Farewell Vista, Hello XP

How to make the switch back and deal with the gnarly problem of transferring your Vista e-mail, contacts, and user data back to the old standby operating system.

After exploring Windows Vista for about six months on my test-bed PC, I decided two months ago that, along with upgrading the motherboard and CPU in my main work machine, I'd "upgrade" to Microsoft's latest operating system.

Vista's new navigation features had slowly grown on me, though I hadn't tried to work daily with the OS. Vista's appearance has it all over standard XP, and there are tons of usability features that beckon--after you turn off the incredibly annoying User Account Control that constantly bugs you when you want to install programs or tweak things.

For example, I love being able to shut down with one click; I like the junk filtering in Windows Mail (Vista's upgraded version of Outlook Express); and I appreciate the way I can easily drag User folders (formerly My Documents) to a new location so I can consolidate them with other data that I regularly back up.

Annoyances Drive Me Backwards
Unfortunately, small time-wasting annoyances in Vista cropped up almost immediately. Auto-complete of e-mail addresses in Windows Mail works only with the 29 most recently used contacts (I have well over a thousand), and overall the program is slow. The Search Indexer had an irritating tendency to start when I watched an HD DVD, and despite of the absence of multimedia files in a folder, most folders showed useless columns for Artists, Tags, and Ratings. I must have wasted an hour changing them to Size and Date Modified headings--and then the folder would sometimes magically change from detail view to icon view. To be fair, that last part is a holdover bug from XP, but all I've described was just the tip of the iceberg.

As irksome as these things were, I considered them livable. It was only when I discovered that my sound card's drivers for ASIO (a high-performance audio standard for recording musical instruments and vocals) didn't work well under Vista that the balance tipped irretrievably towards "downgrading" to XP.

The beta ASIO drivers may have been spotty, it may have been a system configuration problem, it may have been me--Vista is actually reputed to be much better for Pro audio--but I decided that it was time to revert to good old stable XP with its mature driver support.

How About Dual Booting?
I considered leaving Vista installed, installing XP, and then dual-booting using a boot manager that hides the OS not in use. But the failure of Acronis's Boot Manager and of OSLBoot (included with the OEM version of Vista) frustrated me.

I then tried installing XP on another, visible partition and using the Vista boot manager, but with XP installed on the D: drive, I had problems with nVidia drivers. I finally succeeded with Avanquest's System Commander 9 boot manager, but by that time I'd concluded that I really didn't want Vista around anymore and decided to overwrite it. Here's how I did it. (You may also want to view our video, "How to Reinstall Windows XP"--but remember, its focus is on a clean reinstall of your existing XP rather than on reverting to XP from Vista.)

First Steps
The first step to reverting to XP is to save your Vista data, the subtleties of which I'll get into later. After backing up the pertinent data, I used Acronis's True Image to make a backup of the entire Vista partition in case I forgot to copy something. This little fail-safe procedure has saved my tukus on more than one occasion.

Next, move your program data (your documents, images, and other files) to a safe location--that is, to a drive that won't be overwritten by your new XP installation.

What about applications? Alas, the tricks I describe below can't be used for migrating apps from Vista to XP. That step you must take after XP is installed, and, sadly, you'll have to reinstall your programs one-by-one to be certain they'll work right.

Moving Data
When you're ready to do it (not yet!), moving program data to Windows XP is easy enough. Instead of XP's My Documents, Vista stores data in a User folder that will bear the name of the current user and contains subfolders for documents, pictures, videos, contacts, and so on. Vista allows you to relocate these folders by simply dragging them to a new location. So, before you overwrite Vista with XP, do the following:

1. Copy or relocate (right-button drag and select Move) your User folder or folders to a partition or drive that won't be overwritten--for example, the D: drive. Keep in mind that every user on the computer will have their own folder, so you need to relocate or copy all of them. And don't forget the Public folder.

2. If you've been using programs that allow it, export data to a safe place for later import when you've reinstalled XP. More on this later.

3. Once you've installed XP, either drag the user folders back to XP's My Documents, point My Documents to the folders' new location using Properties, Target, Move, or simply access the data where it resides.

4. Import your exported data back into your third-party apps after you've reinstalled them.

There is data hidden in your User folders that you may or may not need (the default e-mail repository, for example, is here). To see it, open your User folder, select Folder and Search Options from the Organize menu, select the View tab, and make sure Show hidden files and folders is selected.

Close the dialog box, and you'll see a folder called AppData; it can't be moved like the other User subfolders. Open it, browse it, and if you see anything you might need, copy it to a safe place. (You could skip this step and grab it later if you discover you need anything, since it will have been copied when you made your backup image. But copying it this way makes it easier to access.)

Don't install XP yet! You're nearly there, but a few more details must be dealt with.

The Mail Mess
In my case, transferring the data I'd accrued using Vista's native apps back to my XP apps was the real problem. I'd used Vista nonstop for 60 days, and I retain all my e-mail correspondence with vendors to cover my, err, let's say posterior. Just copy it back? That's not so easy, as Microsoft decided to revamp (not for the better in my opinion) the way Vista and Windows Mail stores messages and contacts.

Where Outlook Express stored messages in database files and contact information in the single-file Windows Address Book, Vista and Mail store every e-mail and contact as a separate file--a more versatile approach but also considerably less efficient and inadvertently responsible for the auto-complete bug I mentioned up front. In addition, it makes Windows Mail very slow compared with Outlook Express.

Vista Mail's address export function worked fine for the contacts. Before reinstalling XP I exported to both vCards and a .csv (Comma Separated Values) file, which is basically a text file with one record per line and each bit of information separated by a comma.

While vCards seemed like a good idea at first, Outlook Express's vCard import function lets you add only one at a time, and if you drag and drop multiple vCards into the program window, you still have to click the Okay button for every card. With about 1000 e-mail addresses to copy, I soured on that path to carpal tunnel in short order.

CSV import was much faster, and with the exception of a couple of odd characters in the First Name field, the Mail and Outlook Express fields matched up perfectly, so I was able to restock the Windows Address Book in XP in about 30 seconds.

Two Ways to Import E-Mail into XP
Finding an easy way to move my e-mail back into XP proved more difficult. Outlook Express's import function won't import Vista Mail's .eml messages wholesale. The following method is simple and suffices--if you have a taste for the tedious.

You can save Vista Mail's messages to a safe place and then drag them directly into the Outlook Express window. But if you have a lot of sorted e-mail, you must manually recreate your folder structure--which is where the tedium commences. Here's the step-by-step:

1. In Vista, save your e-mail repository to a safe place on another partition or drive before you install or overwrite Vista with XP. Find the repository in: C:UsersUsernameAppDataLocalMicrosoftWindowsMail Local Folders (Username is your user name). You can redirect the repository to another location by using the Tools, Options, Advanced, Maintenance, Store Folder function, or you can export in Mail format to another location. I recommend the latter (or both).

2. After you've installed XP, open Outlook Express, open an Explorer window pointed to the safe location you copied the .eml files to, select them, then drag and drop them to the folder in OE where you want them. As I mentioned, you must recreate the folders yourself.

The above method works, but I have over 250 folders into which I sort e-mail or have archived for particular projects, so I really, really wanted a better way. Since I had Office 2007 with Outlook (any recent version of Office Outlook will do), I hit on the idea of importing the messages into Outlook from Mail under Vista, then transferring them back from Outlook to Outlook Express in XP. It's a slightly convoluted process, but it requires no tedious labor and works like a charm. The procedure goes thusly:

1. In Vista, use Outlook's Data Management dialog box to create a new.pst data file, make it your default, and then import the messages (not addresses) from Mail. Make sure you save the resulting .pst file to a separate partition that won't be overwritten when you reinstall XP.

2. In XP, install Outlook and use it to open the .pst file you created in Vista and make it the default.

3. Fire up Outlook Express, choose Import, and select the Outlook option; you should now be good to go.

If you're wondering why I don't use Office Outlook for my e-mail, I have two reasons: First, Outlook Express is simple, it's extremely efficient, and I'm used to it. The other reason is that the Office version of Outlook allows only one set of contacts, which I use for the much smaller group of family, friends, and colleagues that I sync to my smart phone. And yes, I tried installing Outlook Express on Vista, but all the OE self-installers I possessed bailed after notifying me that a newer version (Windows Mail) was already installed.

Time for Your XP Install
After all of that prep, installing XP over Vista is, in itself, not too difficult: Boot with your XP installation disc and install XP, overwriting Vista. And just make sure to select the partition that Vista is on and follow the prompts.

As I've said, there's not a lot you can do about migrating your applications back. If you were using two separate PCs, you could use Windows Easy Transfer or a similarly capable commercial product. I didn't consider that option, because I wanted a lean, clean OS with an uncluttered Registry.

The solution is to reinstall your apps--which is a pain, but it's the best way to go.

Am I happy I moved back to XP? Very much so. The time I save by using Outlook Express instead of Vista's Windows Mail is worth the switch by itself. Personally, I think Microsoft spent too much time, when it was developing Vista, in fixing stuff that wasn't broken and breaking stuff that worked. I'll take another look at Vista after SP1 ships, but I don't think I'll be switching again for a while.

If you'd like to try Vista before removing XP, or if you're using Vista and would like to take a stroll down memory lane to see just how efficient the older OS is, download VMware Server or Virtual PC 2007 for free and try them in a virtual machine.

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