There’s nothing we dislike more than firing up a fresh, new installation of an operating system only to find a slew of hotfixes, updates, and patches awaiting us through the Windows Update mechanism. Granted, we can take some small comfort from the fact that the updating process is relatively automatic—but not so when it comes to outfitting a new OS installation with all the requisite driver packages. This list can be a doozy: videocard drivers, soundcard drivers, motherboard drivers, etc.
But you can reduce the time and effort it takes to get a fresh install into tip-top shape. By creating a slipstreamed installation disc you’ll have all the patches, fixes, drivers, and options you need at the ready to be easily and automatically integrated into your next OS install—be it XP or Vista. This is especially relevant now, with new service packs available for both OSes (SP1 for Vista and SP3 for XP). If your original OS disc shipped prior to the SP release, your slipstreamed disc will give you all the newly added features. Depending on your operating system, you can make your customized installation disc using one of two handy tools, nLite or vLite. We’ll show you how.
First things first: Download nLite, then point the program to the directory where your Windows files reside. Just to clarify, that’s not C:\Windows\; the program wants the location of the installation files for your OS. The easiest way to accomplish this is to put your installation CD in the drive and tell nLite to look for the files there. Once nLite finds them, it’ll ask you where you want to save the installation files that will subsequently be modified by your tweaks. Make a new folder on your hard drive for this part. The program will copy over the installation files automatically.
Hit Next to be taken to the Settings menu. If you’ve crafted a customized nLite installation in the past, the parameters of your configuration will be listed here. Load them up and press the Next button until the program prompts you to burn a disc. Done!
If you’re starting from scratch, ignore the Settings screen and click Next. You can now decide what options you want to modify to create your customized installation disc. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going with the default All option. But once you’ve played around with nLite, you might identify certain areas of your installation that you don’t want to tweak. If so, you would deselect them from this options menu so they won’t appear later.
To start loading XP Service Pack 3 into your Windows disc, click Next. After you’ve done that, go to http://tinyurl.com/4qvth5 and download the SP3 installation file. Select the executable in nLite and hit Next. Congratulations—you now have an SP3 installation disc!
Now that SP3 is integrated, you’ll be staring at nLite’s Hotfixes and Updates screen. As the name suggests, this is where you can integrate any number of hotfixes or update packs into your installation—the same way you slapped SP3 onto your disc. Your best bet is to ignore this screen for now. Once you’re done making the slipstreamed disc and you have SP3 up and running, make a note of what fixes pop up in Windows Update and download them from Microsoft’s knowledge base. You can then integrate them into a future version of your slipstreamed disc.
The Drivers screen is a bit more important, as it allows you to integrate drivers directly into the slipstreamed disc. We wanted to pre-install the drivers for our videocard, so we grabbed the driver pack from Nvidia’s website. We then extracted the files from the archival executable to a separate folder and selected this folder as the source of the drivers in nLite. When you do this, the program gives you a list of all the drivers in the directory—in our case, a single file. We selected that, clicked OK, then clicked Next.
This takes you to the Components screen, where you can strip out the unwanted side features of the operating system. If you want a safeguard against removing critical applications, click the Compatibility tab and select the different topics that represent functionality you know you need to keep.
Otherwise, start stripping. We trimmed the fat from the applications section and nuked a ton of configurations from the keyboards menu. Your final selections are up to you, but here’s a helpful hint: If you don’t know what something does, don’t get rid of it.
Next, you’re presented with the Unattended screen, where you can shorten and modify the actual installation process of Windows XP itself. A number of tabs are responsible for the different sections of the installation routine. We started off by entering our Windows product key into the appropriate section on the General tab and turning off System Restore (we live on the edge). We then selected the Users tab and added all the different XP accounts we typically have on our machine, making sure to assign each to the appropriate local group.
We added our naming and workgroup details under the Owner and Network ID tab, leaving the Domain name field blank. We then made sure to set the correct options for our Automatic Updates and upped our display resolution to something a bit higher than Windows’s default—remember, since we’ve slipstreamed our videocard drivers, we should have no problem matching our monitor’s native resolution. Hit Next!
We didn’t change any of the settings on the following Options screen. It’s for editing system options that we’d much prefer to keep as-is at this point. Once you click Next, you’re presented with the final Tweaks menu. These are registry edits that control operating system-level functionality, the kinds of things you typically play with immediately after installing Windows.
We used this screen to delete unwanted desktop icons and adjust our Windows Explorer options (showing all file extensions, for example) to reflect our personal tastes.
We’re not going to run through all the options—that would take several more pages. Pick what suits you and hit Next; nLite will make the changes you’ve specified. After hitting Next one final time, nLite will present you with the option to create an image of your installation or burn it to rewriteable media directly. Make sure you hit the Make ISO or Burn button to do so—don’t just hit Next!
Creating a Vista slipstream disc is much like creating one for XP. Download and fire up vLite, place your Vista disc in your optical drive, and select it as the source of your installation files. Once vLite has copied the files to a new location on your hard drive, click Next. The following screen lets you pick what you want to modify on the disc. We want to merge SP1 into the installation files, so click that option. But note that you have to do this before you run any tweaks or secondary modifications—this procedural matter is important enough that the program actually grays out any other customization options.
Click Next and you’ll be prompted to select the location of the SP1 executable (you can download it at http://tinyurl.com/2pj24b). Once you’ve done that, the program will automatically integrate the update into the Vista installation files. After 60 to 90 minutes of activity, you’ll have a slipstreamed Vista SP1 disc. And now you can begin to tweak it!
Click the Tasks tab and select all five boxes of optional tweaking pages, then click Next. The following Integration page is just like the one we described for nLite: You use the Hotfixes tab to add in any supplemental patches you’ve downloaded, the Drivers tab to include the latest drivers for your peripherals, and the new Language Pack page to—you guessed it—add additional language packs to the slipstreamed disc. Whatever you choose to do, you have to click the “enable” box before you start—the Insert option will be grayed out until you do so. When you’re done, hit Next.
In the Components window, you’re able to set the options you know you’ll be running in Vista, just so you don’t accidentally remove them with your component tweaking. Other than that, this process is exactly the same as it was for nLite. Go through the list of options and click those you’re sure you want to remove from the installation disc: Perhaps you don’t need Accessibility options, hate Vista’s built-in games, or want to nuke all the operating system’s multimedia functionality and install your own programs later. Once you’ve made your modifications, click Next.
The following Tweaks page gives you the chance to modify some of Vista’s more annoying features before you install the OS. The first thing we did was flip off the relentlessly nagging UAC option. We also adjusted our power scheme to high performance and tweaked our Explorer settings to our liking. We ended up ignoring the Services section, as there was nothing we felt needed editing—or rather, nothing we felt comfortable turning on or off. Tweak away and hit Next—you’re almost done!
Since we’re only testing a Vista slipstream disc, we opted to skip entering our product key on the Unattended Setup options page. But we did choose to accept the EULA and we made edits to the various name and network location options. And that’s it! Click Accept and select the imaging technique you want to use. The Rebuild One option saves you a ton of space, but you only get the tweaked operating system you selected in the beginning of the process. Rebuild All places all Vista versions on the disc, even the ones you haven’t tweaked the options for.
Make your choice: Burn or create an image of your slipstreamed disc, and you’re good to go!