Installing Vista: My Personal Hell

[Update June 29: Problem solved! Also updated h/w config to 1G of RAM as it should have been] 

Short story: installing Vista for me was a catalog of problems, some mine and some not. It started out with not being able to open the box, and went downhill to include weekend-long unsuccessful installs, bricking my PC, and exercising my Dell warranty to get a replacement motherboard, hard-drive and secondary hard-drive. And after all that, guess what: I still haven't installed it.

Long story: read on

Wanting Vista 

I wanted to install Vista at home, so I picked up my copy of Vista Ultimate at the company store and took it home. I've installed Windows on machines for over a decade, and I have no fear. I did make a full backup of my XP install, and I added a new drive so I could install Vista side-by-side and check it out without blowing away my XP install, just in case. My machine is a Dell Dimension 370 with 1G of RAM, pretty standard except I added a new SATA drive for Vista itself and I have an additional DVD drive (for region 2 discs). Its not a state-of-the-art-2007 machine, but it is reasonable and until very recently I was using an identical machine at work (with more RAM and disc) for all my development.

Opening the Box

My first issue with Vista was getting the damn thing out of the box. The box is a weirdly shaped plastic thing, and almost impossible to open the first time you see one. After some cursing I discovered a red tag, so I pulled that: no change. After applying physical pressure to the box I began to see the bizarre way it opens, but it would only move a millimeter. I was seriously considering a trip to the garage and to smash the box open with a hammer, when I discovered another transparent sticker that was holding two parts together. With that gone, the box moved a few more millimeters, until I realised the thing opens sideways, and boom: Vista was opened. I've installed entire operating systems more quickly and with less stress than opening this box...

Compatibility: Good, but not for Dynamic Disks

I had already run the Compatibility Wizard from beta 2 on this machine and it said all the hardware was compatible and there were various issues with some of my software, but nothing I couldn't live without.

The x86 world is moving to 64-bit, so I wanted to as well. I stuck in the 64-bit DVD and rebooted the machine from it. I soon saw the new Vista background, but it seemed to stay there for quite a while before asking me the Locale questions. Didn't think too much about that, so I answered them and it went through the next few screens. I typed in the pid, and I told it I wanted to install to Disc 1, my new SATA disc. At that point it told me that Vista cannot install to Dynamic discs, and my install was over. I rebooted to XP and (after having to open Help) figured out how to switch the drive to Basic. Rebooted again from DVD.

It said "Copying files 0%". And there it stayed. I left for half an hour, came back and it had copied files but was at "Expanding files 1%". I went to bed, woke up the next morning expecting to see a shiny new Vista to play with. Instead it said "Expanding files 24%". I thought it had hung, but no: every few minutes the drive would spin up, and every 15 minutes the percentage would go up by 1. I estimated it would take 30 hours to expand the files at this rate, so I left it running all weekend. After a total of about 40 hours, I saw a login prompt. I logged in, and sat looking at the Vista background for eons, and went to work (the weekend being over and all). When I came home the machine had black-screened.

Upgrading the BIOS: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

One of the many benefits to working at Microsoft is that you can often find someone who either knows the answer to your problem, or can point you to someone who can. I asked about my epic install problems and I was asked if I had the latest BIOS. Turns out I was running version A04, so I downloaded A08 from the Dell site and ran that. When it finished, the machine powered itself down. When I powered it back on, it gave 3 beeps and no video. Uh-oh. A call to Dell Support confirmed that I had bricked my PC. Dell Support are fantastic by the way: they sent me a new motherboard and RAM right away, and changing the motherboard is pretty straight-forward on these cleverly designed Dells. Fortunately the new motherboard already had BIOS A08 so I didn't have to risk the BIOS updator again. I reformatted the new drive and rebooted from Vista DVD, looking forward to a speedy install.

But no: no detectable change from the new BIOS (and motherboard): another 40hr install seemed inevitable. I didn't wait, so I asked around some more at work. Found some very helpful folks on the Vista Setup team and I dropped my machine off with them for a vacation. After spending a while with those folks, they got back to me with "something is weird about that Disk 1". I downloaded some Seagate utilities and checked my drives: sure enough my Disk 1 was reporting some problems, so I returned it for warranty replacement. In addition my main drive was also having problems, so I got a replacement from Dell (and the backup/restore of that system I described previously).

So, with a new BIOS, new motherboard, new RAM, and two new hard drives, it was that time again: I put the Vista DVD in and rebooted. This time I was stuck at the initial black-screen "Loading Windows" until I yanked my memory-card reader: the four drives my reader creates seem to confuse the early boot code. After this I went through the usual steps, and it got to "Copying files: 0%" again. Uh-oh. I left for a while, came back and it was "Expanding files: 1%". I left if for just over 24 hours, and when I checked it finally it had blue-screened. Fortunately this time it had not had the chance to put the Vista boot loader on, so a reboot took me right back to the goodness of XP. So I'll guess I'll never run Vista on this box, which is a shame as in the meantime I am running it at work (the 32-bit version anyway) and am pretty happy with it.


  • Vista cannot install to Dynamic discs (which is the default when you add a new drive to XP): switch them to Basic before attempting a Vista install
  • Only update your BIOS if you have good warranty cover on the motherboard, or are feeling lucky
  • Unplug memory card readers before installing
  • Dell's warranty and support organization rock
  • My particular hardware cannot install Vista, and no-one knows why


Comments (31)

  1. Janson says:

    As an official MS Vista Beta tester I do feel your pain.  Indeed I bugged this issue within the beta, and was told (won’t fix) but did get good reason for it, which was along the lines of too late in the developemnt cycle.  

    Rather than boot to XP you can use the advanced tools in Vista (the recovery tools) from the install CD which allow you to used Bootpart to do the convert – but would the average user be able to do that – I’m guessing not.

    Something I wonder about is have you looked at your DVD drive?  Vista is quite particular about media and it may be you are getting dodgy reads.  I note it sometimes hung at expanding files at between 1% and 24% thats not consistent and should be queried.

    Roll on Vista SP1 I guess!

  2. Andy-Pennell says:

    Janson: Interesting, I did try my other DVD drive once, but my Dell can only boot from the first one and I couldn’t face opening the case yet another time to swap them over.

  3. Tim says:

    "Vista cannot install to Dynamic discs (which is the default when you add a new drive to XP): switch them to Basic before attempting a Vista install"

    I presume the Vista setup team know that Dynamic discs are something created by Microsoft software, right? 🙂

    I tried an install of Vista recently to try it out as a media center machine.  I couldn’t see any of the machines on my network, until I remembered I’d need to change the workgroup name.

    I did that, and Vista told me that I would need to reboot in order for the workgroup name change to take effect.

    Are. They. F-ing. Kidding. Me?

    I checked my calendar – it is indeed 2007, and not 1998 as Vista seemed to think.

  4. Stephen says:

    Instead of opening the case to switch the DVD Drives you can just go into the Bios and Disable the first drive. Thats what I had to do because I have my CDRW in PATA0 and my DVDRW in PATA1 and i didnt want to open the case that a pain.

    Have you tried doing an upgrade instead of a clean install?

  5. Phileosophos says:

    I had a much better experience, largely because I gave it a completely fresh hard drive to sprawl across and disconnected all the other hard drives. If you’re interested in the details–including the trick to getting the Vista boot loader integrated properly with your other OSes–check out the write-up:

  6. Richard says:

    You must be kidding. What was it, eight hours into an install ("I went to bed, woke up the next morning"), and not thinking about quitting the install?

    And then, after *forty more hours*, you put in even more time trying to continue to install? And then you even continued to ruin a perfectly running box by applying a BIOS upgrade — and getting a warranty replacement for that foolishness …

    Whatever your job at Microsoft may be, you’re definitely not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

    But then again, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Microsoft.


  7. Andy-Pennell says:

    Richard: Hey, I was determined to install it, even if it did take two days. Call me what you like, but I didn’t give up easily. In fact, crazy man that I am, I might try again with the 2nd DVD drive following the suggestion above.

  8. Squiddy says:

    Richard, posting a mindless uninformed post like the one you did doesn’t make you the brightest bulb in the chandelier buddy.

    I see nothing wrong with his approach. As he said, he persevered, which if anything should be admired.

  9. Robert says:

    That is so weird. I’ve never had problems installing Vista on my machine but then again, I only have one SATA drive and that’s about it. Most likely if I install a second drive, I will start having problems with RAID.

    What can you try?

    – Try plugging in the drive into a different SATA port.

    – Try changing the "Onboard SATA/IDE Ctrl Mode" – You have IDE, AHCI and RAID/IDE

    – Try changing the IDE’s mode to either Legacy or Native IDE

  10. Hugh says:

    Yes you seem to be having major hardware compatibility issues of some sort as it seems to be having a *lot* of trouble seeing / writing to that second hard drive. Would suggest one of more (assuming you haven’t tried it of course)

    a) Trying "borowing" or swapping for another Vista CD

    b) Trying the same CD on another machine

    c) Trying the 32 bit version (not sure if you get both in the package

    d) Unplugging your XP hard drive and installing to a unpartitioned SATA drive

    I feel your pain and know what it is like to get ‘locked’ into the mode of "I will install this damn thing the way I want or one of will die …".

  11. Rhenson says:

    i think it was more a problem with dell than vista.

    I’ve installed it on a lot of clients computers with no problems.

    but one client had a dell and i had nothing but problem with the install.

    I think the windows team is moving in the right direction with vista. and I really hope with sp1 most of the bugs are worked out.

    but as much as I like Microsoft products I really don’t think vista was ready for prime time.

    I like vista but I can’t wait for windows seven. the reason i say this is with all the new code in windows by the time seven comes out the windows team should have the kinks worked out of the code for the most part.

    and vendors by that time should know how to write quality drivers for the new way windows runs.

  12. Mark Morris says:

    Thank you for pointing out the idiocy of the box design – I had equal problems and frustrations when first coming across this design, which now seems to apply across the Microsoft product line (though Expression Web is in a nice old-fashioned package) – and the sheer amount of plastic involved in this new design hardly seems environmentally friendly.

  13. Steve F. says:

    The box IS wierd.

    It would’ve been much simpler had they put the little "how to open" diagram in WHITE, rather than dark orange.

    Onto the installation issue: I did phone support (I worked for an outsourcer) for MS starting with win95, and ending with WinXP (homoe and pro).

    I think Hugh is on the right track here to suspect the optical drive, or the Vista CD.

    One thing, if you are installing from within XP so as to set up a dual-boot config, you might want to try to copy the Vista install files to the hard drive (making a "flat directory"), and just run setup directly from the HDD. That bypasses any funkiness with the DVD, and eliminates having to open up the case to swap cables.

    And if it fails to copy with either drive, then that’s your problem. 🙂

  14. Michel Desangles says:

    Richard / Alain : This is exactly why you’ll never be good programmers or good medics (or good whatever).

    If Andy had not persevered, he would not have arrived at his conclusions, which means WE wouldn’t have them served on a plate.

    Andy is a living god in the art of diagnosis (remember a few years back when he tried to add more RAM to his wife’s PDA), which requires an enormous amount of patience, the nerve to withstand the trial-and-error process, the capability to react to seemingly unconnected events… and he is kind enough to share his conclusions with us. Why complain?

    I wouldn’t like to be a patient with you two as doctors: "Oh mate, you’re ill, curing you would involve a lot of boring steps and way too much patience. Better die right now."

    Thanks Andy for everything.

  15. sumeet says:

    on the issue of box design, i too struggled however my 9 year old licked it in 15 sec flat !

  16. mcepat says:

    I just went through Vista 64 hell myself but I am back and live to tell about it.

    Things I learned

    BIOS: DELL has a flaky BIOS if its the C521 I believe thye pulled it.

    SATA drive and controller: if you have a nvidia sata interegated controller do not let windows update install newest they have the wrong time stamp and will BSOD vista, Instead go to nvidia and download the drivers for nforce.

    DVD drive: I could not install my dvd drive without getting a BSOD with 4GB installed, I had to drop it down to 2GB install and then add the memory back

    memory: know Vista issue with over 3GB memory, there is a patch available.

    I believe most of your issues were sata drivers, just go to the manufacturer and do not rely on the windows drivers

  17. Andy-Pennell says:

    Thanks mcepat. I have a Dell Precision 370 (which has an Intel chipset). I do have a work-around for my problem which I will post soon.

  18. Jasper says:


    This is very interesting, especially when I compare your hell with my installation of Vista Ultimate… I just popped in the DVD while beeing in XP, the PC rebooted after copying all the files and after about 20mins installation was done.

    I just can’t believe you even tried installing Vista Ultimate on a classic PC like yours. Ultimate just won’t run any good on a machine like that. Get some processor power, gigs of DDR2 ram and a big graphics processor…

  19. says:

    Die Installation von Windows Vista ist nicht immer ganz einfach. Bevor man mit dem Betriebssystem arbeiten kann, sind unter Umstnden einige Softwareupdates und vielleicht auch andere bzw. neue Hardware ntig. Ein Erfahrungsbericht von Andy Penell zeigt

  20. Aram says:

    I had no problems with installing Vista. I have a Dell Dimension 5150, upgraded ram (3gig) and 3 HD’s.

    No problems at all. It runs great.

    (I’m running on Vista Ultimate Edition)

  21. typing the text into the textbox says:

    The problem is solved by now, as Andy changed his SATA Operation and change it from RAID Automatic/AHCI to Combo mode.

    The whole story is described here:

  22. installedvista says:

    I had no problem at all, I have a Dell Optiplex GX100

    256MB RAM

    2 IDE HDDs

    700MHz CPU

    8MB graphics card

    Vista installed and runs perfectly, I just had to turn off indexing because I got sick of it beating the crap out of my hard drive.

  23. Sounds *a lot* like the issues I had with some Dell machines and Vista installs awhile back. Check this out:

  24. Aaron Seet says:

    my experience: SATA DVD drive and 4GB RAM are bickering neighbours in a x64 Windows Vista setup.

  25. Following the travails of my Vista install at home (and subsequent success ), I will be listing my success

  26. Simon says:

    Okay…Richard, your comment regarding Andy’s approach to installing Vista was very rude.  He had never installed Vista before, how was he to know?  You are an arrogant person.  Probably don’t even know much about computers yourself.

  27. shadow_tj says:

    ok everyone is talking about it..

    And i`m realy looking right now for 45minutes at the almost "Famous ‘Expanding Files’" …

    When you read the forums, and ask people, its almost as famous as the big "Fatal Exception X001"  or dumping phisical memmory dumps.

    What means Expanding Files ..

    i know the terms, Compressing and Extracting but expanding ???  blowing up files.. ???

    nice but new years day was yesterday.

    I got a Dual Xeon 3ghz Nacona.

    Hyperthreading on. 3x 500gb Wd 16mb harddisk.

    So why its taking this long .. and what is it doing. ????

    Compressing 200gb small files with Rar takes about 4 hours.. ( Does that for making backups ).

    This vista install is probably taking lots more 🙁

  28. jkrutz says:

    I had an entirely different experience, which suprised me considering the horror stories I’ve read.  I’m running a dell Inspiron 6000 with a Pentium M 1.67, 1 gb of ddr, and a 64 meg ATI mobility graphics…My installation of Vista Ultimate 32bit took all of 25 min from loading the dvd to logging on after install.  I had the same experience on 3 separate occasions on the same system (brief periods of Linux installs in between).  I personally love Vista.  Other than the file copy lag in vista, its runs much quicker than it ever did with XP, and that is saying something.  I suppose every config is yields different results.  I considered trying Vista on my old Dell optiplex, though I don’t think it could handle it with only 512 ram.  I’ll stick with xp and linux on that one.

  29. Ron says:

    I, also a Former Vista Beta tester, having tried out vista in both x86 and x64 forms before settling on x64 for myself.  On any given machine in any form, Vista is either a breeze to install or a nightmare.  Having a computer shop, I can tell you it doesnt even matter if it is an older machine or a brand new one.  Two identical machines and one has problems and another doesnt.  After months of trying to make heads or tails, I am of the opinion any little thing not perfect within the computer will cause problems.  When I say any little thing, I mean the power supply is putting out a hair too much or too little voltage, memory not perfectly matched if hyperthreading, video cards not perfectly matched if using SLI, a DVD drive that doesnt read consistantly at a given speed, or anything that is slightly off.  It can be anything, but in reality it is probably a combimation of tiny things XP would never notice.

    Now, with this out, I have to say I love Vista!  When it runs, it is a dream!  The biggest problems I have actually found on running Vista are 1)if the power is interupted and you dont have a battery backup AND you had anything actually working at the moment, you have about a 50% chance of having to use the disk to do a startup repair (machine at idle is much less likely, maybe 5%, to have a problem), 2)the page file system has problems causing faults if you push your machine, 3)Vista memory diagnostics will out and out lie and even more unfortunately it treats it as if the problem really exists even though every other test you can use claims the memory is fine!

  30. David says:

    Remove any SATA Optical Drive!

    I recently spent all weekend installing Vista SP1 x64 and then formatting and reinstalling to find out that an SATA Optical drive, on install, is expected to be a Hard drive by Vista. That is continued up to the point you install the Intel Matrix storage Drivers *(on a succesful installation), then and only then, should you plug your SATA optical drive back in.

    I say succesfull installation because until the Intel matrix storage driver and/or other drivers are manually installed after an update, the SATA optical drive is triggered for read every couple of seconds by the OS. you’ll damage a disc trying to get it out of the drive tray as every time you hit eject the OS tries to read the disc and pulls the drive tray closed before you can snag the disk.

    What needs to happen is that Microsoft needs to provide some pre driver for installing Windows Vista with an SATA optical drive, so that it doesn’t think the Optical drive is a Hard drive and continually index it over and over and over, wether a disc is inserted or not.

    If you have an ATA Optical Drive on an IDE motherboard conector, GREAT, just make sure any SATA optical drive is not plugged in until after you get drivers for the Motherboard updated!

  31. Ben says:

    Had a similar experience.  Swapped out the hard drive (160 GB Velociraptor) for an identical drive fixed it.  No errors, just was going to take several days to install.

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