Customizing Windows Installations- nLite
We try to keep the images for our machines up to date, but sometimes it’s just best to start from a fresh installation. But, until recently, “fresh installation” meant using our site license for XP SP1, and spending 2 hours running updates. And unless I could find an external floppy drive, I could forget about installing Windows on a SATA machine. But with nLite, none of this is a problem. nLite is a freeware program that allows you to create a customized installation disk for Windows. You can add updates and service packs, custom drivers and patches, and even remove Windows components that you don’t want. Also, you can create an unattended setup, which means Windows will automatically fill out the necessary information (license string, admin user/pass, etc) while installing.
Overview of nLite
Before you can use nLite, you need to make a copy of a Windows XP disk onto your computer. Just stick in the drive, right click it and hit Explore, and copy everything into a folder somewhere. Then go and grab nLite from http://nliteos.com/download.html. Once you’ve installed/unpacked it, run nLite. The first screen you come across will ask for your language preference. On the next screen, you need to point the program towards the folder you just made:
It’ll bring up information about the install disk you used, double check that it’s all correct (it should be).
Next comes the task selection screen. This is where you decide what you want to do to this installation. There are eight tasks broken down into four sections: Integrate, Remove, Setup, and Create. Some of them may be more useful than others, depending on what you need to do. Mouse over any of the selections to see a brief description. Obviously, the green dot means it’s selected, and the red dot means it’s not.
nLite does its best to make this whole process as painless as possible. You simply work step by step through each task; nLite will ask you questions when it needs to, and provides you with information when it can. At the end of the process, it creates you new installation disk (overwriting the original Windows files you pulled from the CD). From within nLite, you can create a bootable disk, either in the form of an iso or burned directly to the disk.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at the different tasks in more depth.
To put it simply, the Integration tasks allow you to integrate files into your installation disk. There are three different tasks: service packs, hotfixes and add-ons, and drivers. Service Packs nLite allows you to slipstream Service Packs into your installation disc. If you’re as unlucky as I am, you’re probably still using an SP1 base install, so slipstreaming SP2 and SP3 right into your installation can save a lot of time and hassle. If you don’t already have them, nLite provides links to download the Service packs from Microsoft. So download the SP you need, and choose it using the Select button. You then should see the all-too-familiar Windows Service Pack installation window. When it’s finished, you should get an “Integrated install has completed successfully” popup.
Hotfixes and Add-ons This task lets you add other updates not included in the service packs, like IE7 and its updates. nLite recommends only using official Microsoft hotfixes (they should be named KB*.exe). The files are integrated from the top of the list down, so make sure they’re in the proper order; you can click on the Build Date column to sort them from oldest to newest.
Unfortunately, nLite doesn’t provide a link for downloading updates. I’ve found the Microsoft Update Catalog (IE only), but I’m sure there’s other unofficial sites that are even easier to use. The advanced button in the lower left corner brings up the Hotfix Integration Info window. It has four options you can enable/disable: Direct Hotfix Integration, Display Reports, Remove Catalog files, and ASMS Compression. By default, the only one enabled is Direct Hotfix Integration. Drivers You can integrate third party drivers right into your installation, cutting down on work you have to do afterwords. Much like an install disk you’d get from Dell or HP, once you install Windows, the machine will be more or less ready to use. nLite lets you either add drivers one by one, or point it to a folder containing multiple drivers. I personally just grab all of the drivers I need and extract them into one folder, and point nLite towards that. A prompt to select the drivers you want then pops up. Make sure to only include the drivers you need for your installation; for instance, some Dell drivers come with Win98/2k or XP 64-bit drivers, and you probably don’t need those.
One of the big reasons why I started this project was because I wanted to add SATA drivers into my installation. If you get your drivers from Dell, their SATA drivers come as floppy disk images. That’s great and all, but I don’t have a floppy drive (or I wouldn’t be in this problem to begin with). Fortunately, I was able to find a virtual floppy drive that works a lot like a virtual CD drive would; you can mount the disk images and grab the drivers that way.
Well, okay, there’s just one task in the Remove section, Components. From this, you can remove different applications and drivers, so they’re never installed. Before you start deleting all willy-nilly, nLite prompts you with a window labeled Compatability. From here you can select the functionality you know you need, and the program will prevent you from accidentally removing needed components.
The components are broken into ten catagories: Applications, Drivers, Hardware Support, Keyboards, Languages, Multimedia, Network, Operating System Options, Services, and Directories. Each of these expand out to specific components. Some of them will be in red, and it’s recommended that you not remove them, as it may cause system instability.
These tasks primarily focus on setting up and tweaking Windows before installation, rather than making the changes manually afterwords. It’s all about automating as much as you can, to save yourself the work.
Unattended This task makes the installation Unattended, meaning once you start the installation, it doesn’t ask you anything until it finishes. It covers all of the basic information you’d expect it to (user info, product key, etc), but it also includes a lot of other options you can preset if you want. It’s broken into ten tabs, and all of the options are pretty self-explanatory. nLite provides information on most of the choices if you need help.
Options This section has various options which can be enabled or disabled. The General tab has a small collections of different options. You can, for instance, change the profiles path from %SystemDrive%Documents and Settings, or turn off the “Press Any Key” boot message. None of these options seem terribly important, but they’re there. The patches tab has four different patches which you can choose to include in your installation if you wish.
Tweaks The Tweaks task has two tabs, General and Services. The General tab has a lot of different options, mostly user-interface related. If you check the Advanced box, more options will appear in red. It sort of makes me think of a more powerful TweakUI. Most of the options you can find in Windows, they’ve just been put into one convenient, easier to use task.
The Services tab looks and behaves a lot like Services.msc; from it you can set various services to be on, either automatically or manually, or disable it altogether. Processing This task doesn’t appear on the beginning page, but it happens here, before you get to the Create stage. All of the changes you’ve made in the previous tasks are committed to your Windows image here. If there are any problems, you’ll get pop-ups about them. They give you a nice progress bar (not in the picture) to let you know how it’s going. At the end, you’re given some information about the installation size.
The Bootable ISO task lets you make a usable disk out of your installation. There are four modes to choose from. Direct Burn burns the files directly to disk. Burn Image burns an image you’ve already made to disk. Create Image makes a bootable ISO from your installation. And finally, Erase RW will erase the data on a CD/DVD-RW. Just like any other burning program, you can choose which drive to use, the burn speed, the Label on the disk. It also has Verify and Test Write options.
nlite recommends you test your new installation on a virtual machine before installing it on a real one, especially if you’ve made some potentially unstable changes. Once you’ve burnt the disk, stick it in a machine and boot it up. The installation process runs almost exactly the same, the only difference you should notice is that it won’t bother you with questions.
(Title image courtesy of twasa, from Stock.xchng.)
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