September 23, 2008

Nifty Add-ons For Dual-Booting Vista and XP, and One to Avoid

I've been meaning to post this one for a while, since I'm sure there are others who'd like having their PC dual-boot between Windows Vista and XP, at least until we get a better glimpse of what Windows 7 has to offer.

While there are a number of self-help guides online for installing XP on a Vista PC and vice versa (the steps are different depending on which OS is installed first), I thought I'd share my experience and recommendations for two free dual-booting software apps: NeoSmart's EasyBCD and PROnetworks' VistaBootPro.

You see, Windows' boot file structure changed between XP and Vista. With Vista, Microsoft introduced BCD (Boot Configuration Data) as the new method for handling multiple boot entries. As I mentioned, several programs try to help make this easier. They allow easy control over your boot menu options, such as which OS will boot by default, setting the delay period to allow you to choose manually in the boot menu, etc.

When I installed XP Pro on my Vista Ultimate laptop, I downloaded and installed VistaBootPro first as it seemed a little easier to use. I repartitioned my laptop's hard drive using the "Shrink Volume" feature in Vista's drive tools, and installed XP Pro on the new partition. XP naturally overwrote the boot files so that the laptop booted into XP, and therefore couldn't "see" the Vista boot loader at bootup (this is normal).

But beware: After installing VistaBootPro, it trashed the XP boot loader, resulting in it not finding the boot files and making the laptop unbootable in either XP or Vista. I restored my hard drive image from backup (always do a full drive image backup before attempting anything like this), repartitioned, and re-installed XP. My laptop booted into XP as it should. Again, all was great until I reinstalled VistaBootPro, and the same problem occurred on the third attempt as well, so I strongly recommend staying away from this one unless you enjoy raising your personal frustration level by a factor of 10 and wasting several hours.

Next, after starting over, I installed EasyBCD instead of VistaBootPro. XP booted just fine, and I launched EasyBCD to configure the dual boot options between Vista and XP Pro. It was almost as easy to use as VistaBootPro with the key exception that EasyBCD actually worked for me.

Here's another handy tip: Download and install iReboot, a tiny companion program from NeoSmart that runs in your system tray in each Windows OS. iReboot allows you to right-click on it to reboot directly into the other OS, bypassing the boot menu altogether for a faster reboot. I installed it after a few times of accidentally rebooting into Vista because I missed my 15-second window in the boot menu to select XP Pro. iReboot has saved me a lot of potentially lost time. It's also available from within the EasyBCD program, just click on its "Useful Utilities" button. Just remember you need to install it in both XP and Vista. It only takes up a very tiny 400K of memory so it doesn't detract from system performance.

Why default to Vista? Some may be surprised to hear I actually prefer Vista's Aero interface, search, Windows Update, and several other enhancements over XP and use it for my regular personal computing. Out of the box, Vista Ultimate has been incredibly stable and reliable on my laptop, a bit more so than even XP Pro -- go figure. I also wanted to learn its intricacies and foibles. However, I prefer to do my web development and photo editing on XP Pro simply because XP is leaner, applications run faster on it, and it doesn't have the overly restrictive security hangups of Vista, which tends to get in the way of development work.

By the way, even though Microsoft stopped distributing Windows XP to retailers at the end of June, you can still purchase Windows XP from stores and online retailers such as Amazon and Newegg as long as they have remaining stock. (I just checked online and they do.)

Tip: Make sure if you're planning to install XP on a newer PC that you can get your hands on the appropriate Windows XP drivers for all its devices and components from your PC manufacturer. Only some may provide them now, as I've heard a number have stopped supporting XP altogether on newer hardware. While XP may run on newer hardware using its bundled generic drivers, it probably won't be optimal, and you may have one or more unrecognized hardware devices in XP's Device Manager as a result.

Topic(s):   Trick or Treat
Posted by Jeff Beard