Hands On: How to Install Windows Vista Beta

Microsoft last month made Windows Vista Beta 2 publicly available for download or delivery on DVD via its Windows Vista Consumer Preview Program (CPP). The CPP closed to new registrations on June 30, and it appears Microsoft will not reopen it when Vista Release Candidate 1 arrives, but all registered CPP users will be offered RC1 as well.

What's the best way to install and test Windows Vista? There are three main ways to do so gracefully. There are also one or two tricks of the trade.

First, though, some things you should know: The downloadable version is an ISO file, which is designed to be burned to a DVD and then installed from the DVD. That means the computer you're installing Vista on needs a DVD drive. It is, though, possible to get around that requirement by installing Vista over a network from a machine that has a DVD drive to a machine that does not. My recommendation is to use a wired, not wireless, connection when you're doing this.

If you order the DVD, you'll get the 32-bit and 64-bit versions on two separate DVDs. You can also download the 64-bit version. Go with the 32-bit one, even if you're installing on a 64-bit machine — unless you have a specific need to test 64-bit Vista. You'll encounter fewer hassles this way.

The Consumer Preview Program offers Windows Vista Ultimate only. Ultimate, as I've described in past, has all the features of all other versions of Windows Vista. So you'll get to see everything. It won't, however, help you understand the differences among lesser versions. For a heads up on the differences between Vista versions, see the Vista versions comparison table on page 12 of my Computerworld story, 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista (scroll down).

Finally, there is no information in this article about installing Vista Beta 2 or RC1 as an upgrade to an existing Windows installation. That's because performing upgrade installations is a bad idea. Microsoft would really like you to do it, because it wants information about what happens in the wild when people upgrade their systems. But don't be a Vista guinea pig. Upgrade installations never work as well as they should. And, while the final version of Vista may offer an uninstall option, the beta version does not. Even if you could uninstall it, there's no guarantee it would properly uninstall. If you install Vista as an upgrade, you will have to wipe your hard drive and reinstall your previous version of Windows after the test version expires. Every prerelease version of Vista expires, by the way, usually in three to six months. Did I make this plain enough? Your only rational choices for installing Vista Beta 2 are:

1. Installing to a new partition with a dual-boot arrangement.

2. Installing cleanly on a wiped hard disk.

3. Installing in a virtual machine in conjunction with a virtualization utility.

Dual-Booting with XP

I vastly prefer to install Vista beta software to a second partition running in Microsoft's dual-boot configuration with Windows XP. This arrangement gives you more control over the Vista partition. For example, if — as happened to me recently — Vista Beta 2's Product Activation module spews several greasy gaskets and leaks about three quarts of hot motor oil on the floor and decides you're no longer activated, you don't have to resort to some sort of boot disc to wipe the drive. Just boot back into Windows XP and use a decent disk utility to blow away the Vista partition and start over.

Windows Vista, like other versions of Windows before it, automatically creates a boot menu that lets you choose between launching Vista and your previous version of Windows each time your computer starts. All you have to do is create a new NTFS partition on your hard drive and install Vista as a new installation to that partition.

The setup routines of some previous versions of Windows, including Windows XP, have been able to create new partitions as part of the Windows installation process. The betas of Vista display this functionality, but it's grayed out. I recommend the use of a third-party utility called PartitionMagic.

I've been an active PartitionMagic user for over a decade. PartitionMagic, developed by PowerQuest, was the first nondestructive, dynamic partitioning utility. What that means is that you can install PartitionMagic on any Windows computer and use it to create a new partition on your hard drive from the unused storage capacity on the drive. PartitionMagic will shrink your existing partition to a size you specify, create a new partition, assign it a drive letter and format the new partition. And it will do all that without harming any of the data in your original partition. PartitionMagic, which Symantec purchased a few years ago, supports Fat32, NTFS and a wide range of other file systems. There are many other disk-partitioning utilities that perform the same functions, and even a few that are free. I haven't tried them all, though. (I have used and like Paragon Software's Partition Manager.) For a list of other partitioning products, see this Wikipedia entry on disk partitioning.

To install Vista smartly in a new partition, you need at least 20GB of free storage capacity. Create a new 15GB drive, and leave a minimum of 5GB free to your existing Windows installation. That will leave you a bit of room to install apps on your Vista partition. This configuration is fine for a temporary installation of Vista just to see what it's like. When you're done, delete the Vista partition and restore things as they were.

If you plan to make this a long-term Vista installation and you're planning to move data over and install Office 2007 there, make it a 20GB or 25GB Vista partition. You also don't want to choke off the operating system in your main volume or your ability to add new apps and data there. So leave at least 10GB free, and 15GB would be better. If you don't have 20GB to 40GB of hard disk space free, upgrade your drive capacity, clean install Vista on a different machine (wiping the drive) or use the virtual memory solution I detail later in this article.

Partitioning Your Drive
Start by making sure you've backed up all important data on your hard drive. Install PartitionMagic. Restart Windows. Run PartitionMagic. Select your main drive volume (your C: drive) and then, from the Partition menu, choose Resize/Move. Use the slider to move the right edge of your main drive to the left, to reduce the size of your main drive. Then choose Partition > Create. Let Partition Magic assign the drive letter. Finally, choose Partition > Format, and format the new partition with NTFS (required for Vista Beta 2).

Partition Magic carries out the changes you direct in batch mode. So, when you're done, click the Apply button in the Operations Pending area. PartitionMagic will need to restart your computer to carry out some of these operations; just let it do so. PartitionMagic wants you to create backup disks. I'll be frank, I don't do this. And I've never needed them. That doesn't mean you'll lead as charmed a life. If it's the first time you're using PartitionMagic, I recommend doing this.

When your computer boots back into Windows, you should find a new drive in My Computer. Double-check that you can open it.

Your next step is to install Vista. You can either do this by booting to the Vista disc or just inserting the disc while your previous version of Windows is running. I find the second method to be a little faster, but not if you have to wait to boot your old version of Windows. The results are the same either way. Among the first several screens is one that asks you where you want to install Windows. Be sure to choose the partition whose drive letter matches the one you just created. Because that partition is empty, Vista will perform a clean installation.

Dealing with the new Boot Loader
What I'm about to describe is in a state of flux. And it's possible Microsoft will rectify this issue before Vista ships. The problem is this: When attempting to remove a Vista beta from their systems, some people have gotten into a situation where, after deleting the Vista partition, their computers continue to attempt to boot to Vista, resulting in a dead end in which no version of Windows boots.

The underlying problem is that Microsoft has significantly changed the code that handles the boot menu in Vista. Under Windows XP, this is controlled by a simple text file called boot.ini, located in the root directory. Vista ignores this file and creates its own more-secure Vista boot registry database, called Boot Configuration Data (BCD). So far, so good. But the tool Microsoft offers for editing the BCD, bcdedit.exe, is difficult to use.

I will be covering this more in the future, but there are two solutions. The first is to merely delete the C:\Boot folder that Vista installs. It turns out that this is a relatively easy proposition, as long as you start by setting the Vista boot loader's BCD to default to loading your Windows XP installation. Then you can boot into Windows XP, delete your Vista partition and then reboot Windows XP. After you reboot to XP, you should be able to delete the C:\Boot folder, completing the uninstall of dual-booted Windows Vista.

Just to be clear, you should only attempt to delete the C:\Boot folder after you have deleted or wiped the Vista partition. Managing this process has become a bit easier with a third-party utility called VistaBootPro.

Editing the BCD is a simple process with VistaBootPro. You can install and use it from Windows XP or Vista, and also Longhorn Server, Server 2003 and Windows 2000 Pro and Server. Among the many useful things it offers is the ability to disable and later re-enable the BCD. Although it doesn't actually delete the Boot folder, it does eliminate the problem I described above. The only hitch is that you have to do this after you delete Vista and before you restart your computer. Change the order, and even VistaBootPro can't help you. So, wouldn't it be nice if VistaBootPro came with its own boot disc? A 2.0 version of VistaBootPro is due out shortly. We'll see what new features it offers. But every Vista beta tester should have this tool. And it's currently free. VistaBootPro is a Scot's Newsletter "Program of the Month."

Microsoft is also in the process of making changes to BCD and bcedit.exe, although it's not clear what changes it's making. For more information from Microsoft about BCD, see this FAQ.

One key point to remember is that your Windows XP boot.ini file must remain in place as long as XP remains on your system. It controls XP's boot, while BCD controls Vista's boot. Editing the boot.ini file will have no effect on Vista, but it does affect the way XP boots, even with Vista installed.

Installing Vista in a Virtual Machine
If you've never tried a modern virtualization utility, you're in for a treat. Nowadays, such utilities are very easy to use. They don't require gobs of RAM or disk space. And as long as they support ACPI (the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), they more than likely offer the ability to let you install and run Windows Vista Beta 2 in a virtual machine running from Windows XP.

I'm a big fan of the Parallels virtual utility for running Windows on a Macintosh. It does an excellent job. But the Parallels Windows virtualization utility doesn't support ACPI, which is required by Vista. My favorite virtual utility under Windows is VMware Workstation 5.5.

A virtual machine is a virtualized "computer" running as a separate instance. It has virtualized disk capacity and RAM, as well as a share of the CPU and I/O. Naturally, it also has its own operating system. Most modern virtualization utilities reduce the size of the disk space needed and expand drive space automatically as you add software and data. Most also let you manually reconfigure a virtual disk's storage capacity, RAM and other particulars.

What's especially nice about virtual machines is that you can leave them running. So, for example, you could be running Windows XP and have a virtual machine window running Vista, giving you ready access to both operating systems.

In order to be truly usable, virtualization utilities all provide a custom driver set that allows you to use your mouse seamlessly, copy and paste between the virtual machine and host operating system, display the virtual machine operating system's native screen resolution, and share the networking functionality of the host computer. (The VMware product refers to this driver set as the "VMware Tools.") Because Windows Vista isn't a finished product yet, no virtual machine product I've tried has a full and complete custom driver pack for it yet.

VMware Workstation does a pretty good job of running Vista Beta 2. Some of the little extras of Vista don't show up with VMware, such as Vista's Aero graphics mode (at least in my tests). But it works well enough in other regards. All in all, it's a very simple way to try out Vista without going through a lot of machinations.

Now that you're armed with a little inside information, you're good to go on your test of the next version of Windows.

If there's one thing I've learned in my 15 years of testing Windows, it's that people come up with ingenious ways of working with beta software. If you think you've got another good way, perhaps a better way to install or work with Vista, why not tell me about it.

Online editorial director Scot Finnie has been an editor for a variety of IT publications for more than 20 years. This article is reprinted by permission from Scot's Newsletter.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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