Downgrade Vista to XP in seven easy steps

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Windows 7’s arrival is just a few months away, but many people aren’t waiting and just want to replace Vista’s newness — some say weirdness — for the familiarity of XP.

If you long for the good old days of XP and still have your install CD, this step-by-step guide will help you revert to Vista’s predecessor.

These days, you have to work to find a new computer that comes with XP installed. Many PC users who upgraded their XP systems to Vista are disappointed with the newer OS’s performance and other problems. In either case, as long as you have an XP installation CD, you can kiss Vista good-bye.

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“Downgrading” from Vista to XP is not as difficult as you may think, but it does entail some time-consuming operations. Many online sources claim to offer techniques for reinstalling XP without having to reformat your hard disk. Based on my research, however, deleting the Vista partition and installing XP in its place is arguably the easiest approach. Moreover, this method ensures a clean install that is uncontaminated by Vista leftovers.

(Note: In certain cases, you may be able to undo an XP-to-Vista upgrade, even without an XP installation CD, by following the instructions in Microsoft article 933168. The article takes a command-line approach to the XP restoration, and also requires that you have a windows.old folder on your root drive.)

Make a pot of coffee and a new, clean XP machine

With your XP installation CD and your application discs in hand (and maybe a cup o’ Joe), you’re ready to begin:

Step 1. Back up your data. Unfortunately, you can’t restore in XP a backup that you created using Vista’s Backup and Restore Center. That means you have to either back up your data files manually or use a third-party backup tool that works in both XP and Vista. One such program is 2BrightSparks’ SyncBack (more info), which is available in free and paid versions.

Don’t bother backing up your applications; you’ll need to reinstall them from their installation CDs after XP is back in place.

Do back up the folders that your portable apps use to store their data. The portable apps themselves won’t need to be reinstalled, but you’ll have to restore their data files from the backup. Managing portable apps is discussed in the Oct. 18, 2007, Top Story, “Free software on USB enables portable computing.”

Step 2. If necessary, configure your BIOS to boot your computer from a CD, if one is present. Insert your XP installation disk and reboot.

Step 3. When XP setup loads, follow the on-screen prompts to accept the license agreement and continue installing XP. When you get to the screen prompting you for the partition on which to install XP, select the one containing Vista and press D to delete the partition. You’ll need to press Enter and then L to confirm that you want to delete all data and software on the partition.

Step 4. Once you’ve returned to the partitioning screen, select the unpartitioned space that used to be Vista. You may see that this space has been selected for you automatically. Next, press C to create a partition. Specify the desired partition size, or press Enter to accept the default allotment, which is the maximum possible partition. (Simply pressing Enter instead of C also creates a new partition of the default size.)

Step 5. If you’re still seeing the partition screen, make sure the desired partition is selected and press Enter. Choose the option that formats the disk as NTFS and press Enter again.

Step 6. Follow the prompts on-screen to continue the XP installation.

Step 7. Reinstall your applications and restore your data from your backup.

That’s all there is to it. If you ever change your mind, you can always insert your Vista DVD and upgrade from XP to Vista all over again.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-03-12: