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.

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How to use Sticky Keys to change/unlock a forgotten password

This isn’t a particularly new trick, nor did I invent it. But it’s a good trick for breaking into a Windows system when you don’t have a lot of tools at your disposal, and have legitimate reason to do so–like a lost or forgotten local administrator password. I’ve talked about some of those reasons before. I’d also add someone locking themselves out of their own computer to the list. It happens, just like people locking themselves out of their cars, or their houses.

Not every writeup I’ve seen of this trick goes into what I would call sufficient detail. So I’ll take a shot at it.

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Slimming down Windows XP for SSDs and nettops

I found a very long and comprehensive guide for using Nlite to reduce the size of a Windows installation.

The guide is geared towards an Asus Eee. But it should work well on pretty much anything that has an Intel CPU in it.A couple of tweaks to his settings will make it suitable for AMD-based systems. Just remove anything Intel-specific, and add back in anything specific to AMD, and there you go.

And if you have a multi-core or hyperthreaded CPU, leave multi-processor support in.

I also recommend slipstreaming SP3 and all the hotfixes you can. Then you don’t have to run Windows Update, them, and you don’t have to clean up after it either. I haven’t investigated all of the whys and wherefores, but I’ve noticed that the more you slipstream ahead of time, the smaller your Windows directory ends up being. I have some systems at work that are constantly bursting at the seams on their system partitions. Other systems, which were built later from a copy of Windows with more stuff slipstreamed in, have a lot more breathing room.

Using the i64x.com instructions, you can pretty much count on getting a Windows XP installation under half a gig in size. That makes life with a small SSD much more bearable, since a typical installation tends to take a couple of gigs these days.

I’ll add some tips of my own. Inside the Windows directory, there are some subdirectories named inf, repair, and servicepackfiles. Compress those. That’ll free up some more space–at least a couple dozen megabytes in most cases.

If you’re really cramped, compress the whole Windows directory. Boot time actually decreased by a couple of seconds when I did this (down to 12 seconds from about 14), but software installations slowed considerably. But for everyday operation, you could almost consider NTFS compression a performance trick. It makes sense; an SSD can sometimes saturate the bus it’s connected to, so data compression lets it shove 20-50% more data through that saturated bus.

The downside is that when you install something that lives in the Windows directory, it has to not only copy the data into place, but also compress it. Installing the .NET Framework on a system with a compressed Windows directory takes a while.

A good compromise is to install pretty much everything you think you’ll need on the system, then start compressing.

It’s difficult to make a case for compressing the entire drive, however. Most modern data file formats are compressed–including all modern media formats and Office 2007 documents–so turning on NTFS compression on directories storing that kind of data gives no benefit, while introducing overhead.

Installing Windows off USB

I sure wish I’d seen Wintoflash a few weeks ago.

It’s simple. Insert a Windows CD or DVD (anything from XP to Windows 7). Plug in a blank USB flash drive (or one you don’t mind erasing). Answer a couple of questions, and after a few minutes, you have a bootable USB stick that installs Windows. It will be much faster than CD or DVD because flash media has much faster seek times.

So what could be better? Well, slipstreamed and customized Windows of course.First, go get ctupdate and run it to get all the current hotfixes and service packs for whatever version of Windows you use.

Next, use Nlite to easily slipstream in all those service packs and hotfixes. While you’re at it, you can remove whatever non-optional inessentials you want. All the games, Media Player, Movie Maker, Outlook Express, and stuff like that are fair game. If you feel brave, you can even (horrors!) remove Internet Explorer.

Rebuilding a PC used to take most of a weekend to do, but with an up-to-date installation on a USB stick, I think the task could take an afternoon, as long as the target computer is new enough to support booting off USB.

And to a tinkerer, it could be very nice. Speeding up installation and modification would allow a tinkerer to be more aggressive with Nlite in terms of changes. Make a fatal change, and it’s no big deal–just back out of the change and reinstall, and in about 15 minutes you’re up and running with a new configuration.

A serious case of one-downmanship

While researching nLite (I’m thinking about rebuilding a PC), I found a page about two Germans exploring the true minimum system requirements of Windows XP.

I won’t spoil the ending, but one of them managed to accidentally discover the world’s slowest Pentium.I used to enjoy that kind of tinkering but really don’t have time for it anymore, especially when you’re talking boot times of 30 minutes.

At any rate, it was very interesting to see what these two tinkerers could do, even if I’m not too keen on running XP on anything less than about 1.5 GHz these days. I run a Pentium D system at work, which probably runs around 2.6 GHz, and it’s a slug. But that’s probably mostly because they insist on foisting Office 2007 on us.

But sometimes that work PC feels like one of the PCs on that web site must.

Second impressions: Intel D945GCLF2, aka the dual-core Atom desktop board

I finally got Windows XP installed on what’s going to be my mother in law’s dual-core Intel Atom computer. I’ve spent some more time with it, and it’s a good board, as long as you’re willing to live with its limitations.First of all, if your Windows CD doesn’t include SP3 (or possibly SP2), slipstream it. SP1 or earlier won’t boot on this board. I used nlite to slipstream SP3 and all the updates. A good way to download all the updates easily is to use CTupdate. Since installing updates can take nearly as long as installing the OS itself, it’s nice to have a CD that’s completely up to date. And while you’re at it, you can remove some useless Windows components like Windows Messenger and MSN Explorer.

Intel's dual-core Atom boardSince I don’t play 3D games and my mother in law doesn’t either, I have no idea what the gaming performance of this machine is, but I doubt it’s very good. That’s fine; it’s not what this board is designed for.

For productivity apps, it’s a perfectly reasonable PC. I can switch back and forth between my 2 GHz P4 and this Atom and not feel like I’m missing anything.

Due to the D945CLF2‘s size, it has some limitations. It only has two SATA and one PATA connectors. Hooking up her PATA hard drive and CD-RW got interesting. I managed to do it, but it isn’t pretty. If I’d known this was going to turn into a system rebuild, I would have bought a SATA hard drive instead of the PATA drive I got. If you’re thinking of one of these boards to upgrade an old PC, keep that in mind, especially if the 3.5″ bays aren’t very close to the 5.25″ bays.

There’s only one PCI slot. That’s less of a problem than it sounds like, as it has onboard video, audio, gigabit Ethernet, and lots of USB ports. But if you want to add a TV tuner or Firewire ports, you can only choose one or the other.

There’s also only one memory slot, and it can only take 2 GB. So there’s no dual-channel memory, although the chipset and BIOS support it. The CPU is AMD64 compatible, but the main reason people go 64-bit is to be able to run 4 GB of memory or more. It would have been nice if Intel could have crammed one more memory slot in there somehow.

Nvidia is talking about releasing a chipset for the Atom that will give better performance than Intel’s. Intel pairs the Atom with a very old chipset, and Nvidia says they can make it perform better. Intel doesn’t want the Atom to compete with the Celeron, so they’re not making performance a top priority. Even still, it’s not bad. I would imagine Nvidia could make it an even nicer setup.

But at any rate, this is a nice board. It’s reliable, cheap, and fast enough. If I decide to modernize any of my computers in the next year, I would consider one of these. They run cool and quiet and consume very little power. Lately I’ve been a big proponent of buying off-lease 2 GHz P4s, but I think an Atom rig is also worth considering. It’ll cost a little more, but its power usage is so low, it’s likely to more than make up the difference over the course of its lifetime.

My poor-man’s SSD boots DOS really fast

So, my no-name compact flash adapters arrived today. I ripped one open like a kid at Christmas, pulled a PC off the scrap heap, yanked my 128 MB compact flash card out of my PDA, and went to town.Unfortunately I couldn’t get Xubuntu to boot, let alone install a minimal configuration, because my CD was corrupt. I wasn’t sure if I could install anything in 128 MB, but my last Debian 3.0 install was smaller than that, so I held out hope.

So I grabbed a Windows 98 SE CD. Surely that would fit in 128 megs if I left out all of the optional components, right? And if not, there’s always Doublespace, right? Wrong. The installation bombed out, saying I needed 205 megs.

The original Win98 was smaller though, right? So I grabbed that CD. It wouldn’t play either. It repeated that same 205 meg line. I’ll bet it says that to all the guys.

So I grabbed my Win95B CD. I’m pretty sure I once crammed Win95B and Office 97 onto a 170 MB hard drive. It wasn’t pretty, but hey, it was an emergency. But no joy there either. The CD wouldn’t even read. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since it’s a CD-R that I last touched sometime in 1999. I have no idea where the original CD is, but I know where the manual and COA are, not that that helps any.

I dug around for a Debian CD. I come across those fairly often when I’m looking for something else, but tonight I couldn’t find one.

I found my OS/2 3.0 sleeve, which got me thinking, but I couldn’t find the disc. I know I could make that fit in 128 megs and it would really scream–as in, it would complain loudly about the ATI video, and it would run really fast–but I never found the CD.

So for lack of anything else to put on it, I reinserted the Win98SE disc, rebooted, picked the Command Prompt with CD-ROM option, and dropped into DOS for perhaps the first time since the Clinton administration. I ran FDISK, blew away the partition table and repartitioned it, rebooted, found FORMAT.COM hidden in the WIN98 directory on the CD, formatted the drive, remembered I had to use the /S option, reformatted the drive, copied over himem.sys, oakcdrom.sys, mscdex.exe, and whatever else I could find, and built up config.sys and autoexec.bat files by hand using copy con, since I couldn’t find edit.com anywhere on the CD. I removed the CD, rebooted, and it booted fast–into an error message saying I’d neglected the /d parameter. Considering the last time I used the /d parameter was in 1999, that shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is that I remembered the syntax. So I deleted config.sys and autoexec.bat, built up new ones with copy con, and rebooted again.

The Win98 splash screen flashed, then I got a familiar DOS prompt, including indicators that the CD-ROM driver was working. It took about as long to boot as it did for the BIOS to do its thing–probably 1-2 seconds. Not bad for $7 worth of hardware ($5 for the adapter from Compgeeks, and $2 for the CF card from a garage sale).

Supposedly Windows 2000 can shrink down to 60MB if you get really aggressive with nLite. I’d really like to see that, but that means I’ll have to find my Windows 2000 CD. I’m sure it’s hiding somewhere in Argentina, playing cards with my OS/2 3.0 and Debian CDs.

I also ought to download Debian 3.0 again. I’m thinking 60-120 megs of Debian is probably more useful than 60 megs of Windows, but I really want to see how quickly Windows 2000 boots off flash.

Supposedly these cards support UDMA, so I probably ought to order some larger CF cards so I can do something really useful with them. Seeing DOS boot instantly is enough to convince me that these things can be useful. Who knows, I might be insane enough to try running my webserver off flash (the memory, not the obnoxious Macromedia/Adobe product).

A big time test for Nlite

I saw an XP Myths page this weekend, and although I don’t agree with its assessment of XP’s security, most of it seemed credible. It said XP can do fine on as little as a 233 MHz Pentium with 128 MB of RAM.

I whipped out a P2-266 with 192 MB of RAM to see.The specs are humble, to say the least: P2-266, 192 MB RAM (upgraded from 96 because XP kicks into some kind of "reduced functionality" mode with less than 128), and a very old Seagate 1.2 GB hard drive.

I installed XP with lots of pieces, like Media Player and the Internet Connection Wizard, removed, although I did leave in Internet Explorer.

Initially I formatted the drive FAT, since FAT does perform about 20% better than NTFS on limited hardware. The problem was the cluster size got me. Formatted FAT, I had about 100 MB free when the installation was complete, which is dangerously low. Converting to NTFS brought that up to 170 MB, and gives the option to compress some items to get some more space.

Performance wise, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Windows boots in 1 minute, 15 seconds after defragmenting the drive. Considering this 1.2 GB drive probably dates to 1996 at the latest, that’s awfully good. Memory usage was 96 MB, so you’d be able to run an application or two on it, although a modern web browser would feel claustrophobic after a while.

If I were actually going to try to use this computer, I’d put a decent hard drive in it–the newer the better, of course.

I would also want to upgrade the memory to 384 MB, which is the maximum this one supports. A cut-down XP seems to do just fine in 192 MB of RAM, but it wouldn’t do so fine with antivirus software loaded.

I still think a cut-down Windows 2000 is a better choice for this type of machine, but it’s certainly possible to run XP on it. With either OS, though, I would use Nlite to remove as much of the fluff as possible, to give yourself some space for whatever it is you really want to do with the machine. I think it would make a good PC to run educational software for kids, for example. And it’s nice to have a choice of something other than Windows 98 for that.

The Nlite-d Compaq revisited

I installed antivirus software on the Compaq today. As expected, it weighed things down–boot time doubled, to 40 seconds, and memory usage approximately doubled, to 212 MB.

I can’t do much about the memory usage. But half the system memory is still available for apps, which should be fine. Upgrading the memory is always an option for the future. The boot time was fixable.I ran Jk-Defrag, which is probably my favorite utility now. Full optimization didn’t take long on a system with so little on it. I used the option -a7 to sort by filename, which works surprisingly well.

To help the memory usage a little, I yanked the Microsoft Office stub out of the startup group. All that does is preload some of Office at boot time, so Office apps load faster. But modern hardware negates it. With that running, Word loads in about two seconds. Without it, Word loads in about two seconds. Windows XP’s prefetching gives the same benefit for free, so there’s no point in wasting memory on the Office startup piece.

The two changes dropped the boot time to 30 seconds, which is pretty good, especially on a conventional drive. A minute is typical for a stock Windows XP system, even on new hardware. Solid-state drive manufacturers brag about how their products can boot XP in 30 seconds.

I wonder how fast they’d boot if they’d been installed off my Windows CD?

Memory usage and boot time will jump some more when it comes time to actually use the system–scanner drivers and digital camera software need memory and take time to load. But that’s OK. My goal was just to reduce the overhead somewhat, since antivirus software is an absolute requirement these days, and its overhead is only going to go up. I ran across a year-old stash of virus definition files recently, and today’s files are more than 50% larger. The number of viruses out there is growing, and they are becoming more complex.

Nlite and Windows XP

Well, I had my first major experience with Nlite and Windows XP tonight. I installed a new 160 GB Seagate hard drive into Mom’s Compaq Evo 510 and I used Nlite to slipstream SP2 into Windows XP, since SP2 is necessary to properly use a drive that big.

The resulting image was far too big to fit on a CD, so I started pulling stuff out.Mainly I pulled out stuff like Outlook Express, MSN Explorer, and Media Player. I thought about removing Internet Explorer, but since Mom is going to use MS Office, I thought twice about that. Office uses IE for some things. If I’d been building the system for me, I’d pull that too.

I also removed most of the international support. I saw no need for anything other than US English and maybe Spanish, so I pulled the rest.

Installation went fast. Really fast. I laid down Windows XP, Office 2000, and Firefox in less than an hour. I used the Nlite CD to install the OS, and I installed Office and Firefox from a USB flash drive. All I need now is antivirus software and the system would be usable.

It boots lightning fast–we’re talking 20 seconds from POST to a desktop with no hourglass. Installing antivirus software will slow that down, but it’s impressive. Part of that is due to the new hard drive, but it’s a Seagate 7200.10. It’s newer and faster than the five-year-old Western Digital drive the system came with, but the 7200.10 isn’t exactly new technology anymore.

Memory usage isn’t bad either–100 megs at boot. That’ll double or triple once I install antivirus software, but at least I’m starting lower than usual.

I didn’t check disk usage, but I’m sure it’s much lower than the typical 1.5 GB.

I’m a believer. The results make me wonder just how old and slow of a computer I could get away with XP on.

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