Windows Vista Installation Super Guide, Part 3: Clean Install Windows Vista

As should be obvious, to get the best results from Windows Vista, you should simply buy a new PC. However, for a number of reasons, that's not always an option. New PCs, of course, are expensive. Mayb...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

23 Min Read
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As should be obvious, to get the best results from Windows Vista, you should simply buy a new PC. However, for a number of reasons, that's not always an option. New PCs, of course, are expensive. Maybe you purchased a Windows XP-based PC within the past year and would like to install Vista on it, but realize that upgrading isn't the best option. Or maybe you're just an average PC enthusiast who regularly upgrades their hardware and would never consider purchasing a mainstream machine from a tier-one vendor. Regardless of the reason, many Windows Vista users will find themselves having to clean install the OS. This is your guide.

To be clear, a clean install is a process by which you install Windows Vista, and only Windows Vista, on a new or existing PC. That PC could have a totally clean (i.e. empty) hard drive, or it could have an older operating system or other files. It doesn't matter: During a clean install, you will wipe out the contents of that hard drive, if there are any, in order to create a new and pristine installation of Windows Vista. When the clean install process is complete, the PC will boot only into Windows Vista, and will not offer choices for multi-booting into other operating systems.

While a clean install is the most desirable Windows Vista installation option short of buying a new PC, there are potential downsides to this process. You will need to backup whatever data might be on the PC ahead of time with the understanding that if you miss something, it's likely gone for good. And you will have to ensure that you have drivers for all of the hardware devices on the system, though Vista and Windows Update do a better job than ever of automatically finding the drivers you need. (You should have previously run the Update Advisor prior to this process if possible. For information about this valuable tool, please see part 2 of this ongoing series.)

For the purposes of this guide, I will generally assume that the PC to which you are installing Vista has just a single hard drive and that you intend to configure that drive as a single partition that occupies all of the space on the drive. However, I do provide some notes for those who wish to create additional partitions or use additional hard drives. As is always the case, if you run into any clean install issues that are not covered by this guide, drop me a note, as I'd like to keep it as up-to-date and comprehensive as is possible.

Pre-installation check-list

OK, let's get started. Here's what you should do before even attempting to clean-install Windows Vista.

1. Make sure you've got a new or used PC that meets Microsoft's minimum hardware requirements for Vista (or, better yet, my own recommendations as outlined in part 1 of this series).

2. You will need a retail version of the Windows Vista "Full" installation CD. (Upgrade versions will not work for the purposes of this guide. However, you should read How to Clean Install Windows Vista with Upgrade Media if you'd like to perform a clean install with Upgrade media.)

3. If there is a version of Windows XP already installed on the PC, run the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor to check on hardware compatibility issues. If the tool discovers any potential problems, visit the Web sites for the manufacturers of the affected devices and see whether there are any updated drivers available. If you do run into problems while installing Vista, one tack to take is to remove any unnecessary hardware devices from the PC and then try reinstalling: Oftentimes, Setup can fail because of an errant hardware device. If you do end up removing any devices before installing Vista, be sure to reinstall them into the PC one at a time so you can be sure what works and what doesn't.

4. Ensure your PC can boot from the DVD drive. Some PCs require you to manually select the boot order from within the BIOS or offer a way to temporarily set the boot device each time the system boots. Because each PC is different, I can't offer too much in the way of specifics here, but consult the on-screen text when your PC boots and your PC's documentation for details about booting from the installation DVD. Note: By default, Windows Vista only supports installation from DVD media (or from a network share in the case of a managed corporate environment), so that's the only option we'll discuss here. Note, however, that retail versions of Windows Vista include information for ordering CD-based install discs from Microsoft. In this day and age, however, it's hard to imagine any individuals who want to clean install Vista but don't have a DVD drive.

5. If you are going to wipe out an existing Windows installation, be sure to back up all of your important data first. Microsoft provides a handy tool called Windows Easy Transfer, which works only with Windows XP and Vista, to facilitate this process. I will cover that software tool, along with the optional Windows Easy Transfer Cable, in part 7 of this series. If you are running an older Windows version, you probably shouldn't be trying to install Vista on that machine. That said, you can always manually try to backup everything important. Just understand that many key data files, like your email and Internet Explorer (IE) Favorites, are often stored in hidden locations, so be careful if you choose this path.

We're ready. Let's clean install Windows Vista.

Step-by-step: Running Setup interactively

Thanks to Microsoft's componentization changes to the OS, the Windows Vista Setup process is much simpler than that of Windows XP and requires less user interaction. More important, perhaps, that interaction all comes right at the beginning of Setup and right at the end, so you no longer need to sit there and babysit interactive installs as you did with previous Windows versions. Note that the Windows Vista Setup process typically takes 20 to 40 minutes, depending on your hardware. This is significantly faster than XP Setup. And unlike with Windows XP, the Vista Setup process is pretty much identical for all retail versions of the OS. In this example, I will install Windows Vista Home Premium, but these steps will work with Vista Home Basic, Business, and Ultimate as well.

If you see a message about hitting a key to boot the DVD, do so. Otherwise, the PC will simply launch into Setup and display a black text-based screen with the message "Windows is loading files..." After that, you'll see the Vista boot screen and the screen will move into the initial phase of Setup.

For most people, the default values will already be correct, but make any needed changes and click Next to continue.

In this phase of Setup, you can choose between installing the OS ("Install now") or repairing a problematic, perhaps non-booting, Vista install ("Repair your computer"). We will examine repairing Vista in a future part of this series. For now, click "Install now" to continue.

After a brief pause, a screen appears in which you can optionally enter your product key and choose to have Windows automatically activate the OS installation (i.e. tie the product key to this hardware configuration). My advice here is simple, but perhaps unexpected: Do not type in your product key and do not let Windows automatically activation the install. Here's why: In the event that something goes wrong down the road, you might not want to automatically tie the only product key you received with this particular PC. Instead, you can enter this information later. So leave the product key field blank and uncheck the item titled "Automatically activate Windows when I'm online." Then, click Next to continue.

If you do choose to enter your product key, Setup will determine the Vista product edition to install and will not display the next two screens show here:

Because you have left the product key field blank, Vista Setup wonders if you're sure about this decision and asks if you'd like to correct your wicked ways and go back and enter the product key. Click No to continue.

Setup now prompts you to select the Vista version you have purchased. In general, you should of course choose the version you did purchase, but note that you can install any Vista version listed and experiment with it for a limited time before product activation kicks in and requires you to activate. Your product key will only activate the version of Vista you purchased. So you can't, for example, purchase Vista Home Premium and then install and activate Vista Ultimate: Installation will work fine, but activation will fail, and eventually you won't be able to use the system.

Now, select the appropriate product version (Vista Home Premium, listed as Windows Vista HOMEPREMIUM), check the item title "I have selected the edition of Windows that I purchased," and then click Next to continue. Be careful here: There are two versions of both Vista Home Basic and Vista Business listed; the versions with N at the end of their name are designed for the European Union only and do not include Windows Media Player 11. You almost certainly do not want to install these versions of Windows Vista by mistake.

In this phase of Setup, you must agree to the Windows Vista End User License Agreement (EULA). If you would like to view this document before purchasing the product, you can download a PDF version from the Microsoft Web site. There are separate versions for Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate and Vista Business. Check the item titled "I accept the license terms" and then click Next to continue.

Here, you can choose between an Upgrade install and a "Custom (advanced)" install. Or at least you could choose if you hadn't booted the system from the Setup DVD: Now, only the second option is available. And that's fine, because that's the one we want. Click the "Custom (advanced)" option to continue.

Here, you will see a graphical representation of your PC's hard drive (s), giving you the option to select a partition to which to install Windows Vista. On a brand new, one-drive system, you will likely see one partition lists, as shown in the screen shot to the left. However, this phase of Setup includes a number of useful utilities, hidden under the "Drive options (advanced)" option, that can help you perform various actions, most of which will be of interest to those with multiple partitions, or those who think they might later want to dual-boot Vista with another Vista version or perhaps a version of Linux. (If you think you will want to dual-boot Windows Vista with XP, you must install XP first. I will describe this process soon in part 4 of this series).

Let's examine some of the interesting options available under "Drive options (advanced)" before continuing.

By default, this phase of Setup has two basic options:

Refresh. This will refresh the graphical view of the partitions and disks available to you during Vista Setup.

Load Driver. If you are using some kind of advanced disk controller and, as a result, some disks are not showing up in Setup, you can use this option to load drivers now, with the hope that the disks will become available to you. For example, some RAID arrays are not immediately recognizable to Vista Setup.

Click Drive options (advanced), however, and a number of new options appear (Figure):

Delete. If you are working with a hard disk that has multiple partitions and would like to delete one or more of them, perhaps to later create a single partition (using New, discussed below), you can use the Delete option (Figure). Delete removes the partition and marks the space occupied by that partition as free and empty.

Format. On a hard disk with existing partition(s), you can use the Format command to wipe out any data contained on those partitions and return them to like-new, pristine condition. Note that formatted disks are essentially empty and that Windows Vista Setup does not requiring you to explicitly format a partition before installation: If you choose an empty partition, Vista Setup will automatically format the disk for you.

New. On a hard disk with no configured partitions (i.e. a "clean" or empty disk), you can click this option to create a new partition (Figure). This partition can be sized up to the physical capacity of the underlying drive (and is by default), but you can optionally choose to leave some empty space for later partition creation and formatting. (Windows Vista includes tools for this purpose.) In general, I recommend simply creating a partition that is the same size as the underlying disk, formatting it, and installing Vista.

Extend. If you are working with a hard disk that a partition and some empty hard disk space, and would like to extend that partition so that it now includes some or all of the empty space, you can use the Extend command (Figure). Note that the empty space much be available logically "behind" the currently-selected partition for this command to work. And you don't have to take all the available space: Setup will allow you to pick how much you'd like to add to the existing partition.

Note: Windows Vista Setup will only create NTFS partitions. Frankly, anyone trying to use FAT32 at this point just doesn't get it: NTFS is the mainstream file system used on Windows today and the only file system type you should use going forward.

Anyway, once you've established the location to which you intend to install Windows Vista, you can click Next to continue.

Well, this is it. Now, Windows Vista Setup will run through the process of installing the operating system on your PC. This multi-step process proceeds through the following steps:

Copying Windows files. In this phase, the Vista image (install.wim) file is copied to the PC's hard disk.

Expanding files. Here, the image file is expanded into the core Vista install, a bare bones version of the OS that will work on virtually any PC.

Installing features. This phase passes very quickly--blink and you'll miss it--because a stock Vista install doesn't have "features" to configure. Don't be confused by this name. In the parlance of Vista Setup, "features" are optional software applications that are external to the OS. If you perform a highly customized install of Vista, using Microsoft's enterprise-oriented deployment tools, you might have the opportunity to install these features at this time. For the average user, this step will simply come and go in an instant.

Installing updates. Here, Setup attempts to install any service packs or hot-fixes that you have added to the installation media. In Windows XP and previous NT-based versions of Windows, these updates would need to be "slipstreamed" into the Setup packages directly, a time-consuming and painful process. With Windows Vista, it's much simpler: All you have to do is copy the executables into a special folder on the install disk. Well, OK, it's not that simple: You will have to make your own bootable copy of the install disk for that to work, of course, but it's a lot easier than it used to be. I'll be writing about that process in the future.

After this, Setup reboots the PC. You'll see the "Windows is loading files" and standard boot screens, and then Setup will move into a text-like screen that says, "Please wait a moment while Windows prepares to start for the first time" (Figure). What's happening here is that the core Vista install that was expanded in the first step above is being combined with whatever features and updates it found. Once that process is completed, you're dumped back into the Installing Windows screen, though it's finally progressed to the final step...

Completing installation. Here, a basic set of hardware drivers for your particular PC are installed. Once this step completes, the PC reboots again. And now it's time to get interactive again.

Finally, you're presented with a pseudo-final Vista experience. In this phase, you'll step through a series of steps in a wizard that will help you configure the Vista install so you can actually begin using it. You'll see the following steps:

Choose a user name and picture. Here, you can choose a user name, a password, a password hint, and a picture to associate with the user account. (This picture will appear on the Welcome Screen and on the Start Menu once you're logged on.) Only the user name is required; Setup preselects a picture for you. But you should absolutely create a password. If you don't, your networking capabilities will be severely limited and your PC would be less safe. If you do choose to type a password, you'll see two new fields appear: One for retyping the password, and one for entering a password hint (Figure). Click Next to continue.

Type a computer name and choose a desktop background. This step lets you enter a name for your PC (but not, annoyingly, the workgroup name) and select from a tiny subset of the available background wallpapers. You can configure Vista with a workgroup name and choose from many more wallpapers after Setup is complete. Click Next to continue.

Help protect Windows automatically. Here, you choose whether Windows will automatically protect your PC against electronic attacks. The default choice, and the one I strongly recommend, is "Use recommended settings." When you choose this option, the following changes are made to your Vista install:

Optionally, you can also choose between "Install important updates only"--where only critical security updates are automatically downloaded and installed, and "Ask me later," where you essentially put off the decision about your PC's security to a later time. Frankly, neither of these options is particularly desirable. I know that the list above of actions Vista will take when you choose "Use recommended settings" seems intrusive. The truth is, the Internet is a dangerous place and Windows machines are the targets du jour. You'd be crazy not to enable this feature. You know, in my opinion.

Choose " Use recommended settings" to continue.

Review your time and date settings. Chances are the time and date are correct, but the time zone setting will likely be wrong unless you live in Pacific Time (as does Microsoft, which is why this is the default). Change the time zone, date, and time as needed, then click Next to continue.

Select your computer's current location. This is, in my opinion, one of Vista's niftiest features. In previous Windows versions, you had to make pretty technical decisions about your security settings when you connected to a wired or wireless network. In Vista, it's much simpler: When the OS determines that you've connected to a network, you're asked to choose between three simple location choices: Home, Work, and Public, each of which has increasing levels of security. (You won't see this option during Setup unless it correctly installs drivers for a network card.)

Use the Home option if the PC is connected to your home network. In this case, your PC will be made discoverable by other PCs and network devices, and you will be able to discover other PCs and devices on the network.

Work is configured similarly, but some of the media sharing options are disabled.

Public location should be used any time you access an untrusted network, be it a public access point, a wireless connection in a coffee shop or airport lounge, or whatever. In this configuration, your PC is locked down on the network and only standard Internet traffic is allowed through.

I'll assume you're installing Vista at home. Click Home to continue.

Thank you. The interactive portion of Vista Setup is complete. Click Start to continue.

In this annoying and time-consuming (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) phase of Setup, you must wait one to five minutes while Vista tests the performance of your system. While you wait, Vista will treat you to promotional material about how wonderful it is. Eventually, the screen will turn black, a cool sound will chime (assuming your sound hardware was correctly detected), and the Vista logo will burst on the screen (Figure). This must be good.

Now, you can enter the password, if any, for the user account you created during Setup and log on to Windows Vista for the first time. (You also will see a blue button on the right for accessing Ease of Access features and a red button on the right for restarting, hibernating, or shutting down the PC.) Click the blue arrow button (or tap Enter) and Vista will prepare your desktop for the first time.

What you see here will depend somewhat on how well your hardware devices were configured and installed. Windows Vista will load the desktop, complete with the background you configured, and load the Windows Sidebar on the right side of the screen. The Welcome Center window will also appear, providing you with access to a number of post-install tasks, some of which we'll examine below. If your networking hardware was correctly detected, Vista will download and install any pending updates. These will include hardware driver updates, so if your networking hardware was not correctly detected, you should install those drivers first so that Vista can go and grab whatever other drivers it will find online.

Post-installation tasks

Once Windows Vista is up and running, it's time to perform a few post-installation tasks.

You will want to immediately access Device Manager to find out whether there are any hardware devices connected to your system that need drivers. The most crucial, as mentioned above, is your networking hardware: If your networking hardware works, and Vista is connected to the Internet, it will automatically begin downloading any required updates, including drivers. To access Device Manager, double-click "View Computer Details" in Welcome Center, and then click the Device Manager link in the left side of the System window that appears. (Alternatively, just open the Start Menu and type "device manager" in the Start Menu search box.) If all of your hardware was correctly detected and installed, you will see a list unblemished by yellow "bang" icons. Otherwise, you will have a bit of work to do. First, let Windows Update do its thing by downloading and installing any needed updates. You might have to reboot a few times and manually run Windows Update repeatedly until all necessary updates are installed. Do this before anything else.

If you're adding this Vista PC to an established home network, you will likely need to change the default workgroup name (imaginatively named "WORKGROUP") to whatever name you use (I chose "THURROTT"). To do this, double-click "View computer details" in the Welcome Center and then click the "Advanced system settings" link in the left side of the System window. Then, on the Computer Name tab of the System Properties dialog that appears, click Change. Here, you can change the computer name and workgroup. Note that any changes will require a reboot, though you can opt to reboot later. Everything will still work.

Windows Vista includes and monitors firewall, automatic updating, spyware and malware protection, and other security features. But it does not include anti-virus protection for some reason. And until you install and update a compatible AV client, you're going to see a red Security Center icon in your tray. To better protect your system, be sure to at least install an AV client. You can go the full security suite route if you want, but I find that to be overkill. In fact, I've found that the free AVG Free Edition software from Grisoft works just fine. Did I mention it was free? Don't do anything else online until you've finished updating your system through Windows Update and have downloaded and installed an AV solution.

From here, you're going to want to perform other tasks, such as adding other users, installing other applications, configuring the system further (right-click the desktop and choose Personalization to choose between a host of configuration options), activating Windows, and so on. We're going to spend more time on these tasks in a future part of this series. For now, the goal is simply to get a clean install of Windows Vista up and running, with full hardware support and a configured AV solution.

Where to go from here

At this point, your pristine install of Windows Vista should be ready for whatever configuration changes and application installs you care to make. However, there are a number of other things you might want to do: We'll look at migrating settings and data from older PCs, customizing and configuring a new install, and troubleshooting a Vista install, and other related issues later on in this series. Next up, however, we'll examine installing Vista in a dual-boot situation with Windows XP. This next article will be posted by Wednesday, July 18, 2007.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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