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Life After Vista: Going Back to XP

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Is your honeymoon with Windows Vista over? Long for the days of XP? Peter Ehm provides a few simple steps to bring back the glory of XP.
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You’ve bought a new PC with Windows Vista installed. Or you’ve upgraded to a version of Vista from your pokey XP installation. After a few days of getting used to the new and improved operating system in all its glory, you decide you hate it. You long to return to the good, old and reliable Windows XP, be it nostalgia or simple nausea from Aero, Vista’s cutesy candy interface.

Here’s how to do it in a few simple steps.

What you’re about to read is a one-way solution. You can also consider creating a dual-boot configuration, which allows users to pick a bootable choice of both operating systems (XP and Vista) to be installed on the same machine at the same time. That option is somewhat too complicated.

So, let’s start expunging Vista and bringing XP back, with as little screaming as possible. Bear in mind that the FIRST thing to do is to back up all your important data to a safe (and separate) location, such as an external USB drive or multiple DVDs. In any case, backup should be a monthly routine, anyway.

Once you’re sure you’ve backed up everything you wanted to keep, start reversing your PC to XP.

Removing Vista can be tricky, given the secure nature of the operating system and how it interacts with the computer’s hardware. Thankfully, the basic task of removing Vista is fairly easy, if you perform each step in the proper order.

Step 1: Have your original bootable CD copy of Windows XP on hand, along with the ever-important Windows product key. Along with these two items, have a CD with all the latest hardware drivers (sound, video card, etc.) on it, to ensure a smooth install of XP once Vista is gone. For those that are missing, go find them in the tech support section of the their maker's website and download them to a safe place off the machine you are about to work with. Ensure you download and burn to CD all the drivers you will need, just in case the new XP installation calls for it during the operation.

Step 2: Have a bootable CD or floppy disk handy, to allow you to clean off your PC’s hard drive and install a fresh copy of Windows XP. If you do not have such a disk, you can create one fairly easily by following the very concise instructions at Allbootdisks.com.

You can also find the ISO data (an exact image of a CD) needed to create such a bootable CD at sites like The Ultimate Boot CD. Their UBCD is available for download completely free of charge and is packed with utilities for diagnostics and repair of stubborn PC boot issues. It is an excellent tool to have handy when things go wrong.

Step 3: Create a bootable CD from the ISO. Programs like Nero Burning ROM can also create a bootable CD from ISO images from sites similar to the UBCD. Once it is burned, you can boot your PC with the CD (see Step 5 to come) and so bypass the Vista OS before it starts up. Note that you should test out your newly-minted bootable CD beforehand, just to make sure there were no burn errors. You can do this anytime before Step 7. Also, you can add additional programs to the bootable CD; see Step 11 for some examples.

Step 4: Ensure you absolutely, positively have all of your important data backed up (yes, I sound like you mother, but it’s important enough to repeat here again). Search your hard drive’s nooks and crannies for anything you want saved, as the disk will be totally erased during the install procedure. All the data stored on it will be lost, irrecoverable save through divine means.

Step 5: Reboot your computer and get into the BIOS settings, which are the basic setup settings for the PC. They exist separately from the operating system. Here; you will be able to instruct your PC to boot from the Windows XP CD first, before looking at the already-installed Vista operating system on the hard drive.

Most computers will display a BIOS option at every startup — look for messages like "Press F1 to enter setup" or "Hit DEL for BIOS" when you reboot your computer, before Vista starts up. Not every PC manufacturer does it the same way, so be quick when you look, as the boot messages do not wait around for long on-screen.

Step 6: Once you have accessed your computer’s BIOS, look for "Boot Options" among the various settings. BE CAREFUL — messing up your BIOS can render your PC unbootable, so if you are not sure if you set something correctly, use the "Exit Without Saving" option and try it again. Once you have carefully found the Boot Order, have a look at the order of the devices listed. Boot Order will allow you to choose which device the PC will boot from first: floppy drive, CD/DVD-ROM, hard drive or other devices (such as USB keys). Make sure to select the CD/DVD-ROM drive to boot BEFORE the hard drive, so that your bootable CD will load before Vista gets a chance.

Save the BIOS settings, ensure the Windows XP CD is in the drive, and reboot. Your PC should now boot from the Windows XP CD, and allow you to run the disk management utility.

Step 7: If the Boot Order in the BIOS was set properly, Windows XP will now boot to its basic blue Setup menu, with several options. Choose the "Repair An Existing Installation" option — this will allow you to modify the way the current installation of Vista boots, which is important.

Step 8: Now, a command prompt will appear, like in the good old days of DOS. Type in "fixboot c:\" (without the quotes) and hit Enter. This command will write a new startup sector on the system partition of the disk. What is this command? This creates a space on the drive where XP can write its own files, as opposed to the type of sector that Vista has installed so it could read its own files. This is important, as XP needs to be able to "see" the hard drive properly on startup to install itself, taking control away from Vista.

Step 9: Next, type "fixmbr c:\" and hit Enter. This command repairs the startup partition’s master boot code. This code is on the very first sector of the hard drive, which is where XP looks first to help it find things like partitions. The MBR is like an index for the drive, and changing it this way lets XP see the index properly right away on boot-up.

Step 10: Now, type "EXIT" to leave the Recovery Console. Remove the Windows XP CD and replace it with the bootable CD or floppy created in Step 2, then reboot the PC again.

Step 11: Wait for the bootable CD to take you to a command prompt, recalling the rickety old days of DOS. Once there, type "format c:\," confirming that all the data on the drive is to be erased. This will take a while.

Note that at this point you can use other disk-formatting utilities such as Super F-disk, a free program that has many more features than the basic "format" command included with XP. Just make sure to extract and copy it to a bootable CD of your own creation, as it does not boot on its own. For those of you with large hard drives, it may benefit you to partition those drives into smaller chunks with programs like Super Fdisk, to speed up data access, among other things.

Step 12: Once the drive is formatted, replace the bootable CD with the Windows XP CD and reboot your system. You will be able to install XP from the CD normally now, choosing to install it on the blank partition you have created in Step11. Go through the normal installation of XP, then enjoy your PC’s newfound speed boost from a fresh OS install.

There you have it. Your PC is back to the rusty but (mostly) reliable Windows XP and Vista is but a fond memory on your credit card bill. Hopefully, you will return to Vista once it matures somewhat, but in the meantime you have learned how to give birth to a brand-new, fresh installation of Windows XP — congratulations.

If you are really want to ensure your PC runs in top condition, you can do this all again in a year’s time — an annual process of wiping and reinstalling Window XP is the best way to keep your computer running in top shape. As for Vista, the same will likely hold true, at least once more people get comfortable having it around.

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