Trim Down Windows to the Bare Essentials

When you're installing Windows in a virtual machine or on old, slow hardware, you want the leanest, meanest and fastest-running configuration possible. Most of the time, you want the best from your operating system, including all the bells and whistles. Other times, you don't want the default, bloated Windows installation, with every single built-in feature slowing you down. Luckily, whether you want to put Windows on a diet in a virtual machine or you want to get Windows up and running all snappy-like on older hardware, you've got a handful of excellent and free options at your disposal. Let's take a look at a few ways to trim down your Windows installation so that it takes up less space on your hard drive and eats less RAM while it's running.

What's the Point?

vm-fusion.pngThere are a lot of reasons you might be interested in lightening up and streamlining a Windows installation. I happen to want a super-lightweight version of Windows to run on VMWare Fusion on my Mac, so I can run my must-have Windows applications without allocating a lot of hard drive space or memory to the virtual machine. That means that the virtual machine will run more quickly and take up fewer resources on my Mac.

On the other hand, a lightweight Windows install is also perfect for older hardware that just can't keep up with XP. In fact, your hardware doesn't even have to be that bad to still enjoy benefits of this process. A slimmed down Windows install is also appealing for the performance gains it affords, because it allows your computer to allocate more memory and resources to individual programs rather than the operating system as a whole.

Whatever your reasons for wanting a lightweight Windows install, I'm going to focus on a couple of methods for shrinking Windows XP below. In my examples I'll be explaining how I used the freeware applications nLite and GameXP to optimise my Windows installation for fast performance in a limited environment, like a VMWare virtual machine.

Build a Lightweight Windows Install with nLite

nlite.pngFreeware Windows application nLite goes directly into your Windows installation disc and helps you selectively rip out all the features and software you don't want. When you're done (and you can be pretty ruthless), you'll have a new Windows installation disc that you can use to install the lighter, gutted version of Windows. Out of all of the options discussed in this feature, the nLite method will probably give you the best results. Before we dive in, here's what you'll need:

  • A Windows installation disc
  • nLite
  • A computer running Windows to run the nLite wizard and create your new install disc

First, fire up nLite. As you'll see on the welcome screen, nLite works with Windows XP, 2000, and Server 2003. If you want to strip down a Vista installation, you'll want to use the Vista version of nLite, called vLite. I'm sticking with nLite and XP in my example, since right now Vista isn't anywhere as close as XP to what you could reasonably call lightweight.

locate-windows-disc.pngOn the next screen on the installation wizard, nLite will ask you to point it to the location of your Windows installation disc. If you've got a disc in your drive, point it there. Next nLite will ask you to pick a folder on your hard drive to save the stripped install files to.

Once you've pointed nLite to all the right places, click Next to copy all the files from your disc onto your hard drive. Once nLite finishes copying the Windows installation files to the folder you selected on your hard drive (which will take a few minutes), the fun begins.

nlite-presets.pngThe next window you'll see is the nLite Presets window, which you can use to replicate a previous nLite session so you can re-create a slimmed-down disc without going through the work of manually selecting the components you want to remove. For example, you could copy everything I've done by grabbing my Last Session.ini file (created after you use nLite) containing all the tweaks I made when streamlining XP for VMWare and importing it at the Presets window (pictured) of the nLite wizard. Then, instead of going through all the settings yourself, you could choose my presets file, click Next, accept everything on the Task Selection pane as-is, and click through all the windows until you've created the new installation disc.

NOTE: I'm not including my Last Session.ini file because I haven't been able to test it sufficiently, and I'd hate to spread around a broken version of Windows to everyone.

task-selection.pngIf you don't want to go with a preset, you can make all the changes you want to at the Task Selection window. At this window, you green light everything you want to include or remove from the installation. For example, if your installation CD currently only includes XP Service Pack 1, you could integrate the SP2 update directly into your nLite disc. Likewise, you can integrate any hotfixes (like the revised Daylight Saving Time hotfix) or drivers into your installation.

For our purposes, however, the important part comes in the Remove section. Whatever your preferences for the rest, be sure to green light the Remove Components section. When you're happy with your Task Selection choices, click Next. The nLite wizard will now walk you through each green-lighted feature. For example, if you chose to integrate a service pack, you'll need to point nLite to the downloaded service pack.

nlites-components.pngAssuming you chose to remove components, you'll eventually come to the Components step of the nLite wizard. In this step, you choose what components of the Windows installation you want to exclude. You can be brutal in this section, but keep in mind that disabling some components can cripple some Windows features.

nlite-compatibility.pngTo help you rip out as many components as possible while ensuring you don't break any important features, nLite has a Compatibility option that allows you to check important features that you want to keep intact.

For example, I want to make sure my lightweight Windows install can still access the internet, so I've ticked the DHCP functionality (Ethernet and Wi-Fi). Since I'm going the merciless route while slimming my install disc with nLite, I'm selecting just a few compatibility options (as seen in the screenshot.) After choosing those options, I'm going through the Components list and checking off most components I'm not expecting to use—which is most of them—for removal.

This part can take some time, but the nLite wizard does a nice job of informing you of what each component does and what may be affected if you remove it. You can remove most of the components without ever noticing, but keep an eye out when you're going through the list.

nlite-tweaks.pngOnce you've set up your components for removal, click Next to advance to the next step. You'll see different steps depending on what options you gave the green light to earlier, like system tweaks. Here you can conduct all sorts of simple system tweaks that can help with your performance. For example, check out the Performance options for various tweaks. Likewise, you can save on performance overhead by tweaking options in the Visual Effects section. Some, like disabling window animations, can boost performance, while others are m ore a matter of taste.

Like the Components section, you may want to spend a few minutes deciding what you prefer in this section. Don't stress too much about these choices, though, as none of them should really make anything go wrong with your install.

nlite-complete-process.pngFinally, if you're happy with all the tweaks you've made so far, click Next to start building your new, streamlined Windows installation. nLite may take some time to extract and create the new, slim, and trim installation files and ISO (which is just the disc image you burn to a CD), but when this process completes, you'll have a streamlined version of Windows that will run in either your virtual machine or your old hardware with ease.

Speed Up Your New Windows Install Even More with Game XP

game-xp.pngNow that you've created your very own trimmed-down Windows installation, you're enjoying the performance boost and a smaller memory and hard drive footprint. But you can take things even further by installing and running another freeware application called Game XP. Designed to optimise your system settings and speed up your computer to maximize your gaming experience, Game XP can also be used to throttle unnecessary processing and boost the overall performance of your computer.

Your mileage may vary when you try out Game XP on your system, but give it a try and watch your performance with and without to see if it changes how your lightweight system runs. Game XP runs from an executable file, so there's nothing to install. Just run it whenever you want to try out its speed-boosting capabilities. I haven't had any problems with this program, but I have read a few bad experiences, so proceed with caution.

Put Your Current Windows Install on a Diet with XPlite

Finally, if you've already gone through all the work of installing and setting up Windows just how you like it, you probably don't want to start with a fresh install with the likes of nLite. That doesn't mean that you can't still cut some of the bloat out of Windows. A program called XPlite rips selected components out of XP with the same goal as nLite—it just does it post-installation rather than pre-installation. XPlite comes in a demo version that provides limited removal features and a shareware version that can cut out even more fat.

I'm new to nLite, but using the nLite wizard is a simple process. That said, if you've got experience with nLite—or other similar tools for optimizing and slimming down your Windows performance—let's hear about your experience in the comments. If you're a real pro and you'd like to share your Session.ini file with others, feel free to send them our way to host for others to try out.

UPDATE: I'll include reader-submissted nLite Last Session.ini files below as I receive them:

Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who likes his virtual machines light and snappy. His special feature Hack Attack appears every Wednesday on Lifehacker AU.


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