Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 23, 2007
How not to install a new hard drive

I put myself into Windows installation hell yesterday, by making a small but strategic mistake: I installed my new hard drive without unplugging the old one. Getting the new hard drive into the computer was easy, especially since the Alienware case has lots of space and sufficient power cable connections. So then I booted the computer with the Windows XP CD, with both hard drives in. At setup I chose to install Windows XP on the new drive. Long formatting, then installation of Windows XP including SP1. Then I still need to install service pack 2, and all the drivers for the motherboard, sound, graphics, network, monitor, etc., until everything is up and running. Then I notice something strange: My new hard drive has the letter F:, the old hard drive still has the letter C:.

So I go to the Disk Management Utility to switch the letters around, and find out I can't. While the Windows setup CD correctly installed my new hard drive as the system drive, it kept the old hard drive as the boot drive. I reboot the Windows setup CD with the Recovery Console and try to fix the problem with the fixboot and fixmbr commands, but the only thing I achieve is destroying the old drive's boot record. So now I have two hard drives, none of which is bootable. Another reboot with the CD to try the "repair XP installation" function, only to find it isn't on offer if there is no boot drive. The only thing I can do is what I should have done right from the start: Unplug the old drive, and install Windows XP again on the new drive. Of course I also have to reinstall service pack 2, all the drivers, and so on, and so on. Took me hours until everything was running.

Following Shalkis' advice I also download a S.M.A.R.T. monitoring utility that can read the hidden information about performance and troubles on a modern hard drive. Well, at least I wasn't imagining things: The new hard drive scores okay on all counts, the old hard drives is shown as "fail" because of nearly 3,000 reallocated sector counts. So I format the old drive to erase my personal information from it (yes, I know that with very expensive hardware somebody might still be able to recover it, but who would bother for the insignificant data on a private drive?), and remove it from the case. Now I just need to put it into a padded envelope, wait until the delivery guy comes with my replacement drive, slap the return label on the envelope and give it to him to be sent back.

I also did something extravagant: I ordered another OEM copy of Windows XP Pro including SP2c, just for safety and convenience. I'm running out of activations on my existing Windows XP, and while there is probably some way to persuade Microsoft to give you more activations, I'd rather have the latest version, which will be faster to install as all the service packs are already included. By buying a hard drive I had the right to buy a cheap OEM version. Curiously if you want to buy an OEM version of Vista, you need to buy at least 3 pieces of hardware, or a new computer. I rather took my last chance to still get Windows XP before Microsoft decides to force everyone to use Vista.

What I don't know is whether it is possible to actually have two drives with a working boot sector in one computer. Because if that was possible, I would reinstall Windows again on the replacement drive. The hard drive I bought yesterday is only SATA-I, the replacement drive will be SATA-II and twice as fast. The shop didn't have any SATA-II drives, and I had to take what was available, a Seagate 320 MB SATA-I drive for less than 100 Euro. That would be good enough for a second hard drive for data storage, and I'd love to leave the Windows XP installation including boot sector on it in case of future problems. But I don't know if by unplugging this drive and turning the replacement SATA-II drive into a bootable Windows XP drive, and setting it first in the boot order in the BIOS, I can then plug the SATA-I drive back in and have two bootable hard drives in the computer.
Re: Persuading Microsoft
I recently used up all my windows activations as I semi-regularly purge my windows machine and reinstall everything. I discovered the fact when I tried to activate my windows installation online during my last reinstall cycle. A call to the number Microsoft provided in the online activation routine rectified that.
It was quite easy, no arguing with the tech support guy or anything.

That said, the convenience of having a pre-SP2ed Windows installation disc is a huge plus, considering time saved not applying SP2 over a vanilla-XP install and avoiding the need to negotiate additional activation attempts.
While the Disk Management snap-in allows you to change the drive letters, it doesn't allow you to do so on any partition that is either the system (boot) partition and/or the one that contains the swap file. However, there is a way. As always, back up your registry before attempting it.
That's what I have. My first drive has Windows XP. I bought a second HD and put Vista. The second drive is now the main and the other drive is used as storage space. But if I unplug the Vista drive, I can boot with the XP one.
while it's possible to have two hard drives plugged in with each one having a working boot sector, there's other things that may complicate issues. For example, if you look at the hidden boot.ini file at the root folder of your boot drive, you'll see that the Windows boot loader refers to the hard drives according to the "slot" in the IDE/SATA controller, so swapping drives around might break things.
while it's possible to have two hard drives plugged in with each one having a working boot sector, there's other things that may complicate issues. For example, if you look at the hidden boot.ini file at the root folder of your boot drive, you'll see that the Windows boot loader refers to the hard drives according to the "slot" in the IDE/SATA controller, so swapping drives around might break things.

Ah, thanks for the warning. Would that also apply if I don't physically swap the hard drives, but just change the boot order in the BIOS?
An Operating System kills your hard drive and you are buying a new copy? Sounds a little bit strange to me. Having a Windows installation disc including SP2 is a good idea, but you can legally create your own:

And I know this won't help:
Switching the boot device takes 2 seconds, on my mac.
You don't need to reinstall Windows again on your replacement drive. Try DiscWizard (download from Seagate website). It can copy the content of the entire disc to a new one, including your operating system.
Sounds like your hardware troubles are solved Tobold but for future reference it is worth keeping a bootable Linux CD on hand for emergencies. They boot and run linux entirely from memory but still allow you to read and write Windows files from the hard disk. Even for a linux noob its pretty easy to use. I have an old Knoppix disk I use but I imagine any bootable live CD would work. Trinity Rescue Kit: looks particularly good. I'm going to download and try it myself.
Scratch my recommendation of Trinity Rescue Kit. I downloaded it and burned a CD but it wont boot properly on my system plus I cannot make head nor tail of the documentation. I am probably missing something here and it sounds like a great rescue kit but for the moment I cannot recommend it. .
I reinstalled XP many many time...on many different machines. All you have to do is call microsoft up. The number is provided when your activation fails. I always seemed to get someone who didn't speak english yet was named 'kevin'. Go figure? Either way they just ask you if the copy of XP is currently installed on any other machines? You say no, they give you another activation code. Really easy and I'm not sure how this is so secure. I guess it would detour people who are frauding microsoft because it requires interaction with a person.
So I format the old drive to erase my personal information from it (yes, I know that with very expensive hardware somebody might still be able to recover it,[...]

actually you are wrong.
formating a hardrive can be undone by anybody with most cheap or freeware recovery software.

only safe way is to erase/overwrite your hardrive with specific tools for that

a very good freeware tool for that is Eraser:
I'd like to second the recommendation for Linux Live CDs as a way to recover data and fix many disk problems. I've lost count of the times that I've used this technique on my stepson's machines (he's hell on hardware and *never* backs up his files). Knoppix ( was first here and has worked well for me. SystemRescueCD ( has a nice set of tools specifically targeted at, well, system rescue. Pretty much any recent Linux live CD will work for at least data recovery, though.

And you know, if you end up installing Linux on a machine, you won't have to worry about activation keys. Okay, okay... It's still not great for recent games and it doesn't run viruses and spyware very well, but for everything else it's a grand improvement.
Here is a list of your new best friends:

1. Dareks Boot and Nuke (Dban). Put it in, boot to it, and kiss anything stored on your harddrive goodbye.

2. GNOME partition manager (Gpart). Put it in, boot to it, and edit, delete, resize, and many other useful functions for partitions and drives. I use it all the time to repair drives. Great tool if you switch between Linux and Windows a lot on your hard drives.

Other notes:

Microsoft is gay with reactivations for OEM copies.
Great blog btw, been reading through your old posts the past few days.

I'm sorry to say I laughed at the situation you got into here... but only because I've had so many problems installing XP myself in the past.

The latest of which was installing it on my brand new dual core setup. For some reason, my old copy of XP did not like the new motherboard, and came up with awful errors halfway through installation. Nothing I did could get around it... I had to install xp on the new hard drive using my friend's new machine(also duel core, but different motherboard, Asus FTW!)

Seems to have worked :)
This is an old post, but I ran into the same issue last night and found a good solution, so I'll post it here in case somebody else runs into the same problem again.

To make the XP installer ignore other partitions, use a partition editing program like PartedMagic or Partition Magic to hide any other partitions on the drive you're installing to before booting from your XP disc. Also, if the drive you're installing to isn't the first one, open up your case and unplug the power on any drives before it or disable them in the BIOS (though this second method doesn't always work). Of course you'll need to unhide the other partitions and reconnect your other drives afterward.

I never payed attention to it before, but when you get to the screen in the XP install that lets you choose what partition to install to, it actually lists them by drive letter! So, if you always watch for this, you'll know right away when XP is planning to give your new installation a ridiculous drive letter, and you can abort the install and remedy the situation first using the steps above.

Happy Installing!
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