Installing an OS

Installing an operating system is supposed to be an easy, quick process--and usually it is. Modern operating systems are designed to present as little trouble as possible. Remember, that is the goal of an OS: to make a computer as easy as possible for a person to use.


The problem is, it's not always so simple. Take installing Windows XP, for instance (as that is the OS we are using in this class). For an experienced user, it is a known process which can be done without too much trouble. However, for a user who does not understand the process, each step can be a confusing, even frightening choice.

For example, early on in the process, you may be asked about partitioning your disk:

What's a partitionA partition is a portion of the HDD which you can set up as a separate area; it divides the HDD into parts, as if you had more than one HDD.? Do I need to create a new one?

Here, you might be OK just playing it safe--you choose to set up XP on the space already provideXp But then you get asked this:

…And suddenly, "playing it safe" doesn't seem to work any more. What's the difference between FAT and NTFS file systems? What is a "file system"? Should I do it quickly or not? Will it make a difference? Will I find out three weeks later that I did it wrong and my computer doesn't work right?

The adventurous might simply just choose one and go with it, and deal with the consequences later. But this step could cause an inexperienced user to stop and have to research the subject before going on--not a very user-friendly installation.

Note: You want to choose NTFS, not FAT; FAT is an older system, and is less reliable. As for "quick" or not, that refers to whether or not the program will check the HDD for errors; checking for errors takes longer. The method selected in the image above is the best choice.

Even after that, it's not the easiest process. The install disc goes through many steps--formatting, copying and setting up files… it takes quite a long time. After 10 minutes of this, you may assume that it's safe to walk away and let the process finish by itself. But no. It'll stop after a while and ask you questions--like, where are you located? What's your name? And then, after a bit more, it stops again and asks you for the "Product key." This is a 25-character serial code which you have to enter, as part of a copy-protection (anti-piracy) scheme.

Now, if you walked away during the quiet time, you might return a few hours later and find that it has been waiting for information, and now you have to fill in the information and wait even longer for it to finish. Worse, after it gets the last information, it doesn't tell you that--so you wait around, thinking you might have to take action at any point. In short, XP requires you to "babysit" the install process.

There are other annoyances as well. For example, Windows requires that you "activate" your copy of the OS. "Activation" is another element of the copy-protection, and involves either an online process, or that you call up Microsoft and speak to an operator.

Here are a series of screenshots from some (but not all) of the XP install process; click on any one to see a larger image:

The Right Way

Fortunately, Microsoft got the idea that all of this was annoying people, so it improved the process a bit in Windows 7--although, as you can see with this tutorial on the process, or this one, it's still not all that simple.

Many computer users will simply choose not to upgrade at all while they have their computer, in large part because of this process.

However, an example of the opposite of the XP experience is installing the Mac OS. You put in the disc, start up the process, select the disk to install onto, click "Install"… and that's it. The rest is automatic. Apple does not require serial numbers, product codes, or activation. There is a point at which you can click on a "Customize" button and choose more specific settings, but these choices are not forced upon confused new users.

Here are a series of screenshots from some (but not all) of the Mac OS X install process; click on any one to see a larger image:

Once you have your operating system set up, you may want to set it up to act the way you prefer. This can be done with the Control Panel, or for the Mac, the System Preferences, introduced in the next section.