Afraid Of Re-installing Windows XP?

2005-Mar-28, Marton Anka

If you're anything like me, there's a good chance that your XP system is slow as hell and things don't work properly anymore. Sure, it used to be nice and fast when the computer was new and XP was fresh, but you just had to keep installing and uninstalling all that software, didn't you?

Now your Start menu is four columns wide, it takes ages to boot the computer, and apparently there are these tiny conflicts between all the stuff running - or trying to run - on your machine so things don't always work as they should. No amount of time spent in Add/Remove Programs (thanks developers for creating uninstallers that don't work) will help you. Defragging? That stopped having a noticeable effect six months ago.

My old system with its gargantuan Start Menu

So the only solution you have is to reinstall Windows. Yes, the dreaded moment when all your applications are gone and you're not productive anymore. It will take weeks, if not months, to get everything installed and configured properly. If you're anything like me you've been there before. You might think you're up and running after a day or so of going through checklists and loading software, but it's only a matter of hours before you reach for an infrequently used tool that's not there. Then you search for the application and install it, potentially taking hours, only to run into the same problem with another piece of software later.

There is no easy solution to the problem, but there's a way for you to reinstall Windows without losing productivity. All you need is a decent backup software such as Acronis TrueImage and some virtualization software such as VMWare Workstation. Microsoft's Virtual PC might work too, I haven't checked.

The idea is to get you a fresh install of Windows, with your old system running within a virtual machine. If you need to get something done with software that was on your old system, just boot the sucker up and get it done there. If you're missing some obscure document or data file that was left on your old machine, boot the VM up and get it.

My old system, safely virtualized within VMWare

Sounds good? Here are the steps you need to take:

1. Back Things Up

Fire up TrueImage or some other backup software. Create a full backup of your operating system partition.

Step 1: Backing Stuff Up

Make sure the backup software lets you do bare-metal recovery, and also allows you to restore to a harddrive smaller than the original disk. I really like the Acronis product as it also lets you create a full harddisk image without exiting the operating system.

Save the backup image to the network or some other harddisk on your system.

2. Create a Virtual Machine

Start up VMWare and create a new virtual machine. You will need to be able to access this VM after you've wiped your C drive, so put it someplace else.

Create a virtual harddisk large enough to hold the contents of your C drive. If you have the proper backup software, it does not have to match the physical size of the drive, you only need room for the data. For example, if I go to My Computer, and check my C drive I can see that the total size is 48.8GB and I have 30.7 GB free. So I will need a virtual disk that can hold approximately 20GB. Don't forget to add a bit of safety margin, say 5GB. Tell VMWare to create the new virtual disk with the capacity you have deduced. You don't have to pre-allocate the space but it will make things quite a bit faster.

Step 2: New Virtual Machine

3. Virtualize Your Old System

Your backup software should come with some sort of recovery CD. Insert that CD into your drive, power up the newly created virtual machine, and have it boot from the CD. The recovery software will start. Point it at the image file you created (you will have to use the network support in the recovery software to do this) and restore the image to the VM.

Step 3: Restore your system to the virtual machine

This will take some time, so go have lunch or something. When you come back, you should be able to take the CD out and boot the VM from the newly restored C drive. If all goes well, your system will come up within VMWare, and will complain about your hardware not being present and having found new devices. You can ignore these messages for a little while.

Important: If you're not a Microsoft Volume Licensing customer (ha!), the XP installation in the VM will have to be re-activated due to the extensive hardware changes underneath the OS. Office, if you have it installed, will also have to be re-activated. Deal with these steps.

When you've managed to get into the virtualized XP installation, change the virtual computer's name to something else. You can't have two machines with the same Windows computer name on the same network, so right-click My Computer, select Properties, and click the Change button on the Computer Name tab. Give it a meaningful new name, and Ok the dialogs. Do not reboot yet even though you will be prompted.

Go ahead and install VMware tools. This will install the proper drivers for your virtual hardware. You will be prompted to reboot, and now is a good time to do so.

When the system comes back, adjust the screen resolution to your liking. Deal with any hardware installation problems if you have to. Map any network drives that you need. Enter VMWare's full screen mode if you like, and play around with the system. If the applications you have on there seem to be working, all is well. This is a part where I can't really give you advice, but for what it's worth, it worked without a hitch for me. XP is surprisingly adept at handling hardware changes. True, some of your applications might break due the disappearance of hardware they were written to support. Games will stop working too. But this is not about your webcam software or Half-Life 2, is it?

4. Reinstall Windows

Okay, the moment of truth arrived. Make sure you have your hardware installation disks (if needed) ready. Also make sure the VMWare virtual machine that you just created is NOT on your system drive as you're about to wipe it. Finally, make sure you have your VMWare CD and license key ready. You will want to get VMWare and your old system up and running as soon as possible.

Boot from the XP install CD and select Set up Windows XP. Find your old C drive and delete the system partition from it. Create a new partition, and have XP install in that location.

When XP is installed, get your basic hardware in working order, then install VMWare. Open the VM you created in the previous step, and boot it. If it works, everything's great. If things did not work out, you can still boot your phyisical computer from your backup software recovery CD and restore the backup you've created in step 1.

At this point, networking should be up and running between the new system you've just installed and your old XP installation within VMWare. If you have some obscure hardware that you've misplaced the installation disks for and can't find the drivers online either, you can just point the "Found New Hardware" wizard to search for drivers in \\OLDSYSTEM\C$\WINDOWS\INF where OLDSYSTEM is obviously the name of the computer running in the VM.

5. That's It

You now have a working, very snappy (but freakishly application-less) Windows XP installation. You also have a VMWare machine that has all your stuff on it. How and when you migrate is up to you - but there's no rush. Start by installing the most frequently used applications on your fresh system. If you need to do something quickly and you don't have the necessary software on the new machine, there's no need to panic; you can get things done within the VM immediately.

VMWare's USB support makes it possible to temporarily attach your printer or PDA to the VM, so you can print and sync stuff to your heart's content.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with VMWare or Acronis. I just find their software useful and exceptionally well-written. Using other software will most likely get the job done as well.