When you need to reinstall Windows, you shouldn't have to spend an entire day installing years of updates, drivers and necessary software along with it. Here's how to create a Windows installation disc (or USB stick) that's up to date, customised, auto-installing, and far less time-sucking than your original.We're going to walk through how to create a customised Windows disc image, using your Windows install DVD (or pre-installed Windows setup files) and the RT7Lite app. RT7Lite covers both Windows 7 and Vista, 32-bit and 64-bit editions. If you were looking to create a customised XP CD or DVD, our previous guide to slipstreaming Windows XP with Service Pack 3 still stands, but we have to recommend upgrading at this point. In fact, creating a customised Windows 7 installation medium, with service packs already installed and unnecessary elements removed, is a good way to replace XP, or Vista, with Windows 7.
What's the Point?
- Quicker Installations: As mentioned above, one major benefit of creating a "slipstreamed" Windows installation disc is that you can roll all the various updates and drivers you need into one standalone installation — a process that can cut down the time spent on a new installation significantly.
- Speed: You can create a lighter version of Windows, including only the features you want, and leaving the bloat behind.
- Customisation: Set your default themes, fonts, wallpapers, logon screen, system sounds, screensavers and more, all baked into your system as soon as you install (or reinstall).
What You'll Need
- Windows 7 (or Vista) DVD, ISO, or pre-installed setup files: That is, you'll need a physical disc, a copied disc image, or (possibly) pre-installed setup/recovery files on your system.
- Valid Windows product key: RT7Lite only creates a new disc; it doesn't change Microsoft's registration and validation systems.
- At least 7GB hard drive space: Enough to copy your Windows disc onto your hard drive, then create a new disc image for burning, with a bit of buffer room. If you already have your Windows disc image, you'll just need space for a new DVD (around 4.5 GB max).
- Blank DVD-R or USB stick: In the case of a USB stick, it should be at least 4GB in size.
Step One: Install RT7Lite and Import Your Windows Disc
Head over to RT7Lite's homepage and hit the Downloads section. The layout doesn't make it quite clear which links correspond to which versions, and the big Download "buttons" are just images that don't offer clicks. Look for the text links below each Download image. If you're looking to integrate Windows 7's Service Pack into your disc, you'll want to scroll down to the beta releases. That service pack includes all the patches, security fixes and other updates from its first year and a half of existence, so I'd recommend snagging the beta. Download the appropriate 32-bit or 64-bit dowload for your system (the system you're working on, not the Windows disc you intend to create), install RT7Lite, and launch it.
When you first start RT7Lite, you'll see a shiny Windows icon and lots of greyed-out buttons — so, not many options. The first step is to look in the middle of the window for the "Browse" button. Assuming you don't have a Windows 7 disk already copied, click that button, then choose "Select OS Path" from the small box that drops down. Insert your Windows 7 DVD and select the drive letter — or, if your system came pre-loaded with a Windows 7 "recovery" section, point RT7Lite to that directory. If you've already copied your Windows 7 DVD to a folder on your hard drive, you can point to that folder. Finally, if you have an ISO image of a Windows 7 installation disk, you can choose "Select ISO file" from the initial drop-down and then select that for your source.
When RT7Lite is done scanning your setup files, it will ask which version of Windows you want to create a disk for. Go with whatever version you have a licence key for, obviously, but before you hit OK, check the box to "Slipstream Service Pack". RT7Lite will then ask you to provide a location for your service pack. On Vista, sadly, you can't jump the line and download Service Pack 2. If your Vista system didn't ship with Service Pack 1 pre-installed, you'll have to roll Service Pack 1 into your system; either way, you can grab your Vista service pack here. Windows 7 users have one service pack available at the moment; downloading it requires running an activation test. Once you've grabbed your .exe service pack file, you can load it into RT7Lite when prompted, and, after some work, the updates from that service pack are included in your upcoming disc.
Note: If you're using the stable version of RT7Lite, you'll need to load ".MSU" files into RT7Lite, as it won't accept service packs in .exe form. Search for something akin to "windows vista service pack 2 msu" to find a download for use with RT7Lite.
Step Two: Customise Your Install Disc
Beyond getting your Windows system up to date on the disc, you can make a lot of tweaks to the system you're installing. You can automatically install Firefox or Chrome and have Internet Explorer be non-existent, for example, and have your drivers and select updates pre-installed. You can reduce or eliminate Windows' question prompts during the install, and add or remove components you don't need.
Once your setup files and service pack are loaded, click the "Task" menu on the left side of the RT7Lite window, and you'll be prompted to check and enable aspects of the disc you want to customise. You'll need to at least enable the "ISO-Bootable" section at a minimum, but here's what each of those other elements does, in a nutshell:
Integration: Add Windows Updates, Drivers, Languages and Apps Whatever you want to add to your Windows disc, you'll need to download. For Updates and Language Packs, you'll want to grab them from either Microsoft itself (via the Download Center), or through a site like The Software Patch. The updates should arrive as MSU files; stash all the updates you'd like into a folder, then click the "Add" button in the Updates tab and point to that folder.
Adding drivers for those components you know will need them upon re-installing requires grabbing the driver packages from your manufacturer's download site. If the drivers arrive as a compressed package, you should be able to navigate to the correct .INF file and include that with your RT7Lite install. If the package arrives as an executable .exe file, you'll need a decompression tool like 7-Zip to open the executable and pluck out the .INF file.
Apps are fairly easy to add, but you'll need to find apps that offer a "silent switch" — or apps that can install without asking any questions of the user. Luckily, many apps do offer silent installs, even if they're not apparent to the user. One easy way to find them is to grab the Universal Silent Switch Finder (direct download link). Download that utility, run it, then load your installers into it from the ">" arrow on the right-hand side of the "File" option. Let's say you wanted to include Chrome in your installation, for example. Chrome normally installs over the web, but searching will net you a stand-alone installer, which, when run through the Universal Silent Switch Finder, will reveal a "/s" option that can be added for silent installation. "Add" the Chrome installer to RT7Lite, add "/s" to the "Command line switch" field, and now Chrome will install itself into Windows automatically. Nifty.
Note: If you're not keen on tracking down all the apps you use, finding their switches, and adding their installers, you can use the very cool Ninite site/web app to quickly install a whole bunch of apps after you've got Windows up and running. Not quite as convenient, but, then again, you'll get more up-to-date versions of your apps.
Just what it sounds like — a place where you can yank out some of Windows' default features. In Windows 7, at least, not many of them are big, obvious efficiencies, but a cleaner system appeals to some users. Items you really shouldn't remove are listed in red, although some items may still cause you problems if Windows wants to use their components down the line.
This is the fun stuff, although "Customisation" is pretty nifty, too. From Tweaks, you can go nuts changing settings you'd normally find deep, deep in the Windows registry. Some are fairly niche, but others — like the default font in Notepad, a preset UXtheme switch for custom styles, and others can be really handy and time-saving.
Odd spelling, but you get what this section is doing. All the questions and prompts Windows hits you with while installing can be pre-answered, or set to be skipped, in this section and embedded into your installation disc. That way, you can slide in the disc, set it to start, and then actually do something else.
The little things, but they make your system entirely yours. Change the default wallpaper, logon screen, theme, gadget selections, pre-installed documents and more aesthetics.
Step Three: Making Your Disc (or USB Stick, or Disc Image) and Try It
From the "ISO-Bootable" section, choose how you want your Windows installation media to be made. You have options to write directly to a DVD-R or erase and rewrite a DVD-RW, create an ISO image on your hard disk, or write the image directly to a USB key. Launch the process from the button in the lower-right corner, then grab yourself a drink, or make yourself a sandwich. When you come back to your system, you should have a DVD, ISO, or thumb drive, ready to plug into a system. Assuming you didn't create an entirely automated installation, you should be able to see whether Windows' install prompts appear on screen, and then exit out if you were just testing out your disc/stick.
That's the gist of creating your own Windows installation disc, whether you're just getting up-to-date on patches, or customising the heck out of your system and saving yourself find-and-click time. Got questions, tips, or requests for other topics to be covered? Drop them in the comments.