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Ditching Vista: How To Downgrade To Windows XP

If sluggish performance and numerous bugs in your shiny new PC running Windows Vista have got you down, you can downgrade -- at no additional cost -- to Windows XP. It's not hard. Here's how.

Software incompatibilities. Sluggish operation. That darn User Account Control screen. Is it any wonder Windows Vista has being greeted in some quarters with a lack of enthusiasm? But your PC came with Vista, and that means you’re stuck with it, right?

Wrong. You can replace stiff, awkward Vista with the comfy, compatible old slipper that is Windows XP. It takes a couple of hours, but it won’t cost you any money that you haven’t already spent. Here’s how.

Start by backing up your system. At the very least, offload the data to CDs or, better yet, a USB flash drive or external hard drive. Even better: Take an image of the entire hard drive using a utility like Acronis TrueImage or Norton Ghost, for a complete system restoration. If the XP installation goes badly, having a backup or disk image allows you to restore your system to its previous state. You’ll still be running Vista, but at least you’ll still be running.

When you boot your XP CD, this is the first screen you'll encounter. Hit Enter to proceed.
(click for image gallery)

Next, gather up all the drivers you’ll need. Remember that your PC was built to Vista specifications and equipped with Vista-compatible software and drivers. Your PC doesn’t have XP drivers, and Windows XP might not have all the drivers built into it that your PC needs. Unless you collect all the right drivers before you do your upgrade, you run the risk of ending up with a crippled PC.

To avoid this dilemma, poke around Windows Device Manager to see exactly what components are installed, then head to your PC maker’s Web site and download the appropriate drivers. Essentials include video, audio, Ethernet, and wireless networking (Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi). Save everything to the USB drive so the drivers and other software and information are easily accessible when you need them.

Round up the software CDs for connected peripherals like printers, PDAs, and iPods.

Make sure you have a Windows XP Pro CD and a valid activation key. If you don’t have a CD available, you can beg or borrow one from a friend or co-worker.

You can get the activation key from Microsoft. All volume-licensed versions of Vista, along with retail and OEM versions of Vista Business and Vista Ultimate, come with downgrade rights. That means you’re entitled to an XP activation key from Microsoft or your PC maker. (Interestingly, you can downgrade even further if you wish: The license also entitles you to Windows 2000 Professional, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 98, or even Windows 95.)

Finally, make a list of applications and utilities you’ll want to install (or reinstall) after you’ve downgraded.

Downgrade Or Sidegrade?

Now you have to decide if you want to downgrade or “sidegrade.” “”Downgrading” is what Microsoft calls it when you revert from a newer OS to an older one.

“Sidegrading” is a less radical option. Instead of ditching Vista altogether, you can install XP alongside it, booting to either operating system as the need arises. That way, you get to run XP for everyday operations, while still poking around in Vista and getting acquainted with it more gradually.

So, let’s dive into actually doing a downgrade. (If you want to sidegrade, see the sidebar on the third page of this article). As I mentioned earlier, you should have a good backup in place along with all the necessary drivers and software for your system.

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