Talking tech since 2003

Previously, I did a how-to on how to get better Windows performance.  That tutorial covered disabling unnecessary services and startup items, as well as disabling fancier graphics and special effects that tend to require heightened system resources and ultimately diminish performance.  However, all of this was done post-installation after the system had already been put through use.

In today’s how-to, I’m going to cover how to use nLite, a slipstreaming utility for Windows 2000 and XP, to make a Windows installation CD that is not only enhanced for performance, but has drivers, applications, and settings pre-configured, ultimately allowing for a much more efficient installation experience.

Downloading and Installing

Downloading and installing nLite is a very simple process.  Simply head over to the download page on nLite’s website, and download the executable file.  Once you have it downloaded to your computer, simply install it by using the on-screen prompts.  One of the great things about the nLite installer is that you can essentially hit “Next” throughout the prompts, as all of the questions are basic and it doesn’t put an icon on your desktop by default.

Starting the Customization

Once you have nLite installed, you can find it either in your “Start” menu in the “nLite” folder, or, if you choose to create a desktop icon during installation, you can access it via the desktop as well.

Upon launching nLite, the first screen you will see is the “Welcome to nLite!” screen.  This screen gives you a brief overview of the process, and shows a list of supported operating systems.  Make sure that the operating system you are trying to customize is supported. When you are ready, click “Next”.

The next screen will prompt you for the directory in which your Windows installation files are located.  In my case, I have a Windows XP CD which I will be using as my source.  This being the case, you simply select the “Browse” button, and navigate to your CD drive.  If you have your Windows installation files on another location such as on your hard drive or at a network location, you will need to point nLite in that direction.

After giving nLite the location of my installation files, it displays a dialog box asking where I want to save the installation files to use with nLite.  You can save these wherever you wish, however in my case I simply created a folder on my desktop entitled “Customized-XP”.

Next, nLite will copy the files to the given directory.  When it is done, you will get a short summary of the installation source, and you will be able to proceed onto the next step.

Note: nLite will display a “Presets” window in which you can import and further customize an installation media which you have previously customized.  In our case, we are simply going to skip this set.

Select Your Tasks

Once your installation source has been set up correctly, you will be asked what customization tasks you wish to perform.  Simply select the buttons for each of the tasks you would like to perform.  In this how-to, I’m going to do every option, for the exception of the “Unattended” installation.  If you wish to do an unattended installation as part of your customization process, it’s simply a matter of pre-entering your name, organization, license information, and regional information; the same information that would be asked of you during setup.

Service Packs

To integrate a service pack, you will first need to download the appropriate file from Microsoft’s website.  Be sure to download a stand-alone service pack, and not one that requires use of Windows Update.  In my case, I downloaded the third service pack for Windows XP.  More specifically, I downloaded the “Network Installation Package for IT Professionals and Developers”, as this was the stand-alone version.

With your service pack setup file downloaded onto your computer, simply click on the “Select” button in the “Service Pack” window, and navigate to and select the executable.

Once you select the service pack to integrate, nLite will begin the process of integrating it.  This should not take more than a couple of minutes.

Once the service pack has been successfully integrated, you will receive a message alerting you that the operation was successful.  From there, you can proceed onto the next step.

Integrating Hotfixes, Addons, and Update Packs

The next step is to integrate in any hotfixes (patches), addons, or packs of updates.  These can be found on Microsoft’s website under the “Downloads” section.

Additionally, a lot of third-party software is available from a site called WinAddons.  They have a lot of programs such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, OpenOffice, etc.

Simply download the addons you want, and integrate them using the “Insert” button at the bottom of the dialog.

Integrating Drivers

Integrating drivers before installation ensures that everything is up and running right out of the box.  To do so, simply select the “Insert” button at the bottom of the page, and select “Multiple drivers folder”.  From there, navigate to the folder on your computer which contains the drivers you would like to integrate.

From there, you need to select which drivers to integrate.  While this may seem like a small task, you need to ensure that you are only selecting the drivers for your operating system (e.g. Windows XP, Windows 2000, etc.), and for your platform (32 bit or 64 bit).  Selecting the wrong drivers could leave you with a faulty installation media.

Removing Components

Before you remove any components, nLite will ask what features you want to keep.  Select the checkbox next to the features you need, and nLite will eliminate the removal option of said components.

From this point, what features and components you want to remove are completely up to you.  To remove an item, simply check the checkbox next to its name.  Hovering your mouse over an item will bring up a description of said item.  This will help you to better understand exactly what you are removing.  Additionally, it is recommended that you keep the items that are shown in red text, as these items are seen as critical to the basic functioning of Windows.

Typically, I remove all of the non-English languages and all of the non-standard keyboards.  Asides from that, the components in which I decide to remove usually depend on the particular needs of said installation.

Options

The options window gives you the ability to make miscellaneous modifications to the system.  For example, you can choose to have the “C:\Windows” directory to be “C:\Doors”.  This window also gives you the option to remove the RAM and hard disk requirement checks during installation.  This can come in handy if you have an old system that is below the regular system requirements and you know that Windows will require fewer resources because of your removal of components.

Like with the components selection, clicking on an item will give you a bit more information as to what the option does or changes.

Tweaks

From the “Tweaks” window, you can change settings as to how Windows behaves.  The way to choose to configure said “Tweaks” are up to you, however you should consider looking at the “Performance” and “Visual Effects” categories, as making “Tweaks” to these categories can lead to increased system performance.

Additionally, you can move to the “Services” tab of the “Tweaks” window, and change the startup type of services simply by toggling the configuration.

I’m not going to get into the recommended performance-increasing options too much in this how-to, as I have already covered them in my previous how-to on increasing Windows performance.

Applying Changes

The next window is simply going to ask you one last time if you are ready to apply the changes you have made in the last few steps to your Windows installation source.  If you are sure that you’re ready, simply click “Yes”.

Depending on the options you chose, the applying of said changes can take anywhere from a few seconds to an hour or so.  At this point, it is important to be patient, as interrupting this process could damage your customized Windows installation files.

Once your changes have been applied, you will be given a brief summary as to by how much your installation source increased or decreased.

Bootable ISO

The last step in creating a customized Windows installation media is to create a bootable ISO (CD image) file.  While nLite has the option to burn the image directly to a CD, I typically recommend that you create a bootable ISO.  This being, creating an ISO allows you to archive it electronically by keeping the file on your hard drive.  Additionally, you can use a created ISO file to mount directly into a virtual machine program such as VirtualBox for faster and easier installation onto a virtual machine.  Of course, you can burn an ISO using a program such as the free “ImgBurn” application.

When all is said and done, creating a customized Windows installation gives you a lot more control over exactly what is bundled into your operating system.  Further, it allows a lot of the “bloat” to be removed and your computing experience to be a lot more efficient.  While nLite only works with Windows XP, 2000, and Server 2003, the program “vLite” allows for customized versions of Windows Vista to be made.  At this point in time, I am unaware of any application that allows you to make customized versions of Windows 7.


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