Reliving the hell of a Windows XP installation


Jon Honeyball installs Windows XP on a PC for the first time in years - and hates every minute of it

I've just endured a truly unpleasant experience that left me annoyed, even angry, and feeling slightly soiled. I thoroughly scrubbed my hands and even considered investing in a biohazard suit and decontamination shower. Yes, I’ll admit it, I just installed Windows XP onto a PC – and what an indescribably horrible experience it was.

This isn’t just an excuse for a rant, because I’ll confess that I quite like XP – assuming you’re talking about the Professional version, and that it’s fully updated and patched (and running in a virtual machine where possible).

This was the first time in years that I’d installed XP onto raw hardware, probably more than five of them if my memory can stretch back that far. Let me qualify that further: it was the first time I’d installed XP onto raw hardware using the standard installation routine.

We too readily forget how awful things used to be, and this was a real wake-up call

Those of my clients who still use Windows XP have all built installation media (Ghost images and so forth) that allows them to blow XP onto their ancient PCs in minutes with all the necessary drivers in place, leaving only the rather tedious update process to pull in the latest patches. It was a rude shock to be reminded of how nasty it was to install XP onto a bare computer using the original installation media. We’ve become so used to current versions of Windows having almost all the required drivers built in, that having to scrabble around searching for drivers now feels intolerable.

I hadn’t chosen a new computer, and the box I installed it on was the old Medion I bought six years ago from Tesco (it originally came with XP if I remember correctly). The driver CD was long-gone, but I’d remembered to stash away the driver set for the motherboard and network adapter on a file server share. That wasn’t enough to get the Intel RAID array working of course, and I ended up having to break the RAID and reset everything to raw disk mode. I could have loaded a RAID driver at the appropriate moment during the install cycle, but it wasn’t to hand – I was already irritated and the clock was ticking.

I gave up trying to get the sound card to work – a driver download from the chipset vendor’s website just didn’t want to install – and getting the graphics card going was equally annoying. I knew it was an Nvidia card of some description, but had no idea about which OEM had cobbled it together. I went to Nvidia’s site and found an analysis tool that could tell me which card I have, but it required the installation of Java. I felt my will to live slowly seep away. I don’t dislike Java that much, but its whining, nagging updater tool brings me out in a rash. Worse still, the link to install Java from Nvidia’s website took me to a link that didn’t work, so I had to manually go to and download the package.

After all that the Nvidia tool couldn’t recognise my chipset anyway: it wanted me to dismantle the PC to get some hints from the circuit board labels. This identified it as a card now relegated to the archive area of Nvidia’s site. I downloaded the driver and finally had a reasonable screen resolution, at which point I gave up trying to fix the remaining problems. I didn’t need sound; it could remain broken.

What a farrago of nonsense. If I were to put Windows 7 64-bit onto this computer, its installer would load up everything required in a fuss-free way. Sometimes, we too readily forget how awful things used to be, and this was a real wake-up call. Even so, all isn’t always sweetness and light on a brand-new PC.

I’ve been looking at a number of laptops and Ultrabooks recently, most of which have a hardware or OEM updater application in addition to the normal Windows Update. It’s really important that you dig out and run this updater to ensure you have the latest drivers and firmware, and don’t be too surprised to discover that your spanking-new, just-released shiny Ultrabook requires a new BIOS and a whole bunch of updated drivers. It’s just as vital that you keep these things as up to date as the operating system, although of course we reserve a special place in Hell for Adobe’s Flash updater and the aforementioned Java one.

Manufacturers need to make their updater applications considerably more shouty on the first installation, and then to have them regularly monitor their own delivery sites for new updates. I’d be impressed by any company that actually managed to integrate its driver and firmware delivery into the Microsoft-managed updater service beloved of small and large businesses alike. I’d certainly recommend a vendor that enabled your system administrator to deploy these patches to a group of laptops within your organisation as easily as sending out a new driver or OS patch.