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Non-destructive reinstall of Windows XP

By , logo. Last updated: 2018-12-19

How to use Windows XP CD for reinstalling operating system without losing any programs, documents or settings

If nothing from Windows troubleshooting articles helped to get your PC to boot or run properly again, there is a way to repair Windows XP without losing all your data, installed programs, drivers and settings. It also keeps the existing Registry.

Steps to try before using the non-destructive reinstall of Windows XP

  • Last Known Good Configuration often solves booting and stability problems after installing software, drivers, or messing with Registry entries.
  • If Windows is able to boot, use System File Checker and icacls.exe to repair corrupted system files.
  • While Windows is running, use free WhoCrashed for determining BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death) causes.
  • System Restore can help reverting back to a state when your computer was running normally.
  • Recovery Console might be useful for repairing file system errors and boot configuration.

Prerequisites of reinstalling Windows XP non-destructively

You need your Windows XP installation media (CD, compact disc) that came with your PC. If you bought Windows XP from a shop, then the CD should be in the Windows XP box.
To put Windows XP installation media onto a bootable USB drive instead, see the Create bootable Windows installation media on a USB stick guide on our sister site,
As Windows XP has no native USB 2 or 3 support, please connect the USB drive to a USB 1.0 or 1.1 port.

You also need the license key that came with your Windows XP. And I mean the exact same license key that was used to set up Windows XP on your computer. You cannot change license key during this process and if you do not have the correct key, you will end up with a half-baked setup process and unusable computer.

If you bought your computer with Windows XP preinstalled, the license key sticker is on your computer case. If you have a desktop computer, it is probably on the top of the case or on the back of the case. If you have a laptop computer, the license key sticker is on the bottom.
The license key sticker always includes text "Windows XP" and its edition (Home, Professional, Media Center, etc). The sticker is most probably blue or green.
Here is an example of a license key that came with a new computer (the key itself is blurred to prevent piracy):
Windows XP Professional license key sticker

If you bought Windows XP from a shop, the license key is somewhere in the box.

In case you really can't find the key, use Speccy to reveal the key that was used during installation. Click Operating System tab on the left and write down the value for Serial Number.

Write down the product key to a piece of paper for easy access during the reinstall. Double check the key, just in case. Wink

Unlike in Recovery Console case, you cannot borrow a CD from your friend, as every Windows XP uses its own license key and that key must be activated via Internet. If you use your friend's CD and try to activate the same license key, both you and your friend will have serious problems using Windows XP. Sorry folks, no piracy allowed!

Sadly, some manufacturers that preinstall Windows XP on their new computers give you a CD that is not capable of doing a non-destructive reinstall. Those CD-s will erase everything on your computer, so be very-very careful while reading the instructions on your computer screen! If any screen says that you will lose all data on your computer, stop the installation at once by pressing F3 key on your keyboard or by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del.

What will change after this reinstall?

While you will not lose any documents or e-mails or setting or drivers or additional programs installed, the reinstall will revert Windows XP to the Service Pack version on your original installation CD. If your CD includes no Service Pack at all, you will have no Service Pack installed.
Also, Internet Explorer will revert to version 6.

It means that you will have to reinstall Service Pack 3, Internet Explorer 8 and all security updates. You will not lose any settings of Internet Explorer 8, though.

Speeding up the non-destructive reinstallation of Windows XP

If possible, boot into Safe Mode with Networking before starting the repair install and follow these steps to speed the process up considerably:

1. Move your personal files (documents, photos, videos, etc) to an external drive or to another internal drive.
2. Remove temporary files with CCleaner. This is a must! At least 3 GB (gigabytes) of free space is required to reinstall Windows XP.
3. Run a disk check to verify that file system is intact. This is a must!
4. Disable or uninstall anti-virus and anti-malware software temporarily; enable or re-install them after Windows reinstallation completes. This might help sometimes.
5. Disconnect all external devices (printer, external hard drives, USB sticks, etc) that are not required during the non-destructive re-installation. Display, keyboard and mouse are required.
6. Quick defragmentation with Defraggler also helps a lot sometimes.

Reinstalling Windows XP non-destructively

Make sure that your computer is configured to boot from CD first, insert your original Windows XP CD in your CD or DVD drive and restart your computer.

After your computer boots from the Windows XP CD, you'll see text "Press any key to boot from CD" for about 5 seconds. Press Y or Space on your keyboard, for example - but you can press really any other key. The important thing is to press that key while the "Press any key to boot from CD" is displayed - after 5 seconds have passed, your computer tries to boot from hard disk again and Windows XP will start.

After pressing some key on your keyboard, you will see blue screen and Windows XP setup program will load essential files and drivers from CD. It takes quite a while. Do not press any keys during that time.

After loading is complete, you will see a screen like this. Press Enter key on your keyboard here.
Windows XP Setup, Welcome to Setup. Press Enter to continue with Windows XP setup.

Next, you will have to agree to Windows XP License Agreement. Press F8 on your keyboard to do that.
Windows XP Setup, Licensing Agreement. Press F8 to accept it.

This step is extremely important! If you do not see the next screen with an option to repair your Windows XP installation, press F3 key immediately and quit Windows XP setup. This means either that your Windows XP is so damaged that it cannot be repaired without losing data or that your computer manufacturer gave you a CD that is not capable of doing a non-destructive reinstall. You are out of luck then, sadly.

If you have an option to repair the present Windows XP installation, press R key here.
Windows XP Setup, press R to repair the present Windows XP installation. If you do not see repair option, exit the setup immediately by pressing F3 key.

Windows XP setup will then check your hard disk(s):
Windows XP Setup, examining hard disks. Stand by.

After disk check is complete, Windows will copy setup files to your hard drive:
Windows XP Setup, copying files to hard disk. Stand by.

When file copy process has completed, Windows XP will restart your computer. Do not remove the Windows XP installation CD from your CD or DVD drive!
Windows XP Setup, restarting computer. Do not remove your Windows XP CD yet!

After your computer restarts, you will again see a "Press any key to boot from CD" prompt for about 5 seconds. Do not press any keys on your keyboard this time - Windows XP has to start from hard drive now.

Windows XP will then continue with the re-installation.
Windows XP Setup, Installing Windows. Stand by.

Please wait until you see a screen like this. As this is a non-destructive install, all your settings have beem migrated from the already present Windows XP installation. Just click Next here.
Windows XP Setup, Regional and Language Options. Click Next.

Type in your Windows XP product key. Then click Next.
Windows XP Setup, Your Product Key. Enter the key and and click Next.

Windows XP will reinstall loads of stuff, so it will certainly take half an hour or more.
Windows XP Setup, Finishing installation, Saving settings. This takes up to 40 minutes or so.

After everything is complete, Windows XP will restart your computer again. You will see the "Press any key to boot from CD" prompt again for about 5 seconds. Do not press any keys on your keyboard this time, either! Windows XP has to start from hard drive.
As this is the first time for your reinstalled Windows XP to start, it will display a little different screen:
Reinstalled Windows XP starting for the first time. Please wait.

After some animation you will see Welcome to Microsoft Windows wizard. Click Next in the lower right corner.
Windows XP, Welcome to Microsoft Windows wizard. Click Next.

In the registration screen, click No, not at this time and then Next. There is really no point in re-registering with Microsoft.
Reinstalled Windows XP registration, choose No, not this time. Then click Next

The Welcome Wizard is complete, click Finish to see your familiar Welcome Screen:
Reinstalled Windows XP welcome wizard complete. Click Finish.

Click your account name if it is not selected already, enter your password and press Enter on your keyboard to log on.
Reinstalled Windows XP, back at Welcome Screen. Click your user name, type in your password and log on as usual.

As this is the first time to log on to the freshly re-installed Windows XP, some strange Command Prompt windows will open and close. Please wait until these windows have disappeared.
Reinstalled Windows XP doing some Command Prompt stuff after first logon. Please wait.

If you had Internet Explorer 7 or 8 installed before the reinstalling and feed synchronization set up, you will see error dialogs. This happens because Internet Explorer 7 or 8 created a scheduled task to synchronize feeds and Internet Explorer 6 knows absolutely nothing about feeds. Click Close here.
Reinstalled Windows XP, Microsoft Feeds Synchronization error. Internet Explorer 6 does not support IE 7 and 8 feeds synchronization - click Close.

To prevent this quite annoying error dialog from popping up again, open Start menu by clicking the green Start button or pressing Ctrl+Esc on your keyboard. Then go to All Programs, Accessories, System Tools and open Scheduled Tasks.
Windows XP, Start menu, All Programs. Open Accessories, System Tools. Click 'Scheduled Tasks' to delete Feeds Synchronization task that causes errors.

Find the task with name like "User_Feed_Synchronization", right-click on it and choose Delete.
Reinstalled Windows XP, Task Scheduler. To delete User Feed Synchronization Task, right-click on it and choose Delete.

Now your Windows XP non-destructive re-installation part is finished.

But do not stop here yet! The next very important steps are:

If you had Internet Explorer 7 or 8 installed before the reinstall, its Desktop icon will not work. Start Internet Explorer or Windows Update from Start Menu.

You probably have to reinstall Windows Installer 3.1 after enabling Microsoft Update. This requires a restart.


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