What is Windows Setup?

Windows Setup is a program that installs the Windows operating system. Windows Setup uses a new technology called Image-based Setup (IBS) that provides a single, unified process with which all customers—including OEMs, corporations, and retail customers—can install Windows. IBS performs clean installations and upgrades of Windows, and is used in both client and server installations.

This topic includes:

  • Benefits of Windows Setup
  • Common Installation Scenarios
  • Best Practices for Windows Setup
  • Limitations of Windows Setup
  • Dependencies of Windows Setup
  • Technologies Related to Windows Setup

Benefits of Windows Setup

Time is critical for OEMs and corporations. By reducing deployment and installation time, OEMs can reduce manufacturing costs and corporations can easily deploy Windows Vista throughout their enterprise.

Windows Setup

Windows Setup now includes several new features that facilitate faster and more stable installations.

  • Faster installations and upgrades. Because Windows Setup is now image-based, you can install and upgrade Windows faster and more easily. You can perform a clean installation of Windows by deploying the Windows image to destination computers. You can also perform quick and easy upgrades by installing a new image onto an existing installation of Windows. The previous Windows settings are protected during the installation.
  • Better stability. Windows Setup uses a new Image-based Setup technology that improves the stability and consistency of a Windows installation. It uses a file-based image for installation, called a Windows image (.wim) file.
  • Improved Windows image management. Windows Vista images are now stored in a single .wim file. A .wim file can store multiple instances of the Windows operating system in a single, compressed file.
  • Streamlined installation. Windows Setup is optimized to enable the manufacturing and deployment scenarios used by OEMs and corporations. As a result, installation takes less time, with fewer tasks to finish before using Windows Vista.

Common Installation Scenarios

Common installation scenarios include performing clean installations, upgrades, and unattended installations.

Clean Installations

The most common scenario for Windows Setup is performing a clean installation. This scenario consists of the following stages:

  1. Run Setup.exe from your Windows product DVD or network share.
  2. Select the Custom installation type.
  3. Windows Setup creates a local boot directory and copies all the required Windows Setup files.
  4. Windows Setup reboots to Windows Vista, installs and configures Windows components, and after installation is complete, launches Windows Welcome.

Custom installations do not retain any settings or preferences from previous versions of Windows. Files from previous Windows versions are copied to a \Windows.old directory.


Windows Setup can also perform upgrades. To perform an upgrade, you must begin from one of the following operating systems:

  • Windows Vista
  • Windows XP
  • Windows 2000 Service Pack 1 or higher
  • Windows Server 2003

This scenario includes the following stages:

  1. Run Setup.exe on the previous version of Windows.
  2. Select the Upgrade installation type. Windows Setup upgrades the system and protects your files, settings, and preferences during the installation process.
  3. Windows Setup reboots to Windows Vista and restores your protected files, settings, and preferences. Windows Setup then launches Windows Welcome.


Upgrades are used to upgrade a single computer to Windows Vista. Windows Vista also supports migrating user data to a new system.

Unattended Installations

Unattended installations enable OEMs and corporations to customize and to automate an installation of Windows. By using Windows System Image Manager (Windows SIM) or the Component Platform Interface (CPI) APIs, OEMs and corporations can create one or more customized Windows installations that can then be deployed across many systems.

The online scenario includes the following stages:

  1. Use Windows SIM or the CPI APIs to create an unattended installation answer file, typically called Unattend.xml. This answer file contains all the settings that you configure in the Windows image.
  2. Run Setup.exe with the explicit path to the answer file. If you do not include the path to the answer file, Setup.exe searches for a valid answer file in several specific locations. For more information, see How Windows Setup Works.
  3. Windows Setup then installs Windows Vista and configures all settings listed in the answer file. After the operating system is installed, Setup launches Windows Welcome.

Best Practices for Windows Setup

The following section describes some of the best practices to use with Windows Setup.

  • Install, capture, and deploy to the first active partition. When you install, capture, and deploy a Windows image, you must use a single disk, specifically the first active partition on the disk. This guarantees that the Windows operating system is installed to the same drive letter.
  • Verify that there is enough space for Windows Setup temporary files. If you install Windows from a previous version of Windows, such as Windows XP, verify that there is enough space on the disk for temporary Windows Setup files. The space required may vary, but it can be up to 500 megabytes (MB).
  • Previous Windows installations are moved to a Windows.old folder. If you install Windows over a previous Windows installation, all previous Windows files and directories are moved to a Windows.old folder. You can access your data in the Windows.old folder after Windows Setup completes.

Review the Windows log files. If you experience problems during Windows Setup, review the log files in %WINDIR%\panther. For more information, see Windows Setup Installation Process.

Limitations of Windows Setup

The following sections describe some of the limitations of Windows Setup. Review this section before running Windows Setup.

  • Deploy Windows images to the same drive letter. If you use ImageX to apply a Windows image, the drive letter to which the Windows reference image is installed must exactly match the drive letter that is recognized by the deployed Windows image. For example, if you capture a custom Windows image on drive C, you must deploy that image onto the partition that Windows recognizes as drive C on the destination computer.
    This limitation applies only to deployment with ImageX. If you run Setup and reinstall Windows, you can change the drive to which Windows is installed.
  • Applications might require a consistent drive letter. If you install custom applications to your Windows image, it is recommended that you install Windows to the same drive letter on the destination computer because some applications require a consistent drive letter. Uninstallation, servicing, and repair scenarios might not function appropriately if the drive letter of the system does not match the drive letter specified in the application. This limitation applies to both ImageX and Windows Setup.
  • Deploying multiple images to multiple partitions. If you capture and deploy multiple images on multiple partitions, the following requirements must be fulfilled:
    • The number of disks, partition structure, and bus location must be identical on the reference and destination computers.
    • The partition and drive letter to which the Windows reference image is installed must exactly match the partition and drive letter that is recognized by the deployed Windows image.
    • The partition types (primary, extended, or logical) must match. The active partition on the reference computer must match the destination computer.
  • Installing Custom .wim files requires a description value in the .wim file. When you create a custom .wim file, you must always include a description value. This description value is required by Windows Setup. If a .wim file does not include a description value, the image may not install properly. You can provide a description value when you use imagex /capture. If you install a .wim file that does not have a description, recapture the image and provide a valid description. For more information, see the ImageX Technical Reference.

Dependencies of Windows Setup

Depending on the installation scenario, Windows Setup can have dependencies on one or more of the following technologies:

  • Windows SIM. By using Windows SIM, you can create an answer file to automate the Windows setup process.
  • Windows PE. If you run Windows Setup on a computer that does not have an operating system, Windows Setup loads the Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE). Windows PE is a minimal operating system based on the Windows kernel and provides a basic shell, networking, and other services. By using Windows PE, you can configure a hard disk before installing Windows and perform other preinstallation tasks.
  • Sysprep. Sysprep prepares a Windows image for imaging, auditing, and customer delivery. By using Sysprep, you can specify whether the system boots to audit mode or to Windows Welcome. You can also use Sysprep to generalize a Windows image, which removes all machine-specific settings from the Windows installation. You can then capture that Windows image by using ImageX.
  • ImageX. With ImageX, you can capture one or more Windows installations as a Windows image file.

Windows System Image Manager

With Windows System Image Manager (Windows SIM), you can customize Windows images and their settings. Based on your configurations, you can create an answer file to automate your installations. This answer file is used during Windows Setup to apply your configurations to Windows. In the answer file, you can specify changes to default operating system components and add software, such as drivers or product updates.

System Preparation Tool (Sysprep)

Sysprep prepares a Windows installation for disk imaging, system testing, or delivery to a customer. Sysprep can be used to remove system-specific data from a Windows image, such as the security identifier (SID). After removing unique system information from an image, you can capture that Windows image by using a separate utility, such as ImageX, and use it to deploy on multiple computers. In addition, Sysprep can configure the Windows image to boot to audit mode or Windows Welcome. Audit mode enables you to test the integrity of the operating system and to install additional applications and device drivers. Windows Welcome is the first user experience that enables end users to customize Windows.

Package Manager

Package Manager is the tool used to install packages. Packages are used by Microsoft to distribute software updates and language packs. Package Manager can also enable or disable Windows features.

Unattended Installation Answer File

An answer file is an XML file that can be created by using Windows SIM. The answer file enables configuration of default Windows settings, as well as the addition of drivers, software updates, and other applications. The answer file enables you to customize installation tasks, for example, specifying disk configuration, changing the default values for the Internet Explorer, and adding drivers.


For Windows Vista, the single answer file replaces all the answer files that were used in Windows XP (Unattend.txt, Winbom.ini, Oobeinfo.ini, and Sysprep.inf). In addition, the Oobe.xml content file is used to configure Windows Welcome.

Windows Deployment Services

Windows Deployment Services (Windows DS) is a network-based installation server that enables corporations to remotely administer and to deploy the latest operating system, by using Windows PE and Windows DS Server. This deployment scenario can be fully unattended and is customizable and scalable.


Windows DS replaces the existing Remote Installation Services (RIS) deployment technology.

Windows Preinstallation Environment

Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE) is a minimal Win32 deployment environment. Windows PE is used to boot a computer without an existing operating system.


ImageX is a command-line tool that enables the capture, modification, and application of file-based Windows images for rapid deployment.

See Also


How Windows Setup Works
Windows Setup Command-Line Options
Package Manager Technical Reference
Sysprep Technical Reference
ImageX Technical Reference
Windows PE Technical Reference