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Building a new computer

Now that we've put the computer together and setup the BIOS options, we need to get down to business: Installing the operating system. For the purposes of this article we'll be focusing on Windows Vista, but we'll try and briefly cover XP as well.

What You Need to Know Before Installing

It's very important to stop and read these items, even if you don't read the rest:

If you are going to be dual-booting Windows XP and Windows Vista, you should always install XP first, then Vista.
In a dual-boot scenario, make sure that you leave plenty of room for either operating system. Don't try to get away with a tiny partition for one operating system just because you think you won't use it as much. Also, buy a big hard drive, they are cheap.
Windows XP does not have SATA drivers included. You'll either need to create a slipstreamed install cd, or set SATA to IDE mode in the BIOS.
If you want to use Linux instead, then great… unfortunately there are too many varieties to cover them here. I recommend Ubuntu, and for installation support you should check out the Ubuntu Forums.
Installing Windows Vista

I'm not going to cover every single step of installing Windows, but I would like to highlight a couple of very important options during the setup that can make a big difference. For the most part, installing Vista is a simple and easy task.

Step 1: Put the install disc in the drive, and boot up the computer.

You may or may not get this next screen, depending on your install disc. If you do, make sure that you select the version of Windows that you purchased, cause otherwise you'll have to reinstall later. (I'm not sure that retail editions show this screen, and I'm using an MSDN copy)

You'll be prompted to select whether you want to do an Upgrade or Custom install. If you selected an Upgrade edition, you'll need to have a previous version of Windows. My install disc only allows for a clean install, so there's not really a choice for me anyway.

Now comes the most important screen…. where do you want to install Windows? If you have previously installed XP, you will need to create a new partition in the space that you left open for Vista, which should say "Unallocated Space". (Whatever you do, install XP first in a dual-boot scenario)

You should be done with the install options at this point, and you'll see the install screen…

Your computer should reboot and you'll have to go through a couple of simple screens to create a user account, none of which are difficult. The interesting part comes later, when we need to start getting all the drivers updated and tweaked.

Installing Windows XP

If you are going to install XP in a dual-boot scenario, you should absolutely install XP first so you don't have to deal with the Vista boot loader being wiped out if you install XP second. I'm not going to go through the entire installation, but here's the highlights.

Here's what you need to know:

Windows XP does not have SATA drivers included.
You'll either need to create a slipstreamed install cd, or set SATA to IDE mode in the BIOS.
It's very unlikely that your graphics card or network card will work until you load the drivers. You could include those in the slipstream cd if you like.
Once you get to the screen where you can choose the partition, you have a couple of options. If you want to only install XP, you could just hit the Enter key and be done with it. If you are planning on doing a dual boot, however, you need to use "C" to create a new partition.

Note: If you get the message "Setup did not find any hard disk drives", then you need to create a slipstreamed install cd.

Choose the size for the partition, and I recommend leaving plenty of space for both Vista and XP. There's nothing more annoying than running out of space on one of the partitions in a dual boot.

You could create a second partition at this point if you want, or just install on the new C: partition.

The rest of the install is more or less painless, and since XP has been around for nearly a decade I'm sure you are familiar with it, but here's your next steps:

Install the Network Card Drivers (usually from the motherboard driver cd)
Install the Graphics Card Drivers
Install the rest of the drivers (motherboard, sound, etc)
Use Windows Update to patch the system. (Make sure you are patched through SP2 at least)
After Vista is Installed: Updates!

Now that you have Vista successfully installed, the first thing you should do is use Windows Update to get your system completely patched. This process will take… a long while. The annoying thing is that you'll need to run Windows Update a bunch of times… that "Check for Updates" link is your friend. (Sometimes it will return with no updates, but if you check again they'll show up.)

I would advise updating your system all the way through Service Pack 1 before you do anything else. It might take a lot of updates and a number of reboots to get to that point, but it will be worth it.

Note: if you don't have internet access at this point, you need to install the network card drivers from the motherboard drivers disc.

Updating Your Drivers

Having a system that works well depends greatly on the drivers, which are the pieces of software that tells the hardware what to do. If the driver you are using has a flaw in it… bad things are going to happen. That's why it's important to use updated drivers.

You will also get the best performance out of your video card by using the drivers provided by the manufacturer rather than the built-in Vista drivers.

What you need to know:

The cd that comes with your motherboard likely has driver versions that are already old. If you can get online with the built-in Vista drivers, just put that cd to the side.
You should always grab the latest drivers from the manufacturer's site for at least your motherboard chipset, video card, sound card and network card. Even better, get updates for all of them.
The first thing you can do is open up Device Manager through the start menu search box, and look for any items with question marks or exclamation points next to them. You'll notice in the screenshot below that there's an "Other devices" section with "Unknown device" in it, because I haven't loaded the chipset drivers yet. If you look even closer you'll see that the video card driver is the default Microsoft version, which is significantly slower than the latest manufacturer one.