Upgrading Vista to XP

This document describes a migration from Windows Vista to Windows XP on a Sony VAIO notebook computer. Although some of the details are specific to this particular make and model, the differences with other hardware should be trivial. Your mileage may vary, but probably not by very much.

The information in this document was believed to be accurate at its time of writing (December 2007 - January 2008) but is provided without any warranty of any kind whatsoever. The usual disclaimer applies.

This document is written based on the assumption that you will want to run MS Windows on your desktop for good and compelling reasons. Linux advocates need not respond. Yes, I am aware of the many advantages of Linux in comparison to Windows, but I am also aware of the reality that many Windows users are still tied in to the Windows platform and that Linux on the desktop is not a viable option for them at present. For many Windows users the decision to live with Windows in order to get their daily work done is a pragmatic one, and this migration manual has been written from that standpoint only.

Why downgrade upgrade?

Microsoft Windows Vista is one of the worst Windows versions ever. It's probably even worse than Windows ME was, which is no mean trick. Microsoft struggled with Vista for a long time, and it shows. Vista was released years later than was initially planned, and Microsoft's developers had been forced to scrap most of their code and start over from scratch halfway through the project. What finally emerged was an immature version of Windows, loaded with features that are ill-conceived or just badly implemented, and with severe compatibility issues. Driver support remains a problem long after Vista's initial release, due to the fact that Vista's design parameters continued to change until just before its final release. Vista's system requirements are downright bizarre, and it wastes computer resources like no other Windows version. No Windows release has been botched that badly since Windows 1.0 appeared in the mid-1980's. On the other hand, Vista has very few real improvements compared to its predecessor Windows XP, and it certainly does not make one more productive either.

Unless you really require Vista for some reason, the best way to reclaim your hardware may be to revert to XP. Windows XP requires less memory, less disc space and less computing power. On a laptop computer this means that under Windows XP your battery will last much longer than under Vista. XP is a relatively mature version of Windows, which means that compatibility with applications and hardware generally won't be a problem (as opposed to Vista). Last but not least, Vista comes loaded with "features" that are as annoying as they are useless, User Access Control being a prime example. XP may have its drawbacks (and then some!) but at least it's less aggravating to use than is Windows Vista.

Your Vista license and you

Microsoft does not advertise it, nor do most hardware vendors. Neither will you find it mentioned in any Windows documentation or (at this time of writing) on the Microsoft website. Yet you do have the option to legally replace your installation of Windows Vista with Windows XP Professional. Your Vista End User License Agreement (EULA) is, with certain limitations, legally transferable to Windows XP.

There are a lot of conflicting stories making the rounds about what your actual downgrade rights are. Microsoft's EULAs and terms of use are complex and mystifying. Under the current licensing terms, you are allowed to downgrade your Vista Business and Vista Ultimate license to a Windows XP Professional license, including Tablet PC Edition and x64 Edition. This applies both to OEM versions of Vista (pre-loaded or not!) and to "boxed" Vista licenses. Some articles on the web state otherwise and claim that preloaded or OEM version are excluded from downgrade rights. This is not true. I just downgraded a preloaded OEM Vista Business license to a bundled (i.e. non-preloaded) OEM Vista license without any problems. Other Vista versions than Business or Ultimate (e.g. Home Basic or Home Premium) however cannot be legally downgraded. Users of those versions have my sympathy, especially as these versions are more then somewhat useless to begin with. Unfortunately that's the best I have to offer them. If there is a solution to get rid of these versions legally without paying for a new Windows license, I'm not aware of it.

I understand that holders of volume licenses (e.g. large companies) are applicable for downgrade rights as well, but I have no experience with that particular situation myself. The scope of this article is limited to single copies of Vista and XP.

Why you may want to stick with Vista

There are several possible reasons why you may decide not to migrate from Vista to XP.

No support:
A migration from Vista to XP is not for the faint-hearted. While an experienced Windows user with a certain amount of technical background may find the process fairly straightforward, many end users may struggle with it. An important factor to keep in mind is that you generally do this without any form of support whatsoever. You're on your own. If that worries you, you might want to hire a computer techie to do the migration for you.

No warranty:
In most cases you will run Windows Vista because that's what came with your new computer. This is known as an "OEM version" of Windows. An OEM version is only sold with a new computer, and Microsoft will not support it. Instead you have to contact your hardware vendor for Windows support. This makes Windows support the hardware vendor's problem, and most hardware vendors see it as such. To them, support is overhead that does not generate revenue, and they are forced to support a product (Windows) that they didn't make in the first place. As a result, the quality of Windows support on OEM versions is generally less than stellar. Hardware vendors ship their products with a preloaded version of Windows, and that's what you're supposed to run. Their solution to any problem you may have is generally to re-install the out-of-the-box Windows configuration. Your hardware vendor will almost certainly consider a migration from Vista to XP a user-performed modification that voids the warranty.

Licensing considerations:
Other Vista versions than Business or Ultimate (e.g. Home Basic or Home Premium) cannot be legally downgraded to XP. Your only option in this case is to buy a "boxed" version of XP, which does not come cheap.

Driver support:
If your Windows Vista installation came with the latest hardware, no XP drivers may be available for that hardware. This can be an issue especially with a recent model notebook computer. If you need to use hardware for which only a Vista driver exists, you're stuck.

What you will need

XP installation media:
You will need to provide you own LEGAL copy of Windows XP. That copy may already be installed on another PC, i.e. you won't need a separate XP license. The only requirement is that your XP copy be a legally obtained one. Pirated copies or "cracked" serial numbers are not allowed and won't work. (Oh, and you will be contacting Microsoft later on, in order to discuss the particulars on your XP license. So don't bother trying to use a pirated serial number. You'll be wasting your time.)

Contrary to popular belief, the XP version that you are about to install can be an OEM version. I know this for a fact; I have just done it. Several articles on the web state that you can only legally downgrade if you use a "boxed" version of XP and not an OEM version, but this is not true. (If it used to be true, it's not true anymore.)

A Vista Business or Ultimate user license:
It's probably redundant to say this, but you will of course need a legal version of Vista Business or Vista Ultimate to begin with. Your copy of Windows Vista may be a boxed version, or an OEM version, preloaded or not. As I already said above, some articles on the Web claim that preloaded and/or OEM version are excluded from downgrade rights. This is not true. I just downgraded a preloaded OEM Vista Business license to a bundled (i.e. non-preloaded) OEM Vista license without any problems.

You will need to obtain a full set of Windows XP device drivers for each and every device in your computer. While some devices (such as IDE or SATA hard discs in desktop computers) are generic and generally do not need driver software, the list of drivers required is generally longer than one would first expect. Your video card(s) and/or monitor(s), sound card, modem, network interface (both Ethernet and wireless), FireWire ports web camera, UPS, cellphone, Bluetooth interface, Infra-Red interface... et cetera ad nauseam. Don't forget things like power management on notebook computers or the drivers for the chipset on your motherboard!

There are several ways to compile this list. Go through your hardware manager and check the list of installed devices. Look up the specifications for your computer in the manufacturer's documentation. See what hardware-related programs are installed. If you have an A-brand PC, check the manufacturer's website to see which drivers may be available there for download. If your hardware manufacturer(s) cannot help you out, Google is your friend.

Some hardware manufacturers will offer a complete set of XP drivers for their computers. In my case it was easy: Sony has recently released a full set of drivers for XP. Until recently they told me that no such drivers were available, and that license agreements with Microsoft even prohibited them from shipping XP with this particular model. However they have now apparently given in to pressure from the market. Other hardware vendors (e.g. Dell) have followed suit and have reverted to shipping XP and providing XP support with their hardware in response to customer demands. (If that won't tell you how bad Vista is, I don't know what will.)

Sony has also published a manual on how to perform the installation of Windows XP with the aid of their XP driver set. Depending on the brand of your particular hardware, you may be able to obtain such instructions from your hardware vendor, or not. Give it a try and see what happens.

If you have completed the above preparations, you are ready to begin with the actual migration from Windows Vista to XP.

Step 1: prepare a roll-back scenario

First and foremost, make sure that if al else fails, you will be able to restore your current Windows Vista configuration. In that case you can still use your system if your migration to XP should fail completely. The easiest way to do this is to make a full image backup of your hard disc, using Symantec Ghost or a similar program. If you are willing to revert to an out-of-the-box Vista configuration using the recovery discs provided with your computer, or the boxed Vista installation disc, you may skip this step. (I did.)

Some hardware vendors (including Sony) no longer provide CDs or DVDs with their computers. Instead they preload the images for the recovery discs on the computer's hard disc, and you're expected to burn the recovery CDs yourself. If your hard disc goes belly up before you've done that, you're "SOL" and you have to contact your hardware vendor to order (and generally pay for) a set of recovery discs. If you don't have a set of recovery discs, create them now from the harddisc images provided or contact your hardware vendor for clarification. I did not have any recovery media yet, so I burned two DVDs using the utility that Sony ships with the VAIO for that purpose. You will need these recovery discs should you ever wish to switch back to Windows Vista at some time in the future, so make sure that you do not skip this step. Also make sure that if you burn recovery discs yourself, these discs are actually readable and that the computer will be able to boot off these discs. Label the recovery discs and put them in a safe place. (And while you're at it, note the serial number for the Vista license on the sticker on your PC and keep a copy of that number with your recovery discs. You never know.)

Step 2: install XP

The next step is a ground-up installation of Windows XP Professional. And I mean ground-up: remove all and any NTFS partitions on the harddisc that are currently used by Vista. You may or may not want to leave so-called "support" partitions in place. I didn't, since that partition merely served to reload Vista from the image on that partition. Seeing as I had just created the required recovery DVDs, there are more useful things I can use those 10 gigs for.

I created two partitions, one to be used by XP and one for data. You may or may not want to do it differently. I formatted the primary partition with an NTFS file system and went through the motions of installing XP. One reboot later I had a basic installation of Windows XP Professional OEM, which wanted to be activated.

If you install an OEM version like I did, do not attempt to active it yet. We will come to that later. You have 30 days in which to activate your XP installation; so don't worry about it for now.

Step 3: customize your XP installation

This is one of the more tedious steps of the whole operation; you have to manually install all required device drivers and hardware support applications that may be required by your computer. In my case it was easy, as Sony has thoughtfully provided two software kits for this downgrade: a driver pack and an application pack. I followed the steps as outlined by Sony in their downgrade manual, which took me through the motions of manually installing 32 (yes: thirty-two) separate software components, starting with the Intel chipset drivers, through hotfixes not part of XP SP2 right up to a VAIO battery management application and a Sony-specific LAN setting utility. If your hardware vendor has supplied you with a similar set of drivers and instructions, just follow their procedure to the letter. If you have had to collect your own driver sets, use common sense: start with main board and chip set drivers, work your way up to peripheral drivers, and so on. Time and many reboots go by.

Test your installation thoroughly. I did not expect any real problems, but in spite of Sony's preparations I did encounter a few. The VAIO's built-in webcam refuses to work (the application used to set the webcam controls seems to be defunct or missing, which means that its brightness and contrast controls are stuck at zero). I contacted Sony's support division to sort that out. Their response was decidedly unhelpful: I was the only one with that problem so obviously I must have done something wrong; the fault could not have to do with the downgrade driver package as provided by Sony. And that was it. I was advised to try again and that ended Sony's OEM support. (See what I mean by downgrade operations being totally unsupported?) So far I have not manage to resolve this issue. As the built-in camera of this particular notebook computer was to be used for video conferencing, it's a bit of an issue, but I'll see what I can do.
Another problem was that Internet Explorer 6 was agonizingly slow and took minutes to load a single page. I carry Opera 7 around on a USB stick because I can run it right off the stick without installing it first, and Opera loaded the same web pages with lightning speed. Other network functions worked properly, too, so the problem was obviously IE6. I solved that by downloading IE7 (using Opera) and installing that instead of IE6 (something that would have happened sooner or later anyway) and that solved the problem.

Step 4: Activate Windows XP

This is where the fun starts. You now have to contact Microsoft in order to activate your installation of Windows XP, using your Vista downgrade rights. This is not a standard option in Microsoft's normal activation procedures. That means that activation via the Internet is not possible. Neither will the standard procedure for activation via telephone help you out. Normal telephone activation involves an automated voice response system that guides you through the standard exercise of activating XP but makes no provisions for downgraded Vista licenses. It would have been trivial for Microsoft to at least add an option for downgraded Vista licenses to the voice response system that handles activation requests, but so far they haven't done that. Neither does Microsoft provide any instructions on their website, nor in their voice response system, on what to do in order to exercise your Vista license downgrade rights. One would almost get the impression that they don't want to admit that there is sufficient demand for such a service to warrant its existence... But I digress.

Here's what you have to do.

  1. Click on the activation icon (the one that looks like two small keys) in the system tray, or click on the balloon with which Windows informs you that you have a number of days left to activate Windows. The activation wizard will appear.

  2. Select the option to activate via telephone. Enter the country in which you are performing the downgrade. Windows will display a phone number for you to call. Dial that number. Depending on the country you're in, you may or may not have to do this during regular business hours.

  3. Your call will be answered by an automated voice response system. Ignore the directions given to you by the canned voice. Instead dial a zero. This option is not documented in any of the menus provided by the voice response system! Just pretend to be dumb and do it anyway.

  4. If you're lucky, a live human operator will answer. If you're not, try again later. If you can't get an operator to pick up the phone when you dial zero even after trying repeatedly during regular business hours, go through the activation wizard again and instead of you own country select the nearest large country to the one you're in and try again, using that number.
    Update: Reader Tim Freeman writes that "In some cases pressing zero during the phone call doesn't work. If the number you dialed is using a voice recognition thing and not responding to pressing the zero, try saying "I want to speak to an operator." The system will then ask you if you are sure, and you say "Transfer me anyway." Then the waiting begins..."

  5. When you have managed to get someone to answer the phone, be nice to that person. He or she is just doing a phone job and not responsible for any of the horrors that Microsoft's draconic licensing schemes have imposed upon us all. Explain that you want to exercise your Windows Vista License Downgrade Rights (sic) after having downgraded Vista to an XP installation that you now want to activate.

  6. The operator will put you through to a licensing center. Or rather he or she will try to. In my case, what I got was an exercise in patience.

But all things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually I was put through to a live operator at a real activation center (which, judging from the Indian or Pakistani accent of the operators, would have been somewhere in India or thereabout).

Assuming that you now have made it this far, again explain to the operator that you want to exercise your Windows Vista license downgrade rights after having downgraded Vista to XP and that you now want to activate the XP installation. Also explain that you have used an XP CD and serial number previously used on another PC. The operator will ask you for the (long!) string of digits given to you by the activation wizard, and will give you an only slightly shorter string of digits in return which you have to type into the boxes in the activation wizard. If the wizard does not accept the string of digits as valid, one of you has made a mistake. If the digits are accepted, Windows XP has now been activated.

And that's it! Easy, wasn't it?

Make an image backup of XP

At this point you might want to make a complete image backup of your XP partition (using Symantec Ghost or a similar product) because if you ever have to re-install XP to resolve a problem, you have to go through this whole process again. At that point you will probably curse yourself for not having made an image backup, so I suggest you do it now. Chances are that sometime in the future you will be glad that you did.

Good luck!

Comments? E-mail me!


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