Windows XP : Practicing Safe Setups - Running Through a Pre-Installation Checklist

2/11/2012 6:02:01 PM

User Accounts and Installing Programs

If you’re coming to Windows XP from Windows 9x or Me, you’ll find that something as apparently straightforward as installing a program isn’t straightforward at all. The biggest hurdle you face is the Windows XP security model, which doesn’t let just anyone install a program. If you’re logged in with Administrator-level privileges, you’ll have no problem launching any installation program. If you’re logged in as a member of the Users group (a Limited account), however, Windows XP will cause problems for any installation program that attempts the following:

  • Installing files anywhere other than within the %UserProfile% folder (the folder that contains the files of the currently logged-on user)

  • Adding or editing Registry keys and settings anywhere other than within the HKEY_CURRENT_USER key

This makes sense because members of the Users group do not have the appropriate privileges to perform either of these actions.

If you’re having trouble installing a program for a Limited user, you can usually work around the problem by upgrading the application to one that is Windows XP–compatible, which means the program is supposed to let Limited users install programs safely for their own use. In other words, after a Limited user installs the program, that user can run that program, but no other user can.

The opposite problem occurs when you’re logged in as a member of the Administrators group but you don’t want an installation program to abuse those privileges. Here’s how to fix that:

Right-click the installation program’s executable file and then click Run As. Windows XP displays the Run As dialog box, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Use the Run As dialog box to ensure that an installation program does not abuse your Administrator-level privileges.

In the Run As dialog box, make sure that the Current User option is activated, and also make sure that the Protect My Computer and Data from Unauthorized Program Activity check box is activated.

Click OK.

When you launch the installation program, Windows XP will run it as though you were a Limited user.

Running Through a Pre-Installation Checklist

For those who enjoy working with computers, few things are as tempting as a new software package. The tendency is to just tear into the box, liberate the source disks, and let the installation program rip without further ado. This approach often loses its luster when, after a willy-nilly installation, your system starts to behave erratically. That’s usually because the application’s setup program has made adjustments to one or more important configuration files and given your system a case of indigestion in the process. That’s the hard way to learn the hazards of a haphazard installation.

To avoid such a fate, you should always look before you leap. That is, you should follow a few simple safety measures before double-clicking that setup.exe file. The next few sections take you through a list of things to check before you install any program.

Check for Windows XP Compatibility

Check to see whether the program is compatible with Windows XP. The easiest and safest setups occur with programs certified to work with Windows XP.

Set a Restore Point

The quickest way to recover from a bad installation is to restore your system to the way it was before you ran the setup program.

Read Readme.txt and Other Documentation

Although it’s the easiest thing in the world to skip, you really should peruse whatever setup-related documentation the program provides. This includes the appropriate installation material in the manual, Readme text files found on the disk, and whatever else looks promising. By spending a few minutes looking over these resources, you can glean the following information:

  • Any advance preparation you need to perform on your system

  • What to expect during the installation

  • Information you need to have on hand to complete the setup (such as a product’s serial number)

  • Changes the install program will make to your system or to your data files (if you’re upgrading)

  • Changes to the program and/or the documentation that were put into effect after the manual was printed

Virus-Check Downloaded Files

If you downloaded the application you’re installing from the Internet, or if a friend or colleague sent you the installation file as an email attachment, you should scan the file using a good (and up-to-date) virus checker.

Although most viruses come to us via the Internet these days, not all of them do. Therefore, there are other situations in which it pays to be paranoid. You should check for viruses before installing if

  • You ordered the program directly from an unknown developer.

  • The package was already open when you purchased it from a dealer (buying opened software packages is never a good idea).

  • A friend or colleague gave you the program on a floppy disk or recordable CD.

Understand the Effect on Your Data Files

Few software developers want to alienate their installed user base, so they usually emphasize upward compatibility in their upgrades. That is, the new version of the software will almost always be able to read and work with documents created with an older version. However, in the interest of progress, you often find that the data file format used by the latest incarnation of a program is different from its predecessors, and this new format is rarely downward-compatible. That is, an older version of the software will usually gag on a data file that was created by the new version. So, you’re faced with two choices:

  • Continue to work with your existing documents in the old format, thus possibly foregoing any benefits that come with the new format

  • Update your files and thus risk making them incompatible with the old version of the program, should you decide to uninstall the upgrade

One possible solution to this dilemma is to make backup copies of all your data files before installing the upgrade. That way, you can always restore the good copies of your documents if the upgrade causes problems or destroys some of your data. If you’ve already used the upgrade to make changes to some documents, but you want to uninstall the upgrade, most programs have a Save As command that enables you to save the documents in their old format.

Use the Add or Remove Programs Feature

Double-clicking Control Panel’s Add or Remove Programs icon displays the window shown at the top of Figure 2. You can use this window to launch a program installation wizard, but most experienced Windows users don’t need a wizard to install a program. Instead, Add or Remove Programs is useful for two things:

Modifying a program’s installationClicking the Change or Remove Programs icon displays a list of your computer’s installed programs, as shown in Figure 2. When you select a program, the window shows you the size of the installation; how frequently the program has been used (rarely, occasionally, or frequently); and when the program was last used. You also get a Change button that you can click to modify the program’s installation. (Some programs display a combined Change/Remove button instead.) Depending on the program, modifying its installation might mean adding or removing program features, reinstalling files, or repairing damaged files.
Removing a programClick the Remove (or Change/Remove) button to uninstall the program. Note that each uninstallable item in the Add or Remove Programs list has a corresponding subkey of the following Registry key, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Items that can be uninstalled via Add or Remove Programs have corresponding Registry entries.


After you’ve uninstalled a program, you might find that it still appears in the list of programs in the Add or Remove Programs dialog box. To fix this, open the Registry Editor, display the Uninstall key, and look for the subkey that represents the program. (If you’re not sure, click a subkey and examine the DisplayName setting, the value of which is the name that appears in the Add or Remove Programs list.) Delete that subkey and the uninstalled program will disappear from the list.

Save Directory Listings for Important Folders

Another safe setup technique I recommend is to compare the contents of some folders before and after the installation. Windows programs like to add all kinds of files to the %SystemRoot% and %SystemRoot%\System32 folders. To troubleshoot problems, it helps to know which files were installed.

To figure this out, write directory listings for both folders to text files. The following two DOS statements use the DIR command to produce alphabetical listings of the %SystemRoot% and %SystemRoot%\System32 folders and redirect (using the > operator) these listings to text files:


To get to the command prompt, either select Start, All Programs, Accessories, Command Prompt, or select Start, Run, type cmd, and click OK.

dir %SystemRoot% /a-d /on /-p > c:\windir.txt

dir %SystemRoot%\system32 /a-d /on /-p > c:\sysdir.txt

When the installation is complete, run the following commands to save the new listings to a second set of text files:

dir %SystemRoot% /a-d /on /-p > c:\windir2.txt

dir %SystemRoot%\system32 /a-d /on /-p > c:\sysdir2.txt

The resulting text files are long, so comparing the before and after listings is time-consuming. To make this chore easier, use the DOS FC (File Compare) command. Here’s the simplified syntax to use with text files:

FC /L filename1 filename2

/LCompares files as ASCII text
filename1The first file you want to compare
filename2The second file you want to compare


The FC command can also compare binary files, display line numbers, perform case-insensitive comparisons, and much more. For the full syntax, enter the command fc /? at the command prompt.

For example, here’s the command to run to compare the files sysdir.txt and sysdir2.txt that you created earlier:

fc /l c:\sysdir.txt c:\sysdir2.txt > fc-sys.txt

This statement redirects the FC command’s output to a file named fc-sys.txt. Here’s an example of the kind of data you’ll see in this file when you open it in Notepad:

Comparing files C:\sysdir.txt and C:\sysdir2.txt
***** C:\sysdir.txt
08/04/2004 07:00 AM 258,048 WMVDS32.AX
08/04/2004 07:00 AM 264,192 WOW32.DLL
***** C:\SYSDIR2.TXT
08/04/2004 07:00 AM 258,048 WMVDS32.AX
11/22/2004 08:56 PM 913,560 wodFtpDLX.ocx
08/04/2004 07:00 AM 264,192 WOW32.DLL

In this case, you can see that a file named wodFtpDLX.ocx has been added between WMVDS32.AX and WOW32.DLL.


The FC command is useful for more than just directory listings. You could also export Registry keys before and after and then use FC to compare the resulting registration (.reg) files.


Most high-end word processors have a feature that enables you to compare two documents (or any file type supported by the program). In Word 2003, for example, open the post-installation file, select Tools, Compare and Merge Documents, and then use the Compare and Merge Documents dialog box to open the pre-installation file. Word examines the documents and then inserts the changes using revision marks.

Take Control of the Installation

Some setup programs give new meaning to the term brain-dead. You slip in the source disk, run Setup.exe (or whatever), and the program proceeds to impose itself on your hard disk without so much as a how-do-you-do. Thankfully, most installation programs are a bit more thoughtful than that. They usually give you some advance warning about what’s to come, and they prompt you for information as they go along. You can use this newfound thoughtfulness to assume a certain level of control over the installation. Here are a couple of things to watch for:

  • Choose your folder wisely— Most installation programs offer to install their files in a default folder. Rather than just accepting this without question, think about where you want the program to reside. Personally, I prefer to use the Program Files folder to house all my applications. If you have multiple hard disks or partitions, you might prefer to use the one with the largest amount of free space. If the setup program lets you select data directories, you might want to use a separate folder that makes it easy to back up the data.


    Most installation programs offer to copy the program’s files to a subfolder of %SystemDrive%\Program Files (where %SystemDrive% is the partition on which Windows XP is installed). You can change this default installation folder by editing the Registry. First, display the following key:


    The ProgramFilesDir setting holds the default install path. Change this setting to the path you prefer (for example, one that’s on a drive with the most free disk space).

  • Use the Custom install option— The best programs offer you a choice of installation options. Whenever possible, choose the Custom option, if one is available. This will give you maximum control over the components that are installed, including where and how they’re installed.

Installing the Application

After you’ve run through this checklist, you’re ready to install the program. Here’s a summary of the various methods you can use to install a program in Windows XP:

Add New Programs WizardThis wizard is available via Control Panel’s Add or Remove Programs icon. It’s the standard Windows XP method for installing all types of applications, but it requires too many steps for it to be practical. In the unlikely event that you’re not sure which executable to run to install a program, insert the CD or floppy disk, click the Add New Programs icon, and then click the CD or Floppy button. The wizard’s dialog boxes lead you through finding the installation program and launching it. The wizard departs at this point and you follow the installation program’s instructions.


The wizard finds the installation program only if it exists in the CD’s root folder. If the wizard fails to find the program, it might be because the program resides in a subfolder (look for a subfolder named Setup or Install).

AutoPlay installIf the program comes on a CD or DVD that supports AutoPlay, it’s likely that the installation program will launch automatically after you insert the disc into the drive. To prevent the install program from launching automatically, hold down the Shift key while you insert the disc.
Run setup.exeFor most applications, the installed program is named setup.exeinstall.exe). Use Windows Explorer to find the install program and then double-click it. Alternatively, select Start, Run, enter the path to the setup.exe file (such as e:\setup), and click OK. (sometimes it’s
Decompress downloaded filesIf you downloaded an application from the Internet, the file you receive will be either an .exe file or a .zip file. Either way, you should always store the file in an empty folder just in case it needs to extract files. You then do one of the following:
  • If it’s an .exe file, double-click it; in most cases, the install program will launch. In other cases, the program will extract its files and you then launch setup.exe (or whatever).

  • If it’s a .zip file, double-click it and Windows XP will open a new compressed folder that shows the contents of the .zip file. If you see an installation program, double-click it. It’s more likely, however, that you won’t see an install program. Instead, the application is ready to go and all you have to do is extract the files to a folder and run the application from there.

Install from an .inf fileSome applications install via an information (.inf) file. To install these programs, right-click the file and then click Install in the shortcut menu that appears.
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