Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Build an XP-SP2 Recovery Disc

Odds are your PC came with a recovery disc, a CD with all the programs and drivers that were installed on its hard drive when it was new. The odds are also that you have absolutely no idea where that disc is.

The good news is that it probably doesn't matter. First, the recovery discs provided by most PC manufacturers are designed for a single purpose: to restore your computer to the state it was in when you bought it. This process typically involves wiping your hard drive clean and then reinstalling Microsoft Windows and the handful of programs originally included with your PC. Unless you're preparing the whole kit and caboodle to sell on eBay, this is probably not something you'll ever need.

Second, the hardware drivers on your recovery CD are probably out of date, either made obsolete by newer and better versions available online, or simply irrelevant because of new hardware you've installed.

So, instead of fretting about the old recovery CD, why not take a few minutes and make one of your own?

Taking Stock

Ideally, a recovery disc should act as a safety net should anything disagreeable (hard drive crash, virus, spyware attack, driver corruption, etc.) happen to your hard drive or its data. A good recovery disc will let you reinstall Windows or a required driver to fix a minor problem, or restore all your backed-up data if need be.

To prepare a recovery CD, you'll need: (1) an original Windows XP CD, (2) a valid Windows product key, (3) a collection of your most essential hardware drivers, and (4) a copy of your backup software so you can access your archived data.

The first ingredient, the Windows XP CD, may prove the most troublesome, simply because many manufacturers omit it in lieu of some sort of customized "express install" recovery disc. If Windows came preinstalled on your PC but the manufacturer didn't provide a full Windows XP CD, contact the company and ask for one (you did pay for it, after all). In most cases, you'll get one for free, no questions asked.

But you're not out of the woods yet. Now that Service Pack 2 is out and has been force-fed to most of the Windows XP machines on the planet, your pre-SP2 Windows XP disc may not do what you need it to. (This next step isn't necessary if you already have an SP2 installation CD.)

Slipstreaming Service Pack 2

Here's the problem: Once you upgrade to SP2, you won't ever be able to install the original version of Windows XP over it; you have thus rendered the ancient practice of reinstalling the operating system impossible.

The solution is to create a new hybrid installation CD from your original Windows XP CD and a special version of SP2, a process known as slipstreaming. (Etymology: a term from fluid mechanics, also used in Star Trek: Voyager.)

To create a slipstreamed Windows XP-SP2 CD, first create a new folder called "xp" in the root folder of your hard drive. (You'll need about a gigabyte of free space.) Insert your original Windows XP CD, start Windows Explorer, and then navigate to your CD drive (usually D:\). Highlight everything in the root folder of the CD and copy it all to the C:\xp folder you just created.

Next, go to Microsoft's Web site and search for the "Windows XP Service Pack 2 Network Installation Package for IT Professionals and Developers." Download the 272MB file, WindowsXP-KB835935-SP2 -ENU.exe, and save it to a new folder on your hard drive, C:\sp2.

Open a Command Prompt window (Start | All Programs | Accessories | Command Prompt), and then type this command at the prompt:

c:\sp2\WindowsXP-KB835935-SP2-ENU /integrate:c:\xp

If all goes well, the process should take a minute or two and then conclude with a simple completed message box. (If it doesn't work, then your copy of Windows XP can't be slipstreamed.)

The Elusive Product Key

Like it or not, you'll need a valid product key to reinstall Windows XP or install any Microsoft service pack down the road. Without it, your recovery disc will be naught but a coaster for the cup of coffee you're likely to need.

Windows setup manager

You can find the 25-digit product key on the hologram-laden certificate of authenticity, on the Windows XP CD sleeve, or on the Microsoft sticker on your PC. If you can't locate your key, you can get one from your PC manufacturer or directly from Microsoft (provided that you can prove you own a valid Windows license).

Once you have the product key in hand, write it directly on the original Windows XP CD with a soft marker pen (and also on the CD-R you're creating here) so you won't have to scramble for it in a pinch.

If you want, you can set up what Microsoft calls an "answer file" to enter your product key automatically so you don't have to type it in later on. On your original Windows XP CD (Professional Edition only), navigate to the \Support\Tools folder, double-click on DEPLOY.CAB, and then double-click on Setupmgr.exe to open the Windows Setup Manager wizard. When prompted, choose Create a new answer file and then Windows Unattended Installation. For the User Interaction Level, choose Provide defaults; when asked about the Distribution Folder, answer No. Finally, you'll see a new window, into which you can specify defaults; select Providing the Product Key on the left, type your product key in the text fields on the right, and then save the unattend.txt file into your C:\xp folder. For more information, open the setupmgr.chm file, also found in DEPLOY.CAB.

Pile on the Drivers

The Windows XP SP2 setup files should now consume about 600MB , leaving about 100MB free when they are placed on a garden-variety CD-R. Use this space to include drivers for your most important hardware devices. You can download the appropriate drivers from the hardware manufacturers' Web sites.

In the C:\xp folder, create a new folder called DRIVERS, and then create a subfolder for each driver. For instance, create a VIDEO folder for your display adapter drivers, a NETWORK folder for your Ethernet or wireless-network adapter driver, and MODEM for your modem driver (if needed). Make sure to include all drivers and software you will need to get your PC connected to the Internet. Once your Internet connection is up and running, you'll be able to download the less-vital drivers, such as those for your printer and sound card.


To be certain all these drivers will work when you need them, don't use anything you haven't personally tested. And don't forget to expand any ZIP files or self-extracting EXE files now, so that you'll be able to access the individual driver files during Windows setup if needed.

Finally, if there's room on your CD-R, make a folder for your backup software so that you'll be able to get your data off your backup media. Likewise, include any SCSI, tape drive, or FireWire drivers you might need to access your backup devices.

Build an XP-SP2 Recovery Disc

Bootstrap and Burn

Next, you make your recovery CD bootable by using IsoBuster (www.smart-projects.net/isobuster) to extract the boot loader from your original Windows XP CD. In IsoBuster, select your CD drive from the list, highlight the Bootable CD folder on the left, and then drag the BootImage.img file from IsoBuster to your hard drive.

Now it's time to burn a new CD. You'll need CD-burning software capable of creating a bootable CD, such as Roxio Easy Media Creator 7, PC Magazine's current Editors' Choice ( www.roxio.com ), or Nero Burning ROM 6 or later ( www.nero.com ). (Sonic Solutions is acquiring Roxio's software division, but there are no plans to change the brand name.) Just drag the entire contents of the C:\xp folder to your CD project, and then use the BootImage.img file for the boot image data (refer to your CD-burning software manual for details). When you're ready, burn the CD.

Take It on the Road

Your new recovery CD is useless if you don't keep it near your computer. If you have a laptop, stow a copy of the CD in your laptop case; a typical CD-R weighs about half an ounce (15 g).

If that's still too much bulk to carry around with your ultralight portable PC, you can cut that weight in half with a 3-inch "pocket" CD-R. These hold only 185MB, so you won't have room for Windows XP, but you'll be able to carry around your most essential drivers.

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