[Update June 29: Problem solved! Also updated h/w config to 1G of RAM as it should have been] 

Short story: installing Vista for me was a catalog of problems, some mine and some not. It started out with not being able to open the box, and went downhill to include weekend-long unsuccessful installs, bricking my PC, and exercising my Dell warranty to get a replacement motherboard, hard-drive and secondary hard-drive. And after all that, guess what: I still haven't installed it.

Long story: read on

Wanting Vista 

I wanted to install Vista at home, so I picked up my copy of Vista Ultimate at the company store and took it home. I've installed Windows on machines for over a decade, and I have no fear. I did make a full backup of my XP install, and I added a new drive so I could install Vista side-by-side and check it out without blowing away my XP install, just in case. My machine is a Dell Dimension 370 with 1G of RAM, pretty standard except I added a new SATA drive for Vista itself and I have an additional DVD drive (for region 2 discs). Its not a state-of-the-art-2007 machine, but it is reasonable and until very recently I was using an identical machine at work (with more RAM and disc) for all my development.

Opening the Box

My first issue with Vista was getting the damn thing out of the box. The box is a weirdly shaped plastic thing, and almost impossible to open the first time you see one. After some cursing I discovered a red tag, so I pulled that: no change. After applying physical pressure to the box I began to see the bizarre way it opens, but it would only move a millimeter. I was seriously considering a trip to the garage and to smash the box open with a hammer, when I discovered another transparent sticker that was holding two parts together. With that gone, the box moved a few more millimeters, until I realised the thing opens sideways, and boom: Vista was opened. I've installed entire operating systems more quickly and with less stress than opening this box...

Compatibility: Good, but not for Dynamic Disks

I had already run the Compatibility Wizard from beta 2 on this machine and it said all the hardware was compatible and there were various issues with some of my software, but nothing I couldn't live without.

The x86 world is moving to 64-bit, so I wanted to as well. I stuck in the 64-bit DVD and rebooted the machine from it. I soon saw the new Vista background, but it seemed to stay there for quite a while before asking me the Locale questions. Didn't think too much about that, so I answered them and it went through the next few screens. I typed in the pid, and I told it I wanted to install to Disc 1, my new SATA disc. At that point it told me that Vista cannot install to Dynamic discs, and my install was over. I rebooted to XP and (after having to open Help) figured out how to switch the drive to Basic. Rebooted again from DVD.

It said "Copying files 0%". And there it stayed. I left for half an hour, came back and it had copied files but was at "Expanding files 1%". I went to bed, woke up the next morning expecting to see a shiny new Vista to play with. Instead it said "Expanding files 24%". I thought it had hung, but no: every few minutes the drive would spin up, and every 15 minutes the percentage would go up by 1. I estimated it would take 30 hours to expand the files at this rate, so I left it running all weekend. After a total of about 40 hours, I saw a login prompt. I logged in, and sat looking at the Vista background for eons, and went to work (the weekend being over and all). When I came home the machine had black-screened.

Upgrading the BIOS: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

One of the many benefits to working at Microsoft is that you can often find someone who either knows the answer to your problem, or can point you to someone who can. I asked about my epic install problems and I was asked if I had the latest BIOS. Turns out I was running version A04, so I downloaded A08 from the Dell site and ran that. When it finished, the machine powered itself down. When I powered it back on, it gave 3 beeps and no video. Uh-oh. A call to Dell Support confirmed that I had bricked my PC. Dell Support are fantastic by the way: they sent me a new motherboard and RAM right away, and changing the motherboard is pretty straight-forward on these cleverly designed Dells. Fortunately the new motherboard already had BIOS A08 so I didn't have to risk the BIOS updator again. I reformatted the new drive and rebooted from Vista DVD, looking forward to a speedy install.

But no: no detectable change from the new BIOS (and motherboard): another 40hr install seemed inevitable. I didn't wait, so I asked around some more at work. Found some very helpful folks on the Vista Setup team and I dropped my machine off with them for a vacation. After spending a while with those folks, they got back to me with "something is weird about that Disk 1". I downloaded some Seagate utilities and checked my drives: sure enough my Disk 1 was reporting some problems, so I returned it for warranty replacement. In addition my main drive was also having problems, so I got a replacement from Dell (and the backup/restore of that system I described previously).

So, with a new BIOS, new motherboard, new RAM, and two new hard drives, it was that time again: I put the Vista DVD in and rebooted. This time I was stuck at the initial black-screen "Loading Windows" until I yanked my memory-card reader: the four drives my reader creates seem to confuse the early boot code. After this I went through the usual steps, and it got to "Copying files: 0%" again. Uh-oh. I left for a while, came back and it was "Expanding files: 1%". I left if for just over 24 hours, and when I checked it finally it had blue-screened. Fortunately this time it had not had the chance to put the Vista boot loader on, so a reboot took me right back to the goodness of XP. So I'll guess I'll never run Vista on this box, which is a shame as in the meantime I am running it at work (the 32-bit version anyway) and am pretty happy with it.

Conclusions

  • Vista cannot install to Dynamic discs (which is the default when you add a new drive to XP): switch them to Basic before attempting a Vista install
  • Only update your BIOS if you have good warranty cover on the motherboard, or are feeling lucky
  • Unplug memory card readers before installing
  • Dell's warranty and support organization rock
  • My particular hardware cannot install Vista, and no-one knows why