Dreaming of a Windows XP CD that recognizes almost all known hardware?

For about a month after a new version of Windows is released, it supports just about any hardware you’re likely to throw at it. And after that, you’re on your own to find drivers for stuff.

I stumbled across Driverpacks back in March, and I’ve finally had a chance to spend some serious time working with them. What they mean is that if you’re willing to do some work, you can make a disc that will install Windows with functional drivers for virtually any computer in existence.

Basically, Driverpacks are collections of known drivers. One set of collections supports 2000/XP/2003, and another supports Vista/7/2008. Use their utility to slipstream your Windows CD and, in theory, you should be able to pop that customized Windows disc–you’ll have to use a DVD if you integrate very many of the packs–into just about any system and have it recognize everything in it, without having to hunt down drivers.

That can take a lot of time, even with well-supported hardware. When hunting down drivers for an IBM Thinkpad T30, it still took a while to download all of the drivers and install them, even though IBM and Lenovo had helpfully collected all of the drivers I needed on a single web page. It’s worse when you have a box-o’-parts assembled by a clone shop where you might have to go four or five different places to get the drivers  to make it fully functional.

Of course the disc will become dated no later than four weeks after you make it, but the disc will remain useful for some time to come. Once you boot the system, Windows Update will freshen the drivers if they need it.

If you have one or two computers in your house, this is more trouble than it’s worth. But if you rebuild computers from time to time, and none of them are identical, a Driverpack-slipstreamed disc pays for the effort the third time you use the CD.

And of course if you’re rolling a disc anyway, you should slipstream the latest service pack and all the hotfixes, since patching a system takes longer than the installation does. A bonus is that the slipstreamed system takes a lot less disk space when it’s finished. So, download ctupdate and use it to download the latest service pack and updates for XP in the appropriate language.

Next, use nlite to slipstream the service pack and hotfixes into a copy of the Windows CD. Ctupdate stores the files in the client subdirectory, in a subdirectory named for the appropriate Windows version. Point nlite at that directory to get the service pack, and again to get the hotfixes, and let it do its thing. After that, you can remove some components if you want. Windows XP plus all those patches and all those drivers won’t begin to fit on a CD. If you remove the foreign languages and keyboards with nlite and you leave out at least one of the video and sound driverpacks, then you stand a chance of making it fit on a plain CD. Generally I remove the extra keyboards and languages, plus Windows Messenger, MSN Explorer, and sometimes the games. If removing Windows components makes you nervous, then hopefully the target system has a DVD drive, because a complete XP slipstreamed with SP3 and the patches comes close to taking 1 GB of space.

Once you’ve integrated the patches and removed whatever components you want removed,  use Driverpacks’ integration tool to load the drivers into the slipstreamed Windows files. I found this nice guide. The main thing to remember with the Driverpacks tool is that the wizard doesn’t have a “next” button. It has a “>” button. Click that to cycle through the steps. Adding the drivers goes pretty fast.

Finally, go back to nlite to generate an ISO that you can burn to a CD or DVD.

The nice thing about this slipstreamed Windows DVD is that the system is very up to date from the beginning. A couple of hotfixes will inevitably slip by, and a couple of drivers may need updates once it comes online, but you’ll only have to download a dozen or so things from Windows update, rather than hundreds. And consequently, building a system goes from being something that takes a couple of days to something that takes a couple of hours.

If you want maximum speed, turn around and use Wintoflash to transfer the DVD to a USB flash drive, and copy your installation files for your office suite, antivirus, and web browsers to it. Boot off that, and you can probably build an XP system from bare metal in less than an hour.

There’ve been a couple of times I was faced with a system that really needed a rebuild, but I was afraid to do it because it would take so long to hunt down the drivers, if I could even find them. This solves that problem neatly.

And it works. Mostly. The first install I did bluescreened during setup, but it worked the second time. I’ve had that happen on rare occasions even with unmodified discs.

The Windows installation itself takes longer than an unmodified disc, because disc loading a couple hundred different disk controller drivers in text mode takes time, and unpacking about a gigabyte worth of drivers as soon as the GUI setup comes up takes even more time.  And during that initial boot, you’ll stare at that “please wait” screen for a very long time. I have no idea what it’s doing there. In one case, the system sat at that screen for a good 30-40 minutes and showed no signs of life, so I cycled the power. It recovered after that.

In spite of the lengthy wait, it still takes much less time than running Windows Update, and unlike loading drivers by hand, it’s completely passive. In fact, you can use nlite to make almost all of the setup passive, if you want.

What about Windows 7? I’m still looking into that. I suspect a similar procedure with rt7lite will work well, but I haven’t tried it just yet.

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