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.
Compiling The Image

A stripped-down version of Vista can still run Microsoft Office.
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When you're finished with setting all the options in the various tabs, click Apply to actually start the process of compiling the system image. When you do this, you'll be presented with three options:

  • Rebuild One: This rebuilds and saves only the edition of Vista that you selected when you first copied the Vista source files. This creates the smallest possible disk image and is the default option -- useful if you know you're not going to be using any of the other editions of Vista from the recompiled media.

  • Rebuild All: This rebuilds every single edition of Vista, not just the one you modified, and so it'll create an image that is only slightly smaller than the default. Use this if there's a reason you need to have the other versions present on the image you're creating.

  • Save Changes Only: Writes only the changes you've made back to the image file in such a way that the resulting image will be written out extremely quickly. The resulting image will be larger than the one you started with, however, so this isn't recommended if you're trying to save space -- it's essentially a quick-and-dirty save option.

vLite will show the progress of the rebuild as it works. You might encounter errors during this stage, but they may just be spurious. (During one of my build exercises I ran into a "File not found" error, but it didn't seem to affect the outcome.)

Boot It Up

Once you're done building a disk image and burning it out to DVD or CD, boot it and try installing Vista with it. The first and more striking change you'll notice is the amount of space you can save both on a disk image and in an installation. On a test system with 20 GB of storage, I went from 13.2-GB free with a default installation of Vista, to 17.2-GB free when I selected "Remove all." The full disk image was 2.8 GB; I slimmed that down to a mere 488 MB (small enough to fit on a single CD) when I got rid of everything.

I should point out that on a newer hard drive (i.e., 160 GB or larger), the total difference that vLite will make in terms of disk usage is minimal. Hard drive space is cheap and will only get cheaper as time goes on. That said, there are other reasons why people might want to employ vLite other than disk usage, so it's not the only thing.

Does removing components create compatibility problems? From my end, it's hard to say without performing extended and rigorous testing, but I was able to install Office 2007 on my "nothing added" installation and run it without any noticeable issues. I'd suspect the consequences of removing components don't show up until much later on down the line, but some problems manifested immediately. Removing Internet Explorer, for instance, meant no Web browser of any kind out of the box unless I manually installed one further down the line.

The Bottom Line

Since vLite has no price tag attached to it (other than the time you invest in tinkering with it, and whatever dollar amount you may wish to donate via PayPal), it's a relatively easy way to experiment with unorthodox Vista configurations. Hardware and software hackers keen on making Vista jump through unusual hoops, like running with minimal memory, will have a blast with it. That said, the noncommercial licensing for the program -- and the fact that if you mess up something, you're more or less on your own -- means it's a forbidden fruit for corporate or enterprise IT folks, as far as official deployments go.

Note: vLite has been updated to support "slipstreaming" of SP1. See here for details.