Monday, June 1, 2009

Installing Windows 7

I got this question this AM:

Windows 7. Whazzup wit dat? Do I install it? Do I use Vista? Stick with XP? Go with 32-bit or 64-bit? What?

I would ABSOLUTELY use Windows 7 x64 over Vista. In fact, I would prefer using carving out 1’s and 0's on stone tablets before using Vista. I have no words of caution, really, as it does everything I want.

I highly recommend the 64-bit version, particularly on decent hardware and for large apps like AutoCAD/ACA/Photoshop/Revit/etc. I installed it on several Dell laptops, and it was incredibly fast and effortless. 32-bit XP is but a toy by comparison, and I only use it as a Virtual Machine OS for dealing with minor incompatibilities (e.g., using an old Epson scanner that will never have a 64-bit driver, or backpedaling to IE7 for web-app compatibility reasons). I'm sure that by the time Windows 7 ships, most incompatibilities will be rendered minor or soon to be fixed. Nothing that would be a show-stopper.

Here’s a basic timeline:

1. Download the Windows 7 RC1 and get the Product ID from Microsoft.

2. Download the latest version of VLITE from VLITE lets you build a streamlined installation disk of Vista and Windows 7 with only those components you want, and setup settings built in for an almost hands-free install. There’s a dedicated forum devoted to this here.

3. Vlite requires a file called wimgapi.dll, which is included in the Windows Automated Installation Kit. Unfortunately, the kit is about 200GB and the wimgapi.dll is like 300K, so you just want to download the smaller file. You can get it here. Extract the .RAR (using WinRAR or WinZIP), r/c on the INF to install the driver. After you install Vlite, copy the wimgapi.dll file to the Program Files\Vlite installation folder.

4. Extract the Windows 7 ISO to a folder (C:\Win7_RC1_Orig).

5. Copy/paste that entire folder to C:\Win7_RC1_Vlite.

6. Download all of the Vista x64 drivers for your machine. Put them in a C:\Drivers folder. Have separate folders for each component, e.g. Chipset, Audio, Video, NIC, etc.

Note that Win7 has an extensive array of built-in drivers (particularly for older chipsets), and you are probably better off using those before trying older Vista drivers from the manufacturer. Except for nVidia drivers - they have drivers specifically for Windows 7, which improve compatibility and performance over Microsoft's offerings, so download those if applicable. I also recommend the OpenGL Extensions Viewer which will tell you all of the pertinent information on your driver's OpenGL ICD.

7. Fire up Vlite, and select the Win7_RC1_Vlite folder as your source. Vlite modifies the files in the folder, so you work on this copy.

8. Vlite’s pretty easy to figure out, so I won’t bore you with the details. It’s built for Vista, but I’ve found it works exactly fine on Windows 7.

9. You can preload your drivers in Vlite – select the C:\Drivers folder in the Drivers section and it will load all of the drivers for all of the devices. Note that some driver installs really work better when done with the setup.exe, so this will at least get your chipset and NIC working, but you may want to manually install your video drivers and maybe audio. But, depending on your machine, WMMV.

10. The main important Vlite option is to input the Product ID and set the parameters for a hands-free install.

11. Vlite Hints: You can save quite a bit of space by removing all of the language files. Some “removal” features aren’t worth the effort and are counterproductive. After first doing a “bare iron” installation (removing everything I thought was unnecessary) I found it screws some stuff up, so I went back and did a more or less default installation, just removing the language files and some lame drivers I’d never use. I spend most of my time tweaking settings for my default user.

12. Once you set everything up, Vlite will modify the Win7 folder files – this is why you made a copy in step 5. This may take some time as it has to expand the CAB files, mod them, and recompress them.

13. If you are burning this to a DVD, make an ISO, and burn it using Imgburn.

14. I opted to create a boot USB drive. Windows 7 fits nicely on a 4GB USB key. You need to make the USB bootable.

UPDATE: Creating a bootable USB key is either (a) incredibly easy or (b) stupidly hard, depending on your current OS. If it's 32- or 64-bit Vista, then it's easy following the link above, because you have the bootsect.exe program. However, if your current OS is 32-bit XP, then you have some additional work to do.

I followed this link. I first formatted the USB key using the HP utility, then used MBRWizard to mark the partition on the USB key as "active."

Once the USB key is formatted with NTFS, and the first partition is marked Active, then you can simply copy the Win7 folders to the key. Note: Because a Win7 install reboots the system, I recommend that you just use the machine's boot menu during the BIOS phase of system startup instead of setting the boot order in the BIOS itself.

15. I also downloaded the Windows 7 codecs package which I install after the main OS install.

Other than minor tweaking of Explorer after the installation, I must say that a properly prepared Windows 7 image makes for the fastest, cleanest installation of an OS I've ever seen.