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Installing A Windows OS From Scratch

PC Musician
Published March 2007
By Martin Walker

As a PC user, one job you're almost sure to have to do at some point is a clean install of Windows, whether because you've built your own PC, as outlined in last month's issue, have suffered a serious crash, or have decided to change to a new OS. Here's what you need to know.

Installing A Windows OS From Scratch

In last month's PC Musician we discussed all the different options one faces when building a new dual-core PC, covering processors, motherboards, RAM, graphics cards, drives, cases and cooling, and left the new machine up and running but bereft of an operating system. This month we'll be continuing where we left off, and looking more closely at the installation of Windows. However, this concluding part should be of even wider interest than the first, since eventually most PC musicians have to install a Windows OS from scratch, whether on a brand-new DIY computer, an old one that's beginning to sag under the strain of many software installs and uninstalls and hardware changes, after a particularly bad crash, or when a new operating system such as Windows Vista is released.

The first time you do this it can be a daunting experience, although Microsoft do make the actual installation relatively painless. However, there are various important things you should do, both beforehand and afterwards, to achieve the most stable and reliable performance. Although we've covered a few of these topics in previous PC Musician features, never before have we gathered them all together into one systematic guide — which is what you need when you're sitting there wondering what to do next.

OEM, Upgrade Or Retail?

There are three types of Windows package: OEM, Upgrade and Retail. The OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) version is the cheapest and can be recognised by on-disc text that reads 'For distribution with a new PC only'. Previously, you could only officially buy it alongside a hardware item such as a hard drive or CPU heatsink, but since August 2005 any 'system builder' has been qualified to buy the OEM version, even a hobbyist, without having to buy any other hardware. However, many people seem unaware of the main reason for OEM's lower price: its license is tied to the system on which it is first installed, so if you buy an OEM version of Windows, once it's been installed on a PC you can legally reinstall it on that same PC as many times as you like, but you can't transfer it to another PC. For this reason, never be tempted to buy a 'pre-owned' OEM disk from someone on eBay at a bargain price; not only does re-selling OEM products break their software license, but if it has already been activated on another PC you won't be able to activate it on yours.

The OEM version of Windows is the cheapest, but many people don't realise that it can only be used on a single PC and not transferred to a new one if you upgrade.The OEM version of Windows is the cheapest, but many people don't realise that it can only be used on a single PC and not transferred to a new one if you upgrade.If you buy a new PC with Windows OEM pre-installed from one of the larger PC builders, it may be locked to the BIOS on that motherboard: you won't have to activate it after re-installation, but once again you can only use it on that one machine. Smaller OEM manufacturers are required to provide you with an original Windows CD-ROM, but although the larger ones may provide you with a Recovery Disk or hidden partition on your hard drive containing the same data, they are not obliged to do so, and even if they do it may be bloated with unwanted demo software (not ideal if you're attempting to perform a 'clean' reinstall). The other difference with OEM Windows is that it's only supported by the computer supplier, and not by Microsoft, although in practice few Windows users of any kind seem to expect much direct support from Microsoft.

Retail copies of Windows cost significantly more than OEM or upgrade copies, but you can install them an unlimited number of times on different PCs, as long as previous installations are first removed. In other words, if you're building a new PC, you can legally use your existing Retail Windows disk on the new PC, as long as you're scrapping the old PC or recycling it with Windows deleted. Upgrade copies are similar to Retail ones in that you can transfer them from PC to PC, but during the install process they will ask you to insert a qualifying previous Windows version CD or DVD. They are also significantly cheaper.

BIOS Updates

If you're considering a fresh Windows install, it's well worth looking more closely at your BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) version before you start, to see if there are any more recent ones available. You can do this by entering the BIOS during boot-up by pressing the appropriate key (most often Delete, but sometimes F1, F2, F10 or other keys), where you'll normally find the current BIOS version number prominently displayed on the Main page. Compare this with what's available for download from the motherboard manufacturer's web site for that make and model.

In general, I don't recommend routine BIOS updates just to make sure you have the latest revision, for one very good reason: the BIOS runs each time you boot up your PC, configures its devices and then boots the operating system, so if you get any interruptions, such as a power cut, during the process of 'flashing' your BIOS code, you may render your motherboard totally useless.

A few motherboards offer BIOS backup or recovery options, but many don't, so there's nearly always a risk during this process (which can last several nail-biting minutes), unless you have an Uninterruptable Power Supply. The most sensible approach is therefore only to update if there are features in a newer BIOS that will specifically benefit your system, such as bug fixes or extra configuration options that you consider useful. As an example, there have been two BIOS updates since the version installed on the Asus P4P800 Deluxe motherboard of my previous PC, but since neither offered bug fixes or new features that related to hardware I owned, I never bothered to install them. However, if you've just built yourself a new dual-core PC, it may be more important to consider a BIOS update, since dual-core motherboards are still comparatively young and quite a few models were initially released with very limited BIOS options, as well as initial stability issues.

A classic example is that of my Intel DP965LT dual-core motherboard, bought in November 2006, which had BIOS version 0816 released on July 17th 2006 (the fifth release in just a few weeks). However, six further revisions had been released since that date, containing a host of fixes, updates, and improvements, culminating with version 1577 of November 16th 2006, so after I'd built my new PC (see last month's issue for details), I carefully performed a BIOS update to take advantage of all of these, which also gave me a completely new Hardware Monitoring page in the BIOS, displaying voltages and temperatures.

Whatever you decide, follow the motherboard manufacturer's step-by-step instructions very carefully and note down any changes you've already made to BIOS parameters, so that you can duplicate the same settings in the new BIOS. If there are any unwanted hardware devices on your motherboard, you should also disable them at this point, before you get out your Windows CD-ROM, so that WIndows doesn't attempt to install drivers for them later on. On my motherboard I disabled the on-board audio chip, on-board LAN, serial and parallel ports, none of which I personally use.

Windows Longevity

If you're considering reformatting your existing Windows partition and installing exactly the same Windows version again, it's worth asking yourself why you're planning this course of action. Some people seem to regard PCs using the Windows operating system as incapable of running for any more than a year without requiring a complete reformat and re-installation of both Windows and all software applications, to rejuvenate them. This may certainly be the case for those who pay little attention to what they download and install via the Internet and from freebie cover-mount CDs, and who don't bother about security issues relating to firewalls, viruses and spyware. However, those who are more careful about what they install on their PCs, and particularly those who maintain a separate music partition, can run their Windows installations for years with no problems. My previous PC had its Windows partitions initially installed in January 2002, and they remained in place until January 2006, when I moved on to my new dual-core PC. Another reason for this longevity was the fact that I used a disk-imaging utility, so if I experienced any problems I could restore a previously backed-up version.

For the most stable installation, I would never advise an 'over the top upgrade' install of a new and different version of Windows over an older one (Vista over XP, or XP over 98SE for instance), because you're always starting at a disadvantage, with all those stray files and unwanted Registry entries that inevitably creep into any long-term Windows installation. Even though having to re-install all those applications is tedious, it's far better to start from scratch with a clean Windows installation in a freshly formatted partition.

Windows Installation

All you need to do to start the Windows install process is insert the CD-ROM (or, in the case of Windows Vista, the DVD-ROM) and boot up your PC. If nothing happens automatically, the most likely cause is that your CD/DVD drive isn't set up as a bootable option before your main hard drive. You can change this order in the BIOS, so that it looks for a bootable CD/DVD first.

Once Windows has been installed, looking in Device Manager will show you what hardware is still without drivers. In my case, these two question marks were resolved by running Intel's INF file and installing the latest drivers for my new graphics card.Once Windows has been installed, looking in Device Manager will show you what hardware is still without drivers. In my case, these two question marks were resolved by running Intel's INF file and installing the latest drivers for my new graphics card.If you're installing on a new PC, you'll also have to create a suitable partition before the Windows install proper. There are built-in Create and Delete Partition functions, or you can use a third-party utility such as Partition Manager to perform this task beforehand. For musicians, I suggest 10GB as a suitable size, in NTFS (New Technology File System) format, but with PM or a similar utility you can always increase or reduce the size later on. (For an in-depth discussion of partition arrangements, see the 'Extra Reading' box.)

Those installing from a 'first edition' Windows XP CD-ROM (pre Service Pack 1) on a new PC that only has SATA hard drives will have the added complication that their drives may not be recognised at all (at the time of XP's release, IDE drives were fairly universal). If you have a floppy drive, you can copy the appropriate SATA drivers onto a floppy disk, press the F6 key when you see the message 'Press F6 if you need to install a third-party SCSI or RAID driver', and then wait until requested before inserting the floppy disk, confirming your SATA device and then letting the Windows installation continue. The same process is required if you wish to install a RAID array, although you must first enable these functions in the BIOS and use the associated utility to create the RAID volume itself.

If your PC doesn't have a floppy drive, you'll instead have to create a 'slipstream' bootable Windows XP CD-ROM with a later Service Pack pre-installed (see the 'Automated Installation' box). This is what I did, as it only takes a few minutes and saves having to install the Service Pack files separately later on.

There's little point in detailing the stages of the actual Windows XP, x64 or Vista installation process, since this varies from version to version, and there's actually very little for you to do apart from entering Regional and Language options, your Name and Organisation, and the Product Key. Far more important is what you do afterwards.

Automated Installation

If you have an original release Windows XP CD-ROM it's fairly tedious to go through the manual rigmarole of inserting floppy disks containing SATA drivers, installing the appropriate Service Pack after the main Windows install, and then installing all the other hardware drivers. But if you have multiple PCs, or have to install from scratch on a regular basis, it becomes a real chore, and it's even worse for those whose PCs lack a floppy drive.

If your Windows CD-ROM is an older version, you can easily and legitimately integrate your choice of Service Packs and create a new bootable 'slipstream' CD-ROM, or even (using nLite, shown here) incorporate your choice of drivers and discard unwanted Windows features.If your Windows CD-ROM is an older version, you can easily and legitimately integrate your choice of Service Packs and create a new bootable 'slipstream' CD-ROM, or even (using nLite, shown here) incorporate your choice of drivers and discard unwanted Windows features. Fortunately, there are ways to automate the various steps. You can, for instance, create a new bootable CD-ROM that already includes the latest Service Pack files. This is known as 'slipstreaming'. (PC Stats provide a good step-by-step guide at www.pcstats.com/articleview.cfm?articleid=1626.) Creating such a disc also performs the useful extra function of making a backup copy of your Windows CD-ROM, which is quite legal.

Adding custom RAID or SATA controller drivers to this bootable CD ROM, to avoid having to install them from a floppy, is also possible with a little more effort, as, for instance, described by Maximum PC (http://maximumpc.com/2005/01/how_to_slipstre.html). If you want to go the whole hog and create a completely unattended installation disc that already knows your choices for the formatting and partitioning options, and can automatically detect and install drivers for non-standard hardware such as RAID/SATA drives, plus additional Plug and Play hardware including graphics and audio interface cards, look no further than PC Stats' expansion on their slipstream feature (which you can find at www.pcstats.com/articleview.cfm?articleID=1703).

If you want to go even further and customise your Windows installation by not only integrating Service Packs, but also Hotfixes, other updates and extra drivers, while discarding hordes of other generic drivers you will never need, as well as ignoring other Windows components you know you'll never use, take a look at nLite (www.nliteos.com). It works with Windows 2000, 2003, XP and x64, and there's even a new vLite version that can perform the same tasks for Vista.

Another utility designed to create a seriously slimmed-down Windows install is the freeware Bart's PE (Preinstalled Environment), which you can download from www.nu2.nu/pebuilder. This creates a bootable CD-ROM containing a lightweight version of Windows XP or Server 2003 that you can use for maintenance or to gain access to data when your hard drive Windows installation won't boot. It's even possible to use it to install Windows XP on a 256MB USB Flash Drive if your PC supports bootable USB devices, as described on the Tom's Hardware web site (http://tomshardware.co.uk/2005/09/09/windows_in_yo...).

Coming Up To Date

When Windows has finished installing and you find yourself at the desktop, if you have an older version of the Windows CD/DVD you should immediately install the latest Service Pack. In the case of Windows XP, this is SP2, and since this incorporates all of SP1, those with the original 2002 XP release don't have to install SP1 first. However, those with Firewire audio interfaces may like to check the manufacturer's recommendation (MOTU, for instance, still recommend SP1 — see PC Notes December 2006).

As its name suggests, Windows Update provides updates and bug fixes for Microsoft operating systems plus, in the latest version shown here for Vista Ultimate, optional content, software, services and tips. However, very few of the Hotfixes actually improve audio performance, and many are optional for musicians.As its name suggests, Windows Update provides updates and bug fixes for Microsoft operating systems plus, in the latest version shown here for Vista Ultimate, optional content, software, services and tips. However, very few of the Hotfixes actually improve audio performance, and many are optional for musicians.Once all the relevant Microsoft files have been updated, you should next install any drivers required by your motherboard devices that aren't included with Windows. Most motherboards ship with a CD/DVD containing these but, just as in the case of the driver CDs bundled with audio interfaces, it's often better to ignore the CD-ROM and instead visit the manufacturer's web site to download the latest versions. The motherboard device drivers are generally referred to as 'INF' (Information) files, and they inform Windows how to properly configure the particular chip set on your motherboard to ensure that features such as SATA, IDE, PCI Express and USB support are implemented. Most that I've installed are single files supporting a range of operating systems including Windows 2000 SP4, XP SP2, x64 and Vista. They are usually supplied as executable files — just double-click on the file to copy to the appropriate Windows folder. Some offer the option to transfer files to a floppy disk, so you can use them to add SATA support during the Windows install, as mentioned earlier. Always read any TXT or Readme file for details.

One debatable area is installing special Power Management drivers and associated utilities such as Intel's Speed Stepping, which alter the CPU voltage and fan speed to match instantaneous processing demand. This certainly makes sense for general-purpose PCs, but there's always a time lag between increased processing demand and the CPU speed being ramped up, which generally causes audio drop-outs in sequencer applications. So while it's still beneficial to have CPU fan speed linked to CPU temperature, in order to keep the noise levels down, a DAW should always use the 'Always On' power scheme and avoid speed ramping at all costs. It may even be necessary for you to disable such hardware features in the BIOS.

The next thing is to open up Device Manager and see if there are any other devices in there with a question mark against them. If so, this means that Windows found no suitable generic drivers for them in its collection, so you'll need to search out their drivers from the motherboard support CD-ROM or its manufacturer's web site. Windows will probably still be relying on generic display drivers, so now's the time to install the latest ones for your graphics card.

Once there are no question marks left against any devices in Device Manager, it's probably the best time to implement the various tweaks that customise how Windows looks and runs (you can find my comprehensive guide to 'XP Tweaks For Music' in SOS September 2006). It's a good idea to now save an image file of this fresh install, just in case you need to revert to it later on. Once you're happy that everything's working well, it's probably the best time to contact Microsoft to Activate Windows (see the 'Activation & Licensing Issues' box for further details).

Activation & Licensing Issues

Once Windows XP or Vista has been installed, you have 30 days in which to contact Microsoft, either over the Internet or via a Freephone number, to activate it using an Installation ID, which is uniquely generated for each installation from both the Product Key (serial number) supplied with it and various aspects of your hardware, such as the motherboard, processor, RAM, hard drive and so on.

From Windows XP onwards, you only get 30 days before you have to Activate your operating system, but there are various caveats, depending on which version you buy.From Windows XP onwards, you only get 30 days before you have to Activate your operating system, but there are various caveats, depending on which version you buy.The best time to activate Windows is when you've installed all your hardware devices (including expansion cards), have all the latest drivers and OS tweaks in place and are happy that everything is running smoothly, but before you start installing all your applications.

When Windows has been activated, you should immediately make an image file of your Windows partition and put it somewhere safe. If anything major happens, you can then restore this image to return your PC to a 'vanilla' but already activated configuration. This image can also be used to create 'cloned' versions of Windows for a multi-boot setup.

However, here we enter murky waters. The EULA (End Use Licence Agreement) for Windows XP Home (which can be read at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/home/eula.mspx), states: "You may install, use, access, display and run one copy of the Product on a single computer, such as a workstation, terminal or other device ("Workstation Computer"). The Software may not be used by more than one processor at any one time on any single Workstation Computer." It furthermore states that: "You may also store or install a copy of the Software on a storage device".

There have been many different interpretations of this wording over the years, but according to Microsoft's Legal Department it means that every single installation of XP requires its own license. So, strictly speaking, any DAW builder who supplies you with a dual-boot system should therefore charge you for both instances of Windows XP. In practice, few seem to do this, and plenty of Microsoft employees are also under the impression that as long as you only ever run one copy of the software on a single computer at any time you only need a single license, while Microsoft's Activation procedure is also perfectly happy to activate multiple copies installed on the same PC, even if a completely different Installation ID is generated for each instance, since it can tell that it's the same copy of XP running on exactly the same hardware. Ultimately, you must behave according to your conscience, but most users and many Microsoft employees clearly regard the EULA as being a 'per machine' license that means 'one running copy on a single computer'.

Microsoft Hotfixes

The final stage before starting to install your applications is to consider Microsoft's Hotfixes, executable files that you download from their web site, which cure bugs and possibly add new features to Windows NT, 2000, XP and Vista. They automatically install updated system files in the appropriate folders, may offer to back up the old ones in case you later want to backtrack, and make any necessary Registry changes. Hotfix chaining is also supported by the above-mentioned operating systems, so you can install numerous Hotfixes before having to reboot your PC for them to take effect.

Hotfixes used to have cryptic names, but for Windows versions released since NT 4.0 they start with the OS name, followed by a KB number that relates them to the associated Knowledge Base article where you can find out what they do. You can download them individually from Windows Update (www.windowsupdate.com) or the Microsoft Download Center (www.microsoft.com/downloads). However, until recently users of third-party Internet browsers like the popular Firefox had to revert to Microsoft's own Internet Explorer 5 or later browser to do this, since both of the above sites use Active X scripting (which won't work by default with Firefox). Some Firefox users revert to IE simply to install Windows updates, but another alternative to find out what updates are available for your PC is to use the unofficial Windiz Update web site (http://windowsupdate.62nds.com) in conjunction with a Firefox plug-in.

The updates themselves are still downloaded from Microsoft, but Windiz Update has the advantage of bypassing Microsoft's WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) validation tool, itself a critical security update (WindowsXP-KB905474-ENU-x86-Standalone.exe) that checks periodically that your copy of Windows is genuine and prevents you from downloading many updates if it's not. This is perfectly legitimate in itself, but unfortunately WGA regularly sends personal information about your PC back to Microsoft HQ, which many consider makes it akin to spyware. If you don't agree with this, don't install this particular Hotfix.

Most modern versions of Windows also support Automatic Updates, which lets Windows check for recommended updates and install them for you automatically, or you can set it up to simply notify you when new updates become available, all without using IE at all.

Hot Or Not?

There are several schools of thought on Hotfixes. The easiest approach is to visit the Microsoft web site and have them all downloaded and installed automatically, to bring your PC bang up to date. Because a significant proportion resolve Internet security issues, most commercial DAW builders install them all on customers' machines, which makes perfect sense.

However, many musicians who never access the Internet using their music PCs totally ignore Hotfixes, or cherry-pick the few that may specifically benefit audio performance. I agree with this 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' philosophy, but it can still be difficult to sort the hearsay from the hard facts. Anyone running Windows SP2 who has a 1394b (Firewire 800) port and a Firewire 800 audio interface should definitely install the WindowsXP-KB885222-v2-x86-ENU.exe Firewire patch (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/885222) to bring IEEE 1394b performance back up to scratch. In addition, Cakewalk specifically recommend that Sonar v1 to v4 users (but not v5 and v6 users) and Project 5 users running Windows XP SP2 install the KB319740 Hotfix to cure long-term memory leaks when opening lots of software windows. They even host the file in question on their own web site (www.cakewalk.com/Support/kb/kb2005243.asp).

The Hotfix subject to the most conflicting advice is WindowsXP-KB896256-v3-x86-ENU.exe (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/896256), intended for dual-core PCs running Windows XP SP2, which improves the load distribution between the two processor cores when you're using CPU Throttling Power Schemes. It's not included in the automated Windows Update list and seems primarily intended to improve the laptop performance of single-threaded applications such as games, rather than multi-threaded sequencer applications, so most DAW builders seem to ignore it. However, RME recommend it to all their dual-core users, because some have found it cures various issues with hard drive performance, sequencer CPU meters and stuttering MP3 playback (www.rme-audio.com/english/techinfo/PCIe_04.htm). So, as they say, your mileage may vary.

An AMD-only utility that can be more universally recommended for those running AMD dual-core processors is AMD's Dual-Core Optimizer (along with other AMD-specific downloads, this can be found at www.amd.com/us-en/Processors/TechnicalResources/0,,30_182_871_14098,00.html), which not only seems to improve game performance but also cures erratic CPU meter issues for many Sonar users.

Ultimately, Hotfixes are just like any other update, and not compulsory. The safest approach is to image your setup before installing them, so that you can backtrack if you run into problems or notice no performance improvement. 

Published March 2007