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Customize Windows Vista Installations With vLite

Create custom Windows Vista installations by adding or removing system components and automating setup options with vLite. It's unsupported by Microsoft, but vLite is free and will delight Vista enthusiasts.

One could write an absorbing history of personal computers and software as a tinkerer's paradise. There's an undeniable thrill in hacking something to behave in ways never foreseen by its manufacturer. This includes Windows itself, of course, courtesy of countless third-party tools and techniques. In the Windows XP days, one such tool was (and is) nLite. Now, from the same author, Dino Nuhagic, there's vLite.

vLite, or "Vista Lite," lets you customize Windows Vista.
(click for image gallery)
vLite, or "Vista Lite," lets you take an existing Windows Vista installation DVD and customize it to add the things you do want -- and remove the things you don't want. The resulting disk image can be saved to a file or burned out to DVD and used to create new Vista installations, whether 32- or 64-bit. In this article I'll look at vLite up close, analyze how it works, and see how it fares from beginning to end.

Some caveats are in order. First, vLite doesn't customize an existing Windows installation, just the DVD image -- you can't use vLite to change the way your current desktop behaves. vLite is also, predictably enough, not in the least supported or sanctioned by Microsoft. If you use it to build a Windows Vista install disc and then install a copy of Vista from that, you're pretty much on your own. Finally, I should point out that the license terms expressly forbid vLite being used in anything other than a personal context without the author's permission -- and that once again, anything that happens as a result of using vLite is entirely your responsibility.

Getting Started

To use vLite, you'll need three things: the application itself (which is freely downloadable), a running copy of Windows (XP or Vista), and the Vista installation media. I've noticed that newer PCs that ship with Vista are, thankfully, reverting to the good old habit of providing an actual Vista installation disc instead of merely a restore partition, so I used that as my source for Vista's files.

When you install vLite, the program checks for the existence of two additional things which are needed for vLite to work: the file system filter manager (which is usually part of Vista), and the WIM filter driver, which allows a Windows Image file -- a disk image -- to be mounted as a drive. Vista's install media contains a WIM image that's unpacked onto the target computer during the initial installation process.

The first step in using vLite proper is to provide the installation media and point the program to a folder where the install files can be copied and expanded. Make sure you have a generous amount of free space -- 5 to 10 GB -- to copy the installation files and perform work on them. You'll also be prompted during this step to choose the appropriate iteration of Vista to configure, from Starter to Ultimate, so be sure to choose the correct one you have a license key for.

The next steps involve choosing what changes you want to make on the installation image. Any combination of these changes can be applied; there's nothing that says you have to apply all of them. Each of these changes is called out in its own tab in the program.

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