Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE) is a miniature version of Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 or Windows Vista. Originally developed to allow system builders and corporate clients to deploy new computers, it has since been embraced by third-party vendors (Symantec’s Ghost, for example, uses WinPE as its boot disk) and technical support people.
What it is, in a nutshell, is an improved version of the old DOS boot disk. In the old days, if you had some problem that prevented your computer from booting, you could stick a DOS diskette into your floppy drive and boot from that. You’d then be able to access your files, and hopefully fix whatever was wrong with the system. However, as the years have passed, the DOS boot disk developed some severe limitations. To begin with, DOS cannot natively access the NTFS file system, the file system of choice for Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 installations. DOS cannot access files or partitions over a certain size. DOS does not support USB drives of any kind. Any applications used in DOS have to be recomplied with that operating system in mind. And DOS does not (and will not) support multitasking (running more than one program at once). In short, DOS is an ancient, albeit reliable, beast; someone somewhere had to come up with a better solution.
It turns out that guy was named Bart Lagerweij. Lagerweij was a minor Internet celebrity, making a name for himself by releasing several popular boot disks for DOS and putting them online for anyone to download. DOS supports networking, for example, but making a boot diskette that reliably connects to a network can be a huge pain in the neck. Lagerweij’s popular “Network Bootdisk” made creating boot diskettes with TCP\IP support a painless affair. In 2002, Lagerweij saw WinPE in action and knew the days of the DOS disk were numbered. The only trouble was that Microsoft only licensed the software for system builders and large corporate clients. Lagerweij went to work at deconstructing WinPE, and eventually figured out a way to make his own version using a standard Windows XP installation CD. And thus, BartPE was born.
The only problem with BartPE was that it wasn’t exactly user-friendly. Yours truly downloaded an early version of the “disk builder” program and eventually gave up – it was really difficult and since I had no pressing need for it, I didn’t want to waste my time on it. Wouldn’t it be better, I thought, if someone released a “ready to go” version of a BartPE disk?
Someone did. It’s called the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows. All you need to make your own boot CD is a copy of a Windows XP installation CD (preferably one with SP2 slipstreamed), a CD\DVD burner and a blank disk, and the Ultimate Boot CD application (available here). It’s so easy that every single step you need to take can be easily described (with screen shots!) on this page.
Once you’ve got your CD burned, you can boot directly into a 32-bit Windows environment. The Ultimate Boot CD comes with a galaxy of pre-installed programs – check out the full list here. Several “name brand” antivirus programs are included (such as McAfee Stinger, Kaspersky VRT and AVG Free), as are popular antispyware programs (AdAware, Spybot). Firefox, Irfanview, Notepad++ are included, as are popular disk burning applications like DeepBurner. Also included is my new favorite disk imaging program, DriveImage XML. Honestly, the list of programs included on the disk is huge; while BartPE gives you the ability to add just about any 32-bit Windows application to a boot disk, you need not bother with Ultimate Boot CD – just about anything you could want is already there.
And, unlike DOS boot disks, the Ultimate Boot CD comes with all the “modern conveniences”. As soon as you boot into the Windows-like desktop, you’re asked if you want to enable network support. Click “yes” if you want, and a simple box opens up that asks if you want a DHCP or static address. Choose an option, and since Ultimate Boot CD supports almost every modern network card, you have instant network access. Want to attach a USB device to dump an image? Just attach the drive and go!