Recovering XP & Windows.Old After a Vista Installation

So you just installed a shiny, new, & legal, copy of Windows Vista. Somewhere along the way, you realized that your XP Partition wasn’t there anymore, and that you’ve lost every single program you’d installed over the past 6 years – gone! All just because you didn’t realize that you were installing Windows Vista to the XP partition.

Don’t worry, NeoSmart is here with the answer yet again. Don’t despair just yet! There’s much in terms of hope, and with this guide, you can get your XP back, with all it’s programs, registry, settings, and more – as if Vista was never there, and no one (*cough* the wife *cough*) needs to know you overwrote your XP – ever!

This guide was born out of a in-depth forum discussion over how to do just this, but with a lot of detours and road constructions along the way. This guide can be used to recover XP only in one case: While doing a clean install of Vista, you accidentally selected the wrong partition to install to, and as such, you wrote Vista to the same drive as XP. It won’t recover an upgrade from XP to Vista, nor will it help you “unformat” your partition if that’s what you did.


  • The first thing to check for is the existence of a folder called “Windows.old” in the root (X:\) folder of the drive you installed Vista to. If this folder exists, we can get your XP back. If it doesn’t, you’re out of luck.
  • Assuming it exists, following the remainder of these steps will completely remove Vista from your system, it will be as if you went back in time and never installed Vista at all. Of course the normal disclaimers apply: You can’t hold me, Computer Guru, and/or NeoSmart Technologies responsible for any damages incurred by following these steps. We can’t guarantee they’ll work for everyone, but we do promise that they work, as can be seen here.
  • The first thing that needs to be done is to copy the files required to boot into XP from another computer or from the Vista partition itself to the Windows.old directory we talked about earlier. In order to do this, you will need to enable the viewing of both hidden and OS-protected system files and folders in the Folders | Options menu. These files are:

    1. \ntldr


    3. \MSDOS.SYS

    4. \CONFIG.SYS


    6. \boot.ini (if available)

  • Once you’ve copied those files over, we need to delete the Vista bootloader from the bootsector. There are two ways to do this, one is to use EasyBCD, the ultimate Vista Bootloader Modification Tool that NeoSmart Technologies published, and the other is to use a program that comes with Vista, called “bootsect.exe.” Since this guide uses no external resources, here’s how to do it with bootsect.
  • You’ll need to burn Vista to a DVD (well, ATM you can just mount or extract it, but later on in these steps you’re going to need to burn it, so might as well do it now) with your favorite ISO burning program (Nero, Roxio, DT, Alcohol, you name it).
  • Browse to the \Boot\ folder on the DVD, and grab “bootsect.exe” and copy it to your drive C:\ in the root folder.
  • Press winkey+r to open a run prompt, type in “CMD” without the quotes, and press enter.
  • Once the command prompt window is open, type the following (after each line, press enter):


    cd \

    bootsect.exe /nt52 all /force

  • Make sure your Vista DVD is in the drive, and restart your computer.
  • Making sure that your BIOS is set to boot from CD/DVD (either by pressing F12 for a boot menu or entering the BIOS setup and giving the DVD Drive priority over the HDD, boot into the Vista DVD by pressing something on the keyboard when prompted.
  • When you’re presented the screen with “Install Now” button in blue, don’t click it, rather click a tiny link in the bottom-left corner that will take you to an advanced options screen.
  • From the advanced options screen select the drive with Vista on it, and then proceed to open a command prompt Window.
  • Once the command prompt window is open, type the following in, exactly as I wrote it, but substituting C: for whatever letter your Vista partition is.


    cd \

    ren boot

    ren Windows

    ren Users

    ren "Program Files" "Program"

    ren "Config.Msi" ""

    ren "Documents and Settings" "Documents and"

    ren MSOCache

    ren ProgramData

    ren Recycled

    ren * *.vista

    xcopy Windows.old\* c:\ /E /C /I /G /H /R /K /Y

    ren Windows.old

  • With that, all Vista-related files have been given a .vista extension, so they don’t get in our way and conflict with XP, and so you can recover them later on if you realize you forgot something. Please note that the third-to-last step will take a long time; that’s perfectly normal. Whatever you do, don’t stop it!
  • Close the Advanced Options screen and exit windows setup.
  • Reboot your PC.
  • If all went well, you should be back in XP, shocked at the relative ease of getting back, and ready to install Vista again – after properly backing up all your data of course!
  • Optional: Open drive C: and delete all .vista files and folders if you want to reclaim some 8 to 10 GB of space – or more depending on your installl!


These steps will stop you from booting into any other Vista installs you might have had – if you want to still boot Vista you’ll have to not rename the folder \Boot\ and not carry out the bootsect-related steps. Then after all that is done, you have to install and use VistaBootPRO to add XP to the Vista boot menu. Remember, more help can be had on the forums, and please, the blog is not support central, don’t abuse it by asking for help here! Good Luck!

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  • 15 thoughts on “Recovering XP & Windows.Old After a Vista Installation

    1. Okay, this looks like an awesome way to get back to XP from Vista. Here’s my situation…

      I have a dell desktop running Vista since I got it.  Recently (within the last month or so) Media player has completely stopped running.  Since it seemed impossible to uninstall WMP and reinstall it. I jumped online for a solution. (I’m not that great with computers.) A few websites seemed to agree that running setup from the Vista DVD should repair any original Microsoft programs. So I did. Well, my heart nearly exploded when I realized that I had reinstalled Vista. All my old program files and documents were gone.

      Anyway, my wife, a photographer and musician has like 30 GB of files on her user account. I thought I’d have to slit my wrists before she got home. I did some looking around and I found her pictures in the windows.old file. without thinking I copied the file to my desktop. I also, did some other stupid things like try to move our old user accounts from the old windows file to my new folders…

      What I want to do is recover my PC the way it was two days ago… without losing my wifes files or any of our old programs.

      Also, does it matter how much space I have on my HD? I have like 70GB free of a 200something GB HD. I read somewhere that you need to have enough freespace to hold an additional complete windows.old file which I don’t think I do…

      Please… literally, save my life and my marriage. I’m not even sure if this is where I should be asking this question… please email me.  

    2. Tommy Brown, I did the same thing and I need help. Did you get your computer working the way it was?

    3. Hello,

      I re-installed vista and it deleted all of my files, folder, and programs. I was trying to recoupe all my stuff….and I ran into this website. I didn’t want to reinstall Vista, but I would of if I couldn’t of reinstall my files. Anyhow, I’m glad I didn’t follow these procedures becuase maybe, just maybe I would of deleted everything permanently. What I did was….here it goes……click on my computer, then click on the local C: drive (it might be different on your computer), then click on windows.old. This will take you back to your old program files, users, and old windows. I hope this works, it worked for me.

      email at….if you have anyquestions. Doug

    4. Douglas, while the steps you specified will let you access your files so you can grab whatever you want/need and back things up; the instructions in the article are intended to actually restore your entire PC back to the state it was before you installed Vista – complete with the OS, programs, their settings, your files, documents, photos, configurations, and more.

    5. I decided to back up my files to dvd and 16 gig thumb drive before I started. Then I did a fresh format and installed xp from original discs, registered it and removed all the crapware , as well as anything else I could slim it down with. After slimming it down, I partitioned the hard drive and only left a 4 gig partition for xp. I disc cleaned and removed all back up files and install files, cc cleaned it all up.

      I then installed the Home Premum upgrade from that tiny xp partition. The upgrade went smoothly. I am sure you must have registered xp before upgrade to do it this way. Then when Vista installed (approx 30 mins later) it said I had 3 days to register vista. I clicked register online and “voila” sweet as !!

      I still have a crumby 4 gig partition I would like to be rid of, but it is just 4% of my drive and a small sacrifice for the difference in cost between upgrades and full versions. I had no issues what so ever an have helped nieghbours and friend do the same with no hic cups at all.

    6. I’ve got a question, I’ve installed Windows 7 and it left my Vista in a windows.old folder.

      How do I recover my Vista back?

      I prefer Vista than Windows 7.

      Please email me on


    7. Hi Mahmoud,

      I’ve just installed windows 7 over my Vista as well I followed the steps however the Windows 7 CD advanced options doesn’t provide a way to enter the comand prompt as far as I can see?

    8. I have a similar problem, got windows7 installed on top of vista but I don’t have a windows7 CD to boot from so what should I do about booting up from a cd?

    9. This is awesome! Worked for me from win7 back to XP, using a Virtual Machine. Just use the Advanced options > recovery from the win7 boot DVD to launch the cmd line.
      Incidentally, if you begin by renaming the folders contained within ‘windows.old’ and copy them straight into the root of C:\ (eg name ‘Program Files’ as ‘1Program Files’) then you don’t have to xcopy… It saves a lot of time.

    10. I am going to give this a try as it is exactly what I need to do after not backing up my information from xp.
      The only question is does it reinstate your email information back to outlook express.
      This forum has been an absolute god send.
      Thank you.

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