check or change the boot order, you have reached the point where one can start to reinstall an operating system on a completely empty machine - one where one has, for example, had to replace the hard drive or it is so flawed one wants to reformat the hard drive and start again. However before we leave the BIOS completely it is worth discussing hard drives.

A little about hard drives and BIOS settings: The only other useful BIOS screen is the one covering Disk and CD Drives but before you check or modify it one needs to know a little about how hard drives are connected physically. Hard disks and CD/DVD drives are usually connected to an EIDA interface in computers of the age we are talking about here. There are almost always two EIDA connectors on the motherboard and each supports two drives, which can be hard drives or CD/DVD drives, and they share a common flat cable with two connectors crimped onto it - a link on the drive defines which drive it is. The link settings are Master or Slave (or sometimes cable select is used but it is safer to define explicitly).

The main Hard disk (ie the C: drive with the bootable operating system) with the will always be the Master on the Primary EIDA and the CD/DVDs will most likely be on the Secondary EIDA. The BIOS is capable of obtaining all the information needed about each drive and configures itself appropriately if the the identification is set to AUTO on the appropriate screen - the settings need to be set up for each of the 4 drives and if a drive is not present the setting will be probably set to Null or None so no time is wasted looking for a non existent drive - if you add a second hard drive (on the empty second connector on the Primary EIDA connector) you will need to change that to Auto. The same applies on the Secondary EIDA if you add a further CD or DVD drive. You should avoid making any other changes unless you understand exactly what you are doing as the machine may be unbootable and in some cases might even be damaged.

Adding a Extra Hard Drive: This is the time when one should consider adding another drive or partitioning the existing drive so one can separate the operating system from the data. Most machines are supplied with a single hard drive and without any [visible] partitioning. In most cases there is provision to add another drive with one or more locations in which to mount it and two cables are also normally present. The second hard drive is added to the Primary EIDA bus and the flat cable normally has two connectors on it - the drives have jumpers which enable on to select if the are the master (bootable) drive or the slave. Drives are now so cheap (typically £35.00 for 80 Gbyte and £55 for 160 Gbyte drives from a well know manufacturer such as Seagate) that it is prudent to add one when you rebuild the system. Above all you can just replace the drive and rebuild the system without losing any of you existing data and can plug the old drive back in if you have problems. Once everything is working you change the jumper on the old drive and connect it as the slave and can be used for data. I have added an extra drive to every one of my desktop machines which have had a physical location to mount one . The most difficult part is obtaining the special short mounting screws!

Partitioning Hard Drives: It is normally not possible to add an extra hard drive to a laptop and even opening them to replace a hard drive or use a extra one to 'practice' rebuilding is fraught with difficulties. It is however possible to Partition a hard drive so that it appears to the operating system as two or more separate drives. This is a very powerful technique and has most of the advantages of adding a drive in that you can separate you data and operating system/programs. In fact it is more powerful and I usually partition at least on drive on every one of my systems. Windows has no built in tools which allow you to Partition a drive without destroying the contents. In Windows 9x the floppy disks one creates to enable one to initially boot up the system in DOS had simple disk partitioning and formatting tools and one had to partition and format a new drive before doing anything else. In fact every drive is partitioned and when you just see a C: drive it is in a single active partition.

Disk partitioning Software: Windows XP also allows some flexibility when you install the operating system and will set up a new drive as a single partition and format it for you. The best way is however to buy Disk Partitioning Software such as Partition Magic which allows you to set up and change Partitions whilst running Windows and without losing data. The program is not cheap, in fact similar to the cost of a hard drive, but is well worthwhile if you have to reinstall software on a laptop for reasons which will become apparent. You do, however, need enough spare space on the hard disks to make partitioning worthwhile or even possible.

What should we be trying to achieve?: The discussions above are based to some extent on the premise that we have a flawed or slow system but one which is still working to some extent or that one is preparing for the future. I have only once had a hard drive fail suddenly and catastrophically and fortunately that was on a machine where all the data was on a second drive so nothing important was lost. I ordered a new drive which was delivered the following day and I was back to where I started another few hours later with only the loss of a few Internet favourites and histories of what I had been doing. Windows in normally fairly robust and even systems which have suffered power shutdowns during disk operations etc will often still operate to some extent. Having a partitioned drive or extra drive however increases the chances considerably that you will have preserved all your data other than open files especially if you have been backing up you data files on both drives.

Ideal Configurations - Laptop: One can rarely fit a second hard drive to a Laptop and the hard drives are normally comparatively small compared to a Desktop. It is still worth partitioning your drive if it is over 10 Gygabytes and you are running Windows 98 or 20 Gigabytes and you are running Windows XP. My Portege laptop running Widows XP has a partitioned 30 GByte drive with the C: drive 6.5 Gigabytes. The minimum practical size for a Windows XP service pack 2 system drive with a useful set of programs is 5.5 Gigabytes, any smaller and you will have insufficient workspace, I, for example, could not install the essential Windows XP upgrade called Service Pack 2 into a 4.5 Gbyte partition because there was insufficient workspace and there will be more updates for sure. If your drive is already fairly full it may not be possible to do the partitioning in one stage which increases the risks. Overall, partitioning on a laptop is best done before the machine gets more than half its disk capacity used or as part of a rebuilding exercise. Either way, back up everything important and make sure you have full batteries and preferably on mains power as it can take several hours.

Ideal Configurations - Desktop: The ideal configuration for a desktop is to have a second hard disk fitted. If the second drive is a large I also partition it into separate drives of about 32 Gigabytes for Data, Backups and Video - the first two are obvious, the Video drive is for Video editing and it is best to have a separate drive which can be defragmented before any heavy video editing to speed up disk access. In addition the master hard disk can also be partitioned to provide a drive for Backups so one can keep data copies on both drives.

Cautions about Partitioning: Now some cautions about adding drives and partitioning an existing system. Firstly you will be creating new drive letters - the CD drive(s) will change and the new drive letter assigned will follow all the other new drive letters and shortcuts etc to the CD drives(s) will need to be changed. The same will apply to other drive letters if you keep making changes so it is best to decide what you want and do it once. The good news is that the first visible partition on the second drive will always be D: whatever else you do and should therefore be your data partition when you add an extra drive. Partition Magic can automatically update links and registry entries and that is probably a good option the first time you make a change. The other caution is that partition operations take some time and are making major changes - power outages or computer hardware errors may make not be recoverable so make sure all important data is backed up. Laptops must be on mains power and a desktop should ideally be on an UPS.

Gathering Information before making changes or reloading: If you are going to rebuild a system you need to gather quite a lot of information - it is prudent to gather this even if you have no immediate plans just in case it all falls over. The two main classes of information come under the headings of Drivers and Configuration. In the case of configuration information it again divides into the operating system configuration and programs. Drivers are perhaps the biggest potential stumbling block in reloading a Windows System. Every piece of hardware, including some built onto the motherboard needs a driver which is the software which interfaces between that particular hardware and the operating system.

Plug and Play and automatic installation of drivers: These days many pieces of hardware are identified automatically when the operating system is installed and Windows XP has a huge set of available drivers which it will load automatically so you should end up with a basic usable system immediately. I have usually found XP has loaded drivers for the keyboard, mouse, hard drive, floppy disk, CD/DVD drive, network card, basic audio and a very basic video. Most hardware on internal plug-in cards is termed Plug and Play and here again it will sort out the most basic level of interface without one having to get into the BIOS and will either load its own drivers or ask you for a CD or floppy disk - if you have hardware which is not plug and play you will need knowledge beyond that I am planning to provide here. On earlier Windows versions Plug and Play did not always work well and was often refered to as Plug and Pray but most modern hardware gives no problems with XP.

What Drivers do you need to find? If your computer came from a mainstream supplier it should have come with a series of CDs containing the operating system (Windows XP), the software which was preloaded or for you to load and one or more CDs containing all the drivers. If you have added additional cards they should have come with a driver CD (or floppy) and likewise your external devices such as printer, scanner and other peripherals should have come with a CD. You need to find these CDs and keep them very safe. If your machine was built specially by a little shop down the road, came from a less reputable manufacturer, was second hand, has been modified or you have lost the CDs it is not impossible to find drivers but it can be difficult.

The Device Manager: Even if you have all the CDs etc safe, it is a good idea to find out what drivers are actually present and what are needed before you start taking the machine apart! Windows can provide you with all the information on the driver in use and the provider, version number etc. You get to the information by Start -> Control Panel -> Switch to Classic View (if you are not in it) -> System -> Hardware Tab -> Device Manager. You can get also to System quicker by a right click on the My Computer icon on the desktop if you have it and click Properties.

Once you are in the Device Manager you will find you have a long list of types of devices which can be expanded by clicking on the little + boxes. This lists every device of the type in use (you may need to plug in a USB device to get the information) and you can get details from Properties (right click menu), by double clicking or from the toolbar. Note down the exact name of the device from the general tab and then select the drivers tab and note the driver provider, date and version. if the provider is Microsoft it should be found automatically, if not you will need to load the driver from your CDs. If you do not have a CD then the exact name and driver provider should be enough for a Google search to find it on the Internet or from the manufacturers site. You can even look at a list of all the files used and there dates and version numbers which may help resolve any ambiguities.

Audit Tools: The above proceedure takes time and effort and is likely to be put off until a disaster occurs. There are tools available which can find, display and save/print all the information on the System Devices and configuration. I have always used a free one called AIDA32 (www.aida32.hu) but it is no longer seems to be available however a version of the same software called Everest Home Edition is available free from Lavalys. AIDA was superior as it also displayed a number of normally hidden pieces of information such a the CD unlock codes for the Windows software and some other software. Either will save you a lot of work and if you list and save everything (about a hundred pages so do not print indiscriminately) you will be in a strong position if you need to rebuild. I run one of them on every machine I work on and save the data to CD just in case I have to help with a disaster.

Sources of Drivers: The obvious first place to source a missing driver or find the latest update is the computer manufacturer or hardware manufacturers web sites. I use Dell and Toshiba machines where possible and both provide excellent support for both new machines and machines many years old including drivers for updating machines to new/different operating systems. Most motherboard manufacturers also have a lot of information and drivers available. If additional hardware has been installed the search may be more difficult as much hardware is generic or relabelled and you sometimes can not even find out the manufacturer or a source of drivers. There are some excellent web sites which provide drivers for all conceivable hardware - I tend to use Driver.Com which is free but does require a username and password to be registered and emailed to you. I have not been able to attribute any leakage of information and hence spam to providing them with an email address and they have solved many problems for me.

How many drivers are you likely to need? This is a difficult question to answer and varies greatly. My Toshiba Portege 3440CT came with Windows 98 SE but happily installed Windows XP and worked fine with the default drivers from Microsoft for all internal hardware other than the IR connection which needed one driver from the Toshiba web site. There were another half a dozen on the site which I am sure would give more comprehensive power management etc but it works so I left well alone My Gigabyte Triton Motherboard worked in a very simplistic way until the set of drivers for the display, USB connections, audio and network provided with it were loaded via a simple program from the CD provided with the Gigabyte Motherboard. My old Dell XPS T700r, again designed for Windows 98 SE worked fine without additional drivers when I did a clean (ie not an upgrade) install, although it had a video card driver update from the Windows update site at a latter date.

Which are the most likely drivers to be required? Video drivers are the most like ones to be needed to be found or updated. Standard Network cards will probably not need a driver. WiFi network cards will almost certainly need a driver and some associated monitoring software loaded from the CD which comes with it or downloaded from the manufacturers site. Audio cards and audio on a motherboard will come with drivers and sophisticated suites of software but will probably work for normal purposes with the built in Microsoft drivers and system software. Modern modems are usually implement partially in software and will almost certainly require a driver which should have been supplied. IR interfaces on laptops usually need drivers loaded. Firewire cards seem to work with the Microsoft built in drivers. CDs and DVDs should be recognised and will not need drivers but will require a software suite such as Roxio or Nero to write CDs/DVDs although there is a very basic facility built into Windows XP. Printers and scanners always need drivers and associated software loaded.

USB and PCMCIA card Device Drivers: USB and PCMCIA devices are slightly different because they can be plugged in and out when the power is on and also you can add USB Hubs which allow extra USB devices to be added. Quite a lot of simple USB and PCMCIA devices will not need drivers as they are built into Windows XP but if you do change the driver you have to be aware that Windows XP seems to have multiple sets of drivers for different USB ports - separate drivers will be installed for connections via a hub, PCMCIA (Cardbus) card and sometimes even if you have extra connections on the front panel. The same can apply to PCMCIA cards and, even more surprisingly, if you plug in a USB PCMCIA card you get more sets of drivers loaded depending on which PCMCIA slot you use. This normally does not cause problems as the most up-to-date driver is used each time but I found this to be a problem in one case - My USB D-Link DBT-120 Bluetooth had an incorrect Microsoft driver automatically loaded by Windows XP SP2 which replaced by the correct D-Link driver and I have ended up changing it what seems like dozens of times depending on where the Dongle is plugged in and if it via a USB hub or PCMCIA card or both!

Software Activation and Registration: Before we start we should recall that Windows XP and a lot of modern software will also need a unique code to install or unlock it for use. This should have been provided by the manufacturer, sometimes it is on the CD box or CD packet, sometimes inside or on the cover of the manual, sometimes it is on the outside of the box - in the case of the Windows XP it is ofter glued to the case. All these codes must be located before we start otherwise the software is useless. It is also worth noting that codes from other peoples software are usually useless, for XP and most software as when it has to be activated by phone or internet and is locked to the hardware configuration, reusing on another machine does not work so if the XP code is lost then you have to buy a new copy of XP costing abot 150 for XP Home or 250 for XP Professional. This is one reason why it is usually glued to the computer case!

Loading Windows XP: The moment has now come to get everything lined up and do the deed. We have discussed partitioning drives or adding a new drive and backing everything so after a last minute check you are ready then set up the BIOS so it will boot from the CD. Turn put in the Windows XP CD and turn off the machine completely , remove all the external peripherals then turn it back on. It will then start up the Windows Setup from the CD. The basic installation will take about 40 minutes and you have to stay around as there will be a number of questions to be answered - in most cases there will be a sensible default. For example you should be asked at some point where XP should be installed and you should take the default of the c: drive. The most important decission is if you wish to reformat the drive. It is best to start with a completely empty drive freshly formated drive but remember everything on a drive will be lost if you reformat it so again do a last mental check that everything has been backed up! Other questions relate to your country, currency, time zone etc., if you get them wrong they can be corrected but it is a pain to have @ and " interchanged and $ rather than a pound symbol on the keyboard.

Eventually all the questions will be answered, the 25 character long CD code entered correctly and the system will reboot to a screen with an empty desktop. Note that the screen resolution may well not be what you are used to and you will have to wait until the video drivers are loaded, sometimes you will be asked if you wish to change the resolution and if you say yes then you will have to confirm it is OK within 15 seconds otherwise it will revert to the default 'safe' setting. How to tell if a driver is missing? The first thing to do after loading a Windows system is to check the Device Manager and if there are little yellow question marks then a driver is missing, if the hardware shows up without a yellow question mark then you are probably OK to carry on although you may get enhancements, improvements or remove bugs if you load the latest drivers. Before loading any driver it is prudent to set a system restore point so you can go back if it does not work. I do not believe in making any changes purely for the sake of change - not all new drivers are improvements and you may build in more problems than gains so once it is working and stable make changes slowly and document them well.

Installing or reinstalling drivers: When you install a new card or plug in a new USB peripheral (such as a printer) or PCMCIA card the manufacturers usually suggest you install their software which adds the appropriate drivers to your machinebefore you plug in the card the first time. The new hardware is then detected when you turn on the machine after plugging in the hardware or when you plug in the PCMCIA/USB device and the drivers are ready and waiting to be installed. It is inconvenient to unplug everything when you rebuilding so it is likely you will have to install the associated software before the device will be detected and sometimes it will have been incorrectly detected and installed.

Installing or changing a driver is not difficult - there are two approaches. Firstly you can go into the Device Manager and uninstall the device, add the driver from the CD software, then reboot the system at which point Windows XP will redetect the device and load the best, hopefully the new, driver. If the CD did not have programmes to add the driver to those built in then when the machine restarts it will ask for a CD and should then find and install the driver. If this does not work or if you have a working device but want to change the driver you can go into the properties of the device in Device Manager where you will find a tab called Driver with button marked Update Driver which starts a Wizard - there is also a button to restore the previous driver if your changes do not work. The Update Driver wizard has various options including using a CD/Floppy/file with the new driver or selecting from a number of existing drivers which is most useful if Windows persists in selecting the wrong driver. Windows prefers to use its own drivers in preference to the manufactures correct drivers unless the manufacturer has been through an expensive certification process - if the driver has not been through the process Windows will warn you and automatically set a restore point which is a good idea in any case.

When should one load the Service Packs? Microsoft software has always had a huge number of errors and security problems which are gradually found and have to be corrected to avoid problems with viruses and hackers etc taking over ones machine. Winows Xp has been better than some earlier versions but has still had dozens of important security patches. Periodically these patches have been gathered together with additional features and drivers and issued as a consolidated fix called a service pack which has acted as an update to the operating system. These have been available as a massive download from the web or on CD from Microsoft. Once the service pack is issued it is also incorporated in all Windows Systems sold. So far there have been two service packs and new updates are available once one or both of the service packs have been applied. The Windows XP system CD will probably have the service pack issue marked on it. It is best to have any service packs required on a CD as they are huge - Service Pack 2 (SP2) includes everything from SP1 and varies in size if downloaded depending on what is installed on your machine and over 70 Mbytes if everything is downloaded and put onto CD ready - it can also be obtained free from Microsoft. You can find out all about it from Start -> Help and Support.

Assuming that you have the service pack on CD one can decide when to install it. I like to do the initial install from the XP CD and then install any missing drivers from CDs provided from the manufacturer so you are as ose as possible to the original machine configation. I then like to install the service pack so that all security fixes are applied before connecting to the web and before any firewall or virus checking software is loaded - this avoids having to work out how to shut down the viruschecker/firewall or risk serious conflicts when the service pack updates features in use by them. I then have another try at loading the missing drivers in case extra drivers are in the Service Pack and then try to load any drivers I have downloaded from the Internet before starting the rebuild.

Configuration - Control Panel: We have now covered the hardware specific aspects of rebuilding a system and it is time to look at the configuration of the operating system. Windows XP is much better than earlier versions and you are asked a couple of questions during the installation which are sufficient for it to set you up with the correct language keyboard, time zone, currency displays and the like. Similarly when you install or first use a modem you will need to enter your area code, phone number etc ready for use as a fax. Almost all the configuration is available from the Control Panel (From Start Menu). The only area where you will need to do some configuration is when you come to set up your network and/or Dial-up access and here again wizards will pick up most of the information as you install or try to use facilities. I like to manually set up for Network and Dial-up access and the Network and Broadband access is covered at length in the Painless Networks series of articles so I do not need to go into it at length here.

Updates, safety and security: Up to this point we have been setting up a stand alone system and possibly obtaining local network access but hopefully without allowing access to the Internet. We now need to protect the system, as already discussed, Windows XP is riddled with security problems and needs to be patched. I have suggested installing the service packs from CD but the only practical way to patch the system for the latest problems that have been discovered is via the Internet and there will be a window where you are vulnerable and that needs to be minimised. The best way to proceed is to first load your virus checker and your firewall (or at a minimum ensure the Windows XP firewall is enabled). The virus checker should be set to automatically update as should Windows XP itself - the default for Windows XP and most virus checkers will be an automatic update however the virus checker may need an online registration before it will collect the updates. Now when you first connect to the internet the link should be kept busy downloading updates and your vulnerability should be reduced. The best connection for the initial connection is via a broadband connection (otherwise it will take days!)and one using a router with a built in hardware firewall.

Reloading Software: Now you have the basic machine up and running, protected and updated you can reload the software. Try to minimise the software you reload to what you actually need rather than what was there to start with as the machine will end up faster if there are not too many programs loaded. Many peripherals such as printers and scanners come with a big suite of software most of which you will not need and worse still may change some of your system settings and you will find that when you click on certain files that their software will open. It is best to start off with the minimum and add anything you need when you require it. The same applies to CD/DVD writers and if you have two in the system you may end up with conflicting software so again start with the minimum.

Configuring Software: You will probably have to reconfigure all your toolbars and find the copies of custom dictionaries etc assuming you periodically backed them up! Windows XP does offer a way of saving all your custom settings and reloading them which is worth a try - I have never done so as I prefer to start with a clean slate.

Conclusions: It may all seem as if it is a difficult task but the bottom line is that I have reloaded most of my machines several times, updated several old machines to newer operating systems. I have also reloaded Windows 9x and Windows XP onto many other sick machines of friends and neighbours all without excessive trauma as long as the original CDs were available. You do need to allow plenty of time - I try to allow 8 hours to get to an updated and protected system with network and internet access, email configured, a printer connected and an Office Suite loaded. I will not start unless I have 5 hours clear. Specialised software and hardware for cameras, scanners, image processing etc will take considerable extra time.

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Content revised: 30th October, 2005
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