Reloading Windows XP On Your Old Computer

This is a cautionary tale. Hopefully it will encourage you to not try to install a fresh copy of XP, or it will give some hints which will make an impossible project a little less impossible.

So I got an old XP computer given to me and I wanted to sell it on eBay so I had to wipe the hard drive. It didn’t have an OS recovery partition so I just found an old XP CD and reloaded it. That’s where the fun began.

I expected XP to just load and work. But I forgot that back in the XP days you had to load drivers for your computer (or motherboard) and all installed cards, for anything important, like a network card, to work. And of course I didn’t have any of the necessary drivers.

It took two days to find, download, and install the drivers I needed. To download the chipset drivers I had to pry the heatsink off the motherboard chipset chip to read the number off it. (I found out they make thermal compound in cement form for gluing such heatsinks back on.) For other drivers I started with the hardware ID found in Device Manager’s properties and did some serious searching. It also turned out that the Internet Archive (http://archive.org) has a lot of the old driver CDs that came with old motherboards — you don’t need to find the exact same one, if you’re lucky one for the same chipset will work.

At this point it is a good idea to activate Windows. It seems that the online activating service run by Microsoft no longer works, but the phone activating service still does work. It’s a giant PITA but just do it. Eventually the phone activation service will stop as well and we’ll all be stuck. Microsoft originally promised that they would release a patch that would eliminate the need for activation in such a case but I’m not holding my breath.

With the network card driver installed and Windows activated, I was able to start looking for updates through Windows Update. But it wouldn’t work, and Internet Explorer wouldn’t load pretty much any website. I figured out that the encryption certificates loaded with XP were all out of date, and nowadays almost all websites are https, none of which would load without current certificates.

After some fruitless searches for sources of current root certificates, I decided to try to get Windows Update working. I needed to load all available updates anyhow, and Windows Update was where certificates used to come from. That led me to discover that Microsoft has turned off Windows Update for XP, as well as most (or all) other unsupported operating systems. Last time I tried this, years after XP support ended, it still worked. No more.

More searching led me to a website in Germany, http://wsusonline.net. The owner of this site has built a tool for updating Windows computers’ Microsoft software without a network connection. A side benefit of this website is that it has access to old updates for no-longer-supported software like XP. [I don’t know if he has copies of old updates or if he just knows a way to download them from somewhere on Microsoft’s website.] In any case the website will get you the updates you need.

From wsusonline.net, you need to download an update-generating program, run it to generate a folder containing all the updates you want, move that folder to the computer you want to update, and run an included updating program. It sound involved and does take time, but it works. Follow these steps:

  1. On some other computer, download the update-generating program from http://download.wsusoffline.net. There are many versions covering different ranges of software. For XP you want Version 9.1. It’s the last version that supports XP.
  2. Unzip the resulting file and run the program UpdateGenerator.exe. Start by selecting the Legacy Products tab. That will get you into the section for XP updates. It all looks pretty complicated but just pick what you think you need. I suggest selecting all the Internet Explorer and .NET stuff too.
  3. Select the output medium. I tried creating an ISO file first but it didn’t work. So I tried outputting to a USB drive and that did work. I used an 8GB drive and it almost filled it up.
  4. Click Start to generate the updates on the USB drive. It will take a while. I don’t remember if it asks questions during the process but you’ll figure it out.
  5. Move the USB drive to the computer you want to update.
  6. Run the UpdateInstaller.exe program from the USB drive. It will run a long time, it will ask questions, and it will request that you reboot several times.
  7. Keep running UpdateInstaller.exe until it gives an unambiguous message that it has concluded successfully. It takes three or four restarts to be finished.

Now you have a running and updated copy of Windows XP running on your machine. Make an image backup of it (I recommend the Image series from http://terabyteunlimited.com), since you don’t know how long the procedures described here will continue to work.

There is still a problem with root certificates. The updates loaded with the above procedure didn’t get the certificates updated enough to work with today’s websites. I don’t know how to solve this. Maybe a different browser would supply its own certificates. I don’t have the time or patience to pursue this, but if you know an answer I’d be happy to hear about it.

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