Windows XP Repair Install

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Short of a completely clean install of the Windows XP operating system, the next best option IMHO is a “Repair” install, particularly when installing a new motherboard / CPU.

When Windows is first installed on a particular system, Windows tailors itself to that system, installing the various low-level drivers and subsystems to enable it to work with the hardware, in most cases properly. After the lengthy process of reinstalling Windows is completed, then comes the task of reinstalling your applications, games, and whatever else you like to have available on your system.

In the heyday of Windows 95 and 98, an option I used frequently when upgrading my system’s guts would be to simply download the latest BIOS and Windows drivers for the new hardware to my hard drive, and then proceed to transplant the motherboard and CPU and boot with the new hardware right away. Windows would spend some time retooling itself to the new hardware, installing drivers for the new chipset, the new CD-ROM and IDE drivers, audio devices, network card, and any specialty devices like USB or serial peripherals. Eventually the end result would be a system close to the original, with some exceptions in terms of hardware and software.

Windows XP, however, is not quite this accommodating. Due to the nature of the operating system, with it being more picky about maintaining the integrity of its “core” subsystems, when new low-level hardware is introduced, such as a new motherboard and CPU, XP will very likely yield a BSOD upon attempting to boot with the new hardware.

At that point there are several options. If your Windows XP system has been running for more than say one year, perhaps it’s high time for a fresh install to remove any of the “gunk” which accumulates like pond scum in the Windows registry. If you happen to have a Ghost image of a system with identical motherboard and CPU, you might be able to restore that image over your existing partition and have a bootable, but virgin, system.

Up until recently, the best fix in my mind would be a fresh install, but I never savored having to reinstall my applications and reconfigure my environment. There is the option of the File and Settings Transfer Wizard, but I find it tedious and in the few times I’ve used it, it’s never truly gotten me 100% back to where I had been on my old setup.

My most recent system upgrade, however, led me to try something I hadn’t even thought about as an option, the Windows XP Repair Install. Here’s how it works:

First of all, while your old system is still up and running, you will want to download the latest stable drivers for the new hardware, including not only your video or other peripheral cards but also motherboard and chipset drivers. Be sure to download these to your hard drive, not to a CDR, because especially for newer chipsets if Windows cannot properly install drivers it may not even recognize that a CD-ROM drive exists on the system. Don’t install the new drivers just yet, merely download their setup files and have them available on your hard drive.

Next, out with the old and in with the new.

Install your new motherboard and CPU, new RAM, heatsink and cooling fans (of course!!), enough to minimally boot your system. Boot up and make sure the system will at least POST, and once all is well there, install your other hardware, including your CD-ROM drive. Be sure to set the BIOS so that it will attempt to boot first from the CD-ROM drive.

Also, if at all possible, update to the latest available BIOS for your new motherboard. Many newer motherboards allow you to do this from within Windows, but since that isn’t an option just yet, download and utilize their BIOS update instructions for use from the DOS command prompt via a diskette boot.

Now, insert your Windows XP CD and reboot the system.

Press any key when you see the message prompting you to boot from the CD, and shortly you should arrive at the initial text Setup screen for Windows. From there, press the Enter key to begin setup, as if you were doing a fresh install. Accept the licensing agreement, and then allow Windows to search for existing instances of itself on your hard drive. Select the entry which corresponds to your previous setup, and then hit the “R” key to select the “Repair” option.

If when last you booted your system it booted normally, there should definitely be the “R” option at this screen, it usually will only not be there if the system has been so thoroughly corrupted that the system areas are unrecognizable to Setup. Let’s assume all is well with the world and that your previous setup is intact, for purposes of this explanation.

Follow the prompts and allow Setup to run its course. It will basically act as if you’re performing a fresh install in terms of hardware, it will seek out the hardware on your new system and install the latest available Windows-certified drivers wherever possible. In terms of your system settings, however, and here’s the best part – almost everything will be in the state it was with your old hardware.

Shortcuts on the desktop will be the same, installed applications will still be functional (the only exceptions might be those tied to hardware such as webcam or gamepad software), email settings and contents will be intact, and your Internet favorites will still be right where you left them. Even users of more reliable third-party browsers like Mozilla, as I am, will find their bookmarks intact.

Once you’ve verified that your applications and other settings are good to go, at that point I would suggest installing the latest drivers for your hardware. The Windows “certified” drivers are very good initially to make sure you have a solid starting point to fall back on, so that in case a new driver fails, you can roll back to the previous Microsoft approved one. If you want to get the most out of your hardware and hopefully eliminate any bugs found since the Microsoft-certified drivers were released, however, you will want to install the latest ones provided by the manufacturer.

When you upgrade your system hardware, it may seem like a fresh install of Windows XP is the only viable option. I hope that the repair install option reveals that there less drastic means available to get you back up and running without having to completely reinvent the wheel.

Alan Zak


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