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Having been a Mac admin for the last couple of years, I haven't touched Windows much lately. I've recently been given a few (~9) previously-loved laptops, some of which work, most of which have Windows XP Pro or Home license stickers on them. (A couple have illegible stickers, and a couple designed for Win98SE or Win95).

I want to do a clean re-install of the OS. No, I don't have recovery disks. Yes, some of them have recovery partitions on the hard drive.

Just thinking of the marathon of installing, waiting, downloading, patching, finding drivers, etc, makes the prospect of reformatting them unpleasant (but I don't want to leave them in their existing state, either). [I should stop thinking and start doing it, I know.] To be clear, the laptops are almost all different, rendering the use of an image untenable.

Are there any tips to make this a pleasant experience (or even a less unpleasant one)? Should I built some OS discs with Win XP SP3 slipstreamed onto it? [I doubt I can legally download such a disc, can I?] Should I use something like nlite?

Addendum: I do not want to unethically or unlawfully install Windows; please see my follow-up questions, Ethics and Windows License Stickers.

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I'd go with the idea of creating an nLite'd XP disc. This gives you the most control over what is installed on the laptops on the first hit, and will minimize the number of visits to Windows Update, reboots and prompts along the way. It will also let you trim down the install footprint, and allow you to specify the common settings.

First, determine the flavour(s) of Windows XP that you want to install on these 9 laptops. If you're considering making them all Pro or Home, then it's even less work for you. Each flavour would obviously need its own nLite'd disc.

If I were doing this job, I'd do this:

  • inventory all the laptops with their model numbers
  • for each older model, download the drivers (Audio, (W)LAN, Video, Bluetooth, trackpad, webcam, etc, etc.) from their respective manufacturer web sites. If none are available, hope that XP has them built in.
  • consider downloading the power management tools as well
  • rip the Win XP install CD to a directory
  • nLite it along with XP Service Pack 3 - Lifehacker has details!
  • include the drivers from point 2 in the nLite image. Sure, all laptops will have them installed, but no biggie.
  • consider the option of writing your newly created ISO to a bootable USB thumb-drive. This will cut down the installation time vs. optical media. Of course you'd be dependent on the ability for those Win98 vintage machines supporting this. Even still, the time saved on those others would still make it worthwhile.
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This is very much the route I've been pursuing. I really like the idea of making a bootable USB thumb drive. I'll have to see how well it works for me. – Clinton Blackmore Oct 18 '09 at 4:36
This worked very nicely for me. I got XP Pro working on at least three different models from the same disk. I may need to install power management software for the different laptops, but I think the drivers came through okay. Very nice indeed. – Clinton Blackmore Oct 21 '09 at 4:25

There are a couple of methods you can use and for your situation I'd suggest either sysprep, of which I'm no fan, or an unattended install using an answer file. There's some very good documentation around for both. However, you may wish to reconsider, at least for those machines for which you have a recovery dics or partition.

In addition to the install of Windows itself you have two issues to resolve. One is the Windows licensing, which is messy to say the least, and I'm going to leave that entirely up to you.

The second is the hardware differences. You may run into some trouble here because Windows hardware support for laptops is downright pathetic. You might be lucky, but don't lay any bets on it. In many cases the only real hope you have is the laptop manufacturer's web site because too often generic drivers don't work very well, if at all, with laptops.

If you thought a manual install of Windows on a few laptops was going to be slow, boring and time consuming, you're in for a real sad experience with some of those drivers. Install one and reboot. Install another and reboot. etc., etc., and that's after you are able to locate them at all. This is why recovery discs/partitions are so highly recommended.

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Ugh. I wish the recovery installs didn't come with so much unwanted junk. I believe I'm legit with the licensing, so long as I install the OS the matches the sticker on the bottom of the computer. – Clinton Blackmore Oct 17 '09 at 22:39
Installing a blacklisted/pirated copy on a legal hardware does not make your copy valid. You will need to use an OEM version of XP and ENTER the license number as per your sticker. – Wayne Oct 18 '09 at 5:46
Well, I do expect to be prompted for the license code and enter it. I thought that, as Microsoft believes that an OEM copy of Windows lives and dies with the machine that it came on, that provided I used the version that matches the sticker (ie. XP Home or Pro, 32-bit) that I'm doing things legally and ethically. It seems to me that (if one could find a reputable source), that downloading an OEM XP Pro (say) with SP3 slipstreamed in should be reasonable; using nLite, though, I think I can use my own Discs. – Clinton Blackmore Oct 18 '09 at 15:04
As I said, it's messy. I'm not in the least bit surprised that many people, even in large organizations, "flex" the rules. – John Gardeniers Oct 18 '09 at 21:08

I'm definitely a fan of nLite. I'm not sure how many laptops you have to install, but I usually get an eOpen license from Microsoft.

They give you one license key that can be use on as many XP installs as you've purchased. You're also not restricted by the OEM licenses which say you can't transfer XP to a new computer. If you get Software Assurance with the eOpen licenses you automatically get upgrades to Vista, and Windows 7 for free.

eOpen copies of Windows are clean--they have no junkware installed by OEMs.

You can take the eOpen copy of Windows and run it through nLite to create an unattended install.

If the computers are joining a domain, you can also use group policy to automatically install needed software.

My nLited copy of XP will automatically wipe the HD, create one big partition, install a clean copy of XP without any prompts, and join the computers to a domain. Once joined, they automatically have Symantec AV, Office 2007, Java, Flash, etc... installed. The entire workstation is usually ready in about 45-60 minutes with no prompting.

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That is really slick. It is a shame I don't have a domain to play with. – Clinton Blackmore Oct 19 '09 at 14:51
You really don't need a domain to do a lot of it. Grab a copy of nLite and a OEM or eOpen Windows CD. Customize it with nLite, set nLite to run a startup script of \\some-other-machine\software\myscript.cmd and then go to \\some-other\machine, create a 'software' share and create a myscript.cmd file that launches 'msiexec' to install your needed software. For example 'msiexec /i AdobeReader.msi /qb' will do a silent install of Adobe. Check out for how to package and auto-install a wide variety of apps--then play. Be careful with OEM XP, it only activates a few times.. – Aaron C. de Bruyn Dec 1 '09 at 7:41

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