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The I386 folder usually contains a copy of the files used to install Windows in the first place. You can often use it to reinstall Windows.
If I burn the I386 folder onto a CD will it be the same as having Windows XP on a CD? Will that just allow me to delete the folder, and if I choose to restart will the CD be fully applicable?
An actual Windows Setup CD is different in some subtle ways and at least one not-to-subtle way: you can boot from it to perform an install. A CD copy of your I386 folder won't do that.
But there are some ways to use the I386 folder to reinstall your system.
First I have to throw out a big fat caveat: I can't guarantee that any of this will work. The problem is that while it's common for the I386 folder to be and do what I'm going to talk about, there's actually no standard that says it must. As always, make sure you're totally backed up - or be ready to lose everything on your machine - before you attempt anything as system-altering as a reinstall.
As I've discussed before, many computer manufacturers include a folder on your primary hard drive: C:\I386. This folder typically contains a copy of the I386 folder that's on your installation CD - if your computer came with one. That folder contains all of the files that are used when you install Windows XP, and when Windows later decides it needs files that weren't originally installed. That's actually one reason that the folder is copied to your hard drive: Windows won't have to ask for the CD, but rather simply copy what it needs from the C:\I386 folder.
You can move the I386 folder to another location or even to another machine on your local network if you like, to free up the space on your hard disk.
And of course, you can burn it to CD.
If it fits.
And right there is the first of several the problems many folks face.
My I386 folder is 850Meg, much too large to burn onto a CD. Either the original installation CD used some form of additional compression to reduce that size, or my manufacturer added files to the folder. I'm actually not sure which, but the result is the same: the folder's too big to fit on a CD, and I wouldn't know what to safely remove to make it fit.
If you have the ability, you can of course burn it to a DVD. Or copy it to an external hard drive. Or copy it to a file server on your local network.
But what then?
Well, first make sure you have, or save, your product key. ANY installation copy of Windows is actually not worth much without the product activation key. You can retrieve the product key from your running installation or from the sticker on your original CD or perhaps the PC itself.
Next, in the I386 folder, look for one of these three programs:
Those are all different versions of the Windows setup program. If you have them, or especially if you have all three, you have hope. (If you do have all, I'd try them in the order listed.)
Now, as I said, you can't boot from the CD or DVD you've created. But if you can come up with another way to boot your machine, you may be able to use your copy of the I386 folder to re-setup Windows.
The 'trick', such as it is, is simply to boot your machine in such a way that you can run the setup program. You may even be able to do it directly in the C:\I386 folder, though you won't be able to do a true "reformat" and reinstall since the reformat would erase the I386 folder you're attempting to install from. (And remember I did say to backup, and that includes backing up that I386 folder as well, just in case.) If not, you might need to boot from a floppy or a different CD, and from there access wherever your I386 folder has been placed.
Particularly if you're able to place and access the I386 folder from some location other than your machine's primary hard drive, you should be able to install Windows as if you had the original CD.
Now a few more caveats:
Your I386 folder will represent an image of your original installation - before any patches. Your first job after installing should be to a) ensure the firewall is turned on before you connect to the network, and then b) visit Windows Update. Repeatedly. Until you're completely up to date.
Manufacturers might have mucked about with the contents of I386. They might have added software or tools or they might remove some. There's no telling.
You might have mucked about with the contents of I386. I know, it's not likely, but it is an unprotected folder on your hard drive, and particularly if you don't know what it is it's easy to accidentally delete portions or make inadvertent changes.
The bottom line is that the best installation source for Windows is an official product CD or DVD. But if for some reason you don't have one, but you do have a legal product key from your existing installation, the I386 folder might well be a helpful fallback position.
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