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Windows configures itself to the hardware it finds, but changing everything at once by moving the system disk to a different machine might be too much.

I would like your take on installing a C: Hard drive from one computer into another computer. Would that computer boot up normally with the C: Hard drive from another machine?

This is a classic case of "maybe".

Ultimately, it might work, and it might not. Or something in between.

It depends on how similar the two machines are.

When you install Windows onto a machine, the installation process configures Windows to the specific hardware configuration of that machine. It selects and installs the drives appropriate to, for example, the specific network card, sound card, hard disk interface, CD-ROM drive and so on that you actually have installed in that machine.

In fact, it even selects drivers and settings for things you don't normally think of, like chipsets, CPUs and other low-level components.

If the machine you take your hard disk to is identical to the original machine, then yes, you stand a pretty good chance of having everything work. You might have to deal with Windows activation, since that incorporates things like serial numbers to detect hardware changes, but that too can often just work or be handled with a phone call.

"Part of the problem is that knowing what will happen is further confused by Windows 'plug and play' architecture."

If the new machine is dramatically different, then I'd not expect this to work. The problem is I can't point to a specific thing and say that "this will break it". A different CPU? Maybe, maybe not. A different disk controller? Perhaps. Different amounts of RAM? Probably not an issue.

It's difficult to say, but the more different the machines are, the less likely I would expect it to work.

Part of the problem is that knowing what will happen is further confused by Windows "plug and play" architecture. As you may have already experienced when adding new hardware, Windows often just notices, and either installs the new drivers, or prompts you for the new drivers, without your needing to do a thing.

The copy of Windows on your hard disk, when booted in a new machine, may simply treat the differences it finds as newly detected hardware; a lot of newly detected hardware. Your chances of success then depend on Windows ability to then install all the drivers for the hardware that it sees as different.

I have to say that, ultimately, I would never rely on this approach to work. There are simply too many pitfalls; too many ways that things could go wrong. I'd expect the result to be "half-baked" and prone to hardware issues. The safest approach, by far, is to reinstall Windows on any new machine after backing up the old hard disk, of course.

Which, to be frank, if you're planning on trying this strategy you should do anyway.

Article C3448 - July 18, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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19 Comments
Ken B
July 19, 2008 12:36 PM

I've replaced motherboards in Windows computers with a completely different make/model/type of motherboard than the old one. I've yet to have the system fail to boot to Windows with the new motherboard.

That said, it often takes numerous reboots as Windows goes through numerous "detecting new hardware" phases, and installing new drivers which require a reboot.

With that in mind, I always copy the contents of the Windows install disk into a subdirectory on the hard drive, prior to changing out the system. Otherwise, you may end up in a Catch-22 scenario where it needs to load the CD device driver from the CD. (BTDT)

peter
July 19, 2008 1:12 PM

As you said Leo if the new machine is dramatically different then it will not work , for me actually i prefer to run every machine with it's custom system , this way is more successful and fast.

Thanks Leo..
http://www.fosdir.com

Gail
July 22, 2008 9:15 AM

Hello, I'd like to ask a question relating, kind of, to using other hard drives.
I have a removeable hard drive which I'd like to make secure. At the moment I just plug it in and use it to sore data, photographs. Could I make it secure by copying windows vista from my laptop to the hard drive, errrrrrr???????

Hoping to get a response, Gail

Gigi Duru
July 22, 2008 12:56 PM

1 - Vista cannot be copied to another hd, especially an external one, and work. Actually i seriously doubt you could even install it there.
2 - Wherever you would put it, the security is the same.

Terry Hollett
July 23, 2008 4:14 PM

I had to remove a guys hard drive from his old computer and put it in another machine after his power supply burned out. It would not boot up but a simple repair install and I was able to save the files he wanted saved on the hard drive. And got is second machine up and running.

http://www.geocities.com/terryhollett2003/

Rick Loggins
July 25, 2008 6:15 PM

How 'bout this: I have my system on a partitioned drive (partition=30 gigs) which I use [almost] exclusively for the system (Windows, System/32, 'Documents and settings' and 'Program Files' etc.) I don't want to move to another machine; I want to move my 'C' drive to another hard drive/bigger partition and I want to keep ‘everything’ as it is- meaning the Windows configuration and the installed software. Of course I also want to accomplish this in 2 1/2 minutes. What do you think would be the best way to go about achieving that goal? BTW- My OS is XP Pro.

I don't know about the 2.5 minute part, but there are partition managers out there that will do what you ask by resizing partitions while keeping the data intact. Acronis Disk Manager and Partition Magic are two that come to mind. I know there are others.

-Leo

robin
July 26, 2008 11:51 AM

Hi Leo
This article has really confused me. Are you saying that the image I made of my Windows XP operating system with Acronis True Image, would not be able to be installed on a new computer or even a new hard disk?

A backup is, in my opinion, not a reliable way to move an entire system to a new machine. Honestly, the best approach to that is to build out a new machine from scratch, reinstall applications from scratch, and move your data.

A backup serves two different, yet extremely important functions:

Restoring to the original machine: an image that can be restored to your existing machine should it ever crash and simply be repaired. (Probably more common than failures requiring complete machine replacement)
Moving data to a new machine: an image of your old machine that can be installed on a different hard drive on an different new machine - not as the boot drive for that new machine but as another drive from which you can then access all the old data from your old machine

While, as the article outlines, it may occasionally be possible to move a hard drive, or an image of a hard drive, to completely different hardware and have it boot and work, it's not at all something I would rely on.

Hope that helps clarify.

-Leo

Michael Smith
July 31, 2008 1:56 PM

Although I have not experienced Vista on the copy yet, I can vouch for Windows XP. Basically when you install Windows the first time, it chooses a HAL type (hardware abstraction layer). If you have a single processor with only one core, it chooses the 1 HAL. If you have a dual core or more than one processor it will choose the 2^n HAL. The big difference is the 1 HAL can only ever interact with one processor machines. So if you take a machine that had been running the 1 HAL and put it in a dual core machine, you will blue screen every time, even booting to safe-mode, etc. This can be resolved by booting the windows disk and repairing your Windows installation (windows disk will choose the 2^n HAL and you should come up ok.)

For the 2^n HAL's, they can go backwards, since anyone with any math skills know that 2^0 = 1. It will issue out the instructions in a correct manner to the processor, although you do lose a bit of computing power from it having to make that computation on every instruction, only to issue it to a single processor (not a noticeable slowdown).

Once you are up and running with a working HAL and windows build, its just a matter of updating all your device drivers. Hopefully you have hardware from a big company, as they tend to have very friendly UI's for getting to various hardware drivers.

Have fun!

Sharron Field
November 22, 2008 7:07 PM

Just this week I tried moving a hard drive direct from a box with a 64-bit Asus board with a VIA chipset and 64-bit AMD Athlon 64 2.2GHz single-core CPU and 2GB DDR2 RAM to a box with 64-bit Asrock board with an nVidia chipset and 32-bit AMD Sempron 1.8GHz single-core CPU and 1GB DDR RAM. (Both of which I built myself.)

On powerup everything booted but it was so slow (1/2 hour to fully boot.) and clearly didn't like its new situation. I spent quite a few hours trying to optimise it, installing the stsyem board's nVidia drivers etc, but with little success. (Maybe it had something to do with the big difference in CPU architecture>) I ended up formatting the drive and installing Windows XP again. (+ all the drivers from the motherboard CD, then updating them.) It worked like a dream from then on.

This is the first time that I've actually tried swapping a loaded disk as primary disk between 2 boxes. I'd recommend, from my limited experience of this operation, taking Leo's stance and reinstalling Windows in such a case. Had I done so in the first place it would have saved me hours of hassle. (Unless you're moving the drive to an identically-built box perhaps?) I've heard elsewhere that a maintenance reinstall might do the trick; but I've yet to try that in this situation.

ROBERT DEVAUN
May 30, 2009 9:14 AM

I HAVE A COMPUTER THAT HAS A SYSTEM 32 PROBLEM,WHAT ID LIKE TO KNOW IS,CAN I COPY THE SYSTEM 32 DRIVERS FROM ONE COMPUTER TO ANOTHER

Pem
December 14, 2009 12:02 AM

What about if I have the exact same hardware? Literally two copies of the same everything, except the boot drive?

However, what if I want to move this boot drive back-and-forth... 2 or 3 times a day, between my office computer and home computer. Being the boot drive for both copies of the computer hardware.

Is the activation going to screw with me?

Don't know. It certainly wasn't designed to handle that situation. Know that some things will STILL be different - like the unique ID of every network adapter. It could work, but the only way to know for sure is to try.
Leo
14-Dec-2009

Paul Yarnall
January 8, 2010 5:16 AM

Leo... thanks for the article. I want to report that I moved my XP Pro boot drive from a 4 year old single cpu board to a new board (different mfg) with a multi core processor and newer DDR memory. My initial experience was that it was not going to work as the FIRST repair alternative resulted in immediate crash. I finally resigned myself to a complete install along with all my apps but during the install process via the CD after moving to the next and final choice screen for install I noticed that "repair" was again an option. I chose this and it worked. Took quite a while, like a normal install, and required reactivation, but I have my old system now running on the new equipment. Had to load the new LAN and chipset drivers to get back on line, but it looks like I am home free and saved HOURS!

donjoe
February 5, 2010 5:12 AM

I did this once with a Windows98 - moved it from a Pentium II system to a Pentium III system. The hardware was definitely not identical, but it might not have been all that different either. All I know is it worked brilliantly - it sat there for 10 minutes re-detecting everything the first time I started it and then it worked just as well as it always had (taking into account the general quality of Win98).

I expect at least the same behaviour from the much superior WinXP, so I will definitely try the same move tomorrow - this time from an AMD Duron system to a platform with an Intel (Single-)Core-Celeron. Worst-case, I will still have to do a complete reinstall, but if there's a remote possibility of not having to do that, I'll take it.

Neill Brown
January 6, 2011 6:05 AM

I recently upgraded my sons Windows 7 PC, replacing the psu, motherboard, processor, ram and graphics card, from Intel core 2 duo to AMD Phenom II x4, using the original system hard-drive without any problems. No one was more surprised than me that it went so smoothly - didn't even need re-activation.

I started by housekeeping the old system and creating a system image onto an external hard-drive, and a win7 repair disk just in case I needed to completely revert. I also made a Windows easy transfer file in case I had to do a clean install and reload the data/settings.
The system image was 120gb+ with a lot of apps, games and data my son would prefer not to lose or have to reinstall - hence trying the upgrade rather than the clean install that I would normally do. The original system had been previously been upgraded from Vista home premium to Win 7 professional, which had required a clean install - and took 2 days!

For the actual upgrade I installed the new psu, mobo, cpu and ram with the old system HD, DVD ROM and graphics card - leaving all other components disconnected (extra HD, DVD, PCI network card). Booted up the PC and Win 7 simply installed everything for the mobo very quickly and easily. I then added each old component (HD and DVD, then network card) and rebooted each time. When I connected the network card, Windows update downloaded a few more updates, which I installed before finally swapping the graphics card (from nVidia 9400GT to Radeon HD5770).
Finally I added some extra system fans so that my son can play his games at impressive resolutions.

The whole process took less than a day including half a day to housekeep and create backups.
The new system has been running like a dream for over a week. Result - one happy son (and dad)!

This is the third system I have built/upgraded involving Windows 7 and I have to say it seems far, far better than XP ever was at handling hardware installation/changes.
So my recommendation would be to normally go for a clean install as the first choice, but don't be afraid of trying an upgrade if you are using Windows 7 - just make sure you have a backup plan in place. Taking on any major upgrade without backing up your precious data is a disaster waiting to happen - it usually takes longer than the actual upgrade and may seem like a waste of time, but it's a mistake you only ever make once!

Bud
July 19, 2011 8:52 AM

In the past, I have used copy/paste to move a lot of files within one folder to another. Somewhere along the line when I opened those files up everything was there except the contents of the individual documents with zero quantity kbs. What in the world did I do or shouldn't have done. I'm not the geeky type as you can obviously see!

Jim H
July 20, 2011 6:25 AM

RE: the question about Acronis- there is an additional program called Acronis Universal Restore that is supposed to allow restoring to a different hardware configuration. Otherwise a restore to a changed ot different PC can be wrought with all the problems mentioned and more. It has been a while since I bought my copy of the True Image back-up software, but the Universal Restore was an additional purchase. It interfaces right in with True Image. I don't know if it's bundled these days or still a separate purchase..

Concernig the topic, I believe XP took a fingerprint of the computer it was installed on as protection from multiple installs of the same OS on multiple machines. I had a combination of XP Pro and XP Home installed across my home network. Initially, some of the Pro were upgrades from Home. As I converted some PCs to full Pro from Home and got away from the PC manufacturer's "recovery disc" packages I once hit a lock out screen that required me to call Microsoft and explain there was only one registered copy of the program and that it wasn't installed on multiple machines. It was easy enough, but I was told the hardware signature is what tripped the lock out.

I know since Windows has the software authorization that's done over the Internet so maybe the hardware signature isn't used anymore. Since computers routinely get upgrades it always seemed a silly idea to me to use hardware as an identifier.

Terry T
July 24, 2011 3:32 PM

When attempting to move an existing operating system on a drive to a new computer I have always booted into 'safe mode with networking' to start. Then you have a chance to install/update drivers with the least chance of conflicts. It has worked for me more than once...

Carlos R Coquet
July 27, 2011 12:24 AM

Actually, I moved drives from machine to machine DOZENS of times and NEVER, EVER had a problem with Windows 95 or Windows 98. Those were TRULY Plug'n'Play operating systems.
The problem of Windows blowing up while booting if one moves a hard disk from one machine to another or one changes the motherboard began with Windows 2000 and I assume it to be a "design feature" to deal with piracy (drive cloning). RARELY can you change the motherboard and expect Windows XP to run without problems. Fortuntely, one CAN boot from the Windows XP installation CD and select the (second) repair option (not the Repair Console one, the NEXT offer to repair the existing Windows installation). That reinstallation preserves all programs and settings and has always worked for me.

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