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Why does installing from scratch take so long? Isn't there a better way?


I recently reformatted my laptop. Reinstalling Microsoft XP updates was
interminable! Can’t Microsoft find a better way?

I’m not exactly sure what better way you might have in mind. It’s a
difficult problem to solve. The older your initial copy of Windows, the more
updates that need to be applied to make it current – there’s not really a way
to avoid that.

I’ll look at one of the things you can do to skirt the problem, though.

I’ll also look at some of the things that Microsoft does to mitigate the
problem as well.


As we know by now, all software has bugs (there are no exceptions) and over time, more and more bugs are discovered and fixed. Once fixed, however, we run into a dilemma: how to get the fixed software into the hands of the people using older versions.

The traditional approach is to release a new version – the new version completely replacing the old. This is the approach most often used by applications as version X.000 gets replaced by X.001, then X.002 and so on. I know many of the applications I use get updated rather frequently as issues are resolved and even as new features are added. Through various means, typically online update checks, you’re notified and the new version is downloaded and installed automatically.

“… all software has bugs (there are no exceptions) …”

The key is that it’s a complete replacement of the application, even for minor updates.

That works well for small to medium sized applications (though the definition for “small to medium sized” seems to be growing over time).

That approach doesn’t work well for large applications (like, say, Microsoft Office), or operating systems like Windows (or Mac OSX, or Linux). While some people think nothing of downloading an entire CD’s worth of data (~700 megabytes), or even a DVD’s worth (usually up to 4.7 gigabytes) it’s simply still not practical for most people.

The approach taken is to create individual updates for individual components – typically downloading and replacing only smaller pieces of the whole.

Naturally, the process of downloading only things that have changed reduces the amount of downloading required. Even better are those systems, such as that used by most operating systems, that download only what’s changed only for those components you actually have installed. If you’re not using something there’s no point in downloading an update that you also won’t use.

The whole process is designed to minimize what you need to download.

Unfortunately, over time the amount you need to download only increases as more and more bugs are found and fixed and occasional new features added.

If you’re installing using an original Windows XP disk as it was first released, an installation today has to download nearly 10 years of updates. That’s going to take a while.

Microsoft has tried to mitigate the impact of that a several ways:

  • Service Packs: Service packs bundle a number of fixes into a single package that is then installed at once, reducing the number of individual downloads, optimizing the installation process, and presumably reducing the number of reboots.

  • Service Packs on Disc: Service packs themselves tend to be rather large, so Microsoft typically makes them available on CD as well, or as separate monolithic downloads that can be downloaded once and applied to several computers offline.

  • Service Packs Pre-installed: After releasing a service pack, Microsoft typically refreshes the product disks that it sells, incorporating the service pack contents into the actual product image. You’ll often see things like “Windows XP w/ SP2” on the box. Subsequent installs are instantly up to date as of that service pack. (You can also perform this process, called “Slip Streaming”, to create a “Windows XP w/ SP2” image from your vanilla XP CD and the monolithic SP2 download.)

  • Critical Fixes: by categorizing updates as critical or not, Windows Update automatically gives you only those fixes you need – typically security related updates – and allows you to pick and choose the optional updates you may or may not be interested in.

  • New Products: The only update of Windows that really encompasses the entire operating system is, of course, a completely new version. Windows Vista and Windows 7 both represent completely new versions of Windows, and reset the incremental update process.

The bottom line is that there’s really no way around the fact that taking a reinstall from scratch – particularly from older original install media – and getting it up-to-date is going to take some time downloading and installing the updates that have been released since that install CD was created.

There is one way to side-step it, though. Particularly if what you have is an older XP installation CD – say, perhaps, prior to SP2.

  • Install Windows from your original installation media.

  • Get it as up-to-date as you can.

  • Now, take a complete image backup of the system.

That image backup can serve as a “snapshot” of your updated system. Save it, and in the future you can use your backup program to restore to that already-updated image rather than installing completely from scratch. The results are the same, and it saves you all that updating time on subsequent reinstalls.

It doesn’t help the first time, before you have that snapshot – you still have to get Windows up to date the traditional way. However, if you then ever have to reinstall Windows again, you’ll have this image and can avoid going through the pain to get to that point again.

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15 comments on “Why does installing from scratch take so long? Isn't there a better way?”

  1. “You can also perform this process, called “Slip Streaming”, to create a “Windows XP w/ SP2″ image from your vanilla XP CD and the monolithic SP2 download.” — How is this done??

  2. Generally you use a utility program like nlite, Though as usual Leo has the easier, cleaner solution with the full backup of your latest install, that way you can also install programs you know you’ll want as soon as you install and save even more time. just remember to install the newer updates next time you use that back up to reinstall and back that up.

    Slipstreaming is actually most useful for us computer geeks who are routinely installing on different machines on a regular basis. If you are installing or reinstalling operating systems multiple times a week on random machines the time savings are phenomenal, if you’re reinstalling every few months to a year on the same computer the backup will save you more time.

  3. I just wanted to add that owning a PC Repair business, I have to install some version of Windows, on at least one, if not many computers, every week. Microsoft offers all of it’s service packs for every version of Windows available for free download to anyone. It will come as a .iso (image) file which you can burn to CD with Image Burn (freeware) or a similar Image burning software (already included in Windows 7). You can also (1.) extract the .iso file to your Desktop using 7-Zip (freeware), Winzip, or some other compression tool. (2.) Find the icon Setup.exe (or Bootstrapper.exe) and run it. (3.) Just follow the onscreen directions. Don’t forget to restart your PC and defragment your hard drive. Installing from CD saves literally hours every time, especially if you have a slow internet connection.

  4. Dave, I like your ideas better, but just what would I search for on Microsoft web site? Particular names? titles…etc? Downloading ISO files etc has got to be easier than ALL those packs, updates etc.

  5. I had to rebuild recently and I went to the software site and downloaded the latest trial version for the software I owned but was not up to date. When it asked for the key, I used the key from my purchased copy maybe a service pack or two back. It seemed to work for most software and sped up reloading since I did not have to do all the updates.

  6. If you just need to recover from a damaged or infected install Use drive imaging software such as Paragon Hard Disk Manager. Save several copies and youll never need to reinstall (any OS) unless you change your computer. My C: drive with about 12Gb of data takes about 10 min to backup and the same to restore.

  7. Good article. What I do to help mitigate the installing of the patches/updates is to copy them to a separate file so that they are “on-hand” when the next clean install is performed. This drastically reduces the amount of “online” time to obtain the patches/updates; although, it still takes time to manually add these patches. There are, however, a few patches/updates that will require an online updating/acquisition. Secondly, BACK IT UP! I have had to use my backup(s) recently and it really did save my bacon! I use Acronis True Image. And, third, “slip-streaming”. The use of nLite. I have not used that app/util as yet. Maybe Leo can elaborate on nLite and how to use nLite. With nLite,you can have the OS and also include, or exclude, additional apps/utils and the patches/updates and do a single install; with the exception of the possibility of having to go online to get additional updates, etc. So, that’s my “two cents”. Take care.

  8. Dear Leo/Readers

    I am using Windows XP and if I had to make a choice between buying a Windows 7 and Acronis for image backup what would you recommend. I am limited in my resources presently so would like to choose one. Howsoever if both are indispensable please let me is Wind 7 somewhere close functionally to Acronis. Please let me have your comments. Thanks to all.

  9. This is a question that seems easy to all of you but I’m struggling. My computer is old and just cranks away, it’s difficult to get online and takes the longest time. I was hoping to reinstall everything, but when I inserted the disk, nothing happened… I figured it would be easy :) … I just might need a new computer but wanted to try to get this one working like it should, or close to it. Any and all help would be very appreciated. Molly

    Depends on what disk you’re inserting. If it’s a Windows installation CD, you need to boot from that CD, not simply insert it. Be sure to backup your machine first!


  10. It’s all well and good to say “Now, take a complete image backup of the system.”, but just how does one accomplish this? I’m supposing you mean just the Windows OS, but how do you back up just Windows, and all of its components, such that you could create a vanilla install of the OS?

    I’m envisioning a crash. I need to start all over, creating the environment I have now. I have all of my installed application discs, I have my data backed up – what I need is the ‘vanilla’ OS backup you describe, to be used as my starting point. Just how do I go about creating this?

    Somehow, I don’t think this question is as dumb as it sounds…

    You cannot backup “just Windows” in order to create a vanilla install. You need the Windows installation CDs for that. An image backup is a backup of EVERYTHING, since a clean install will typically start by erasing EVERYTHING. Check out my How to backup video series for an example of doing so with Acronis.


  11. I posted a reply to this sort of scenario in another question. Mirror software is fine and dandy, dandy and fine BUT some of them take longer than an original install. The solution that so far has served me gloriously well so far [ and Ive used it 3 times already ] is this ….
    Get ‘Karens Power tools’ [ freeware ].
    Now use replicator to replicate the following
    1. The windows directory [ some things will not copy as they are being used and updated – no problem as they are an endemic part of the windows install; they will always be installed ]
    2.The programs directory
    3.The docs and settings directory
    4. A recent and valid copy of the registry.
    Now when you format and reinstall windows [XP]
    and have the raw system; just copy back the above
    and Bob’s your Auntie. System back like it never happened and all updates, changes funny bits with it.

  12. I have to say that this observation isn’t just right. If you have the old copy of XP you can use “nLite” to add the updates (slipstream). In this way you get a installation disk that is most recent (including the newest critical updates, service packs, even drivers you need to a specific PC/Notebook configuration). Thank you for all.

    I did mention slipstreaming in the article. It’s a good approach if you plan to update many machines, but if you have just one it’s not that huge a benefit and just adds the complexity of creating the slipstream disk.


  13. Is there any chance Microsoft will put out a Windows XP/SP4 update CD in the future.

    It would be great if Microsoft created a new service pack version every year. That way people would be more likely to reinstall Windows XP yearly. Then just use the new service pack and a quick update to catch up on a few new patches. This probably would allow people to clear a lot of hidden malware from their computers, making the whole internet safer for everyone.

  14. Erm, + the fact that Microsoft throw’s 500 ton’s of garbage in that they call “high priority ” updates, look at Ubunto, Freeware, 1/10th the size of any Microsoft OS, DL’s AND install’s in minutes, and work’s just as well ( besides the fact that most software producer’s make their product’s Window’s exclusive, so you need to DL WINE to use a lot of games and stuff ).

    MicroSoft could choose to do a better job by not adding all their statistic gathering files ( Spayware ) and other ” Priority” stuff ( they force feed you stuff like the Bing Bar, come on, tell me that’s needed, LOL.

    Also Ubunto will detect your hardware and adapt, with MS product’s if using old computer’s or Old OS, you better go hunting down the driver’s and burn them first, or you can’t even get online.

    MicroSoft does so bad, and does this stuff with their product’s because with all the software licenses they have, they figure 99 % of the masses don’t have the brain power to figure out other ways around it, so they simply don’t care and force feed you what they want to.

    They could do 1000% better if they chose to, they simply do not care~~

    For the record, that’s Ubuntu, not Ubunto.



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