One of the nice things to come out of Microsoft’s complete overhaul of the Windows installer for Vista and beyond was that it did away with the idea that different variations of Windows needed different discs. Previously each distribution of XP (Home/Pro/MCE) required its own disc, and then each license type (OEM/Retail/VLK) also required its own disc. This lead to an astounding number of disc types, and complete and utter frustration when for users attempting to install Windows and not having the correct disc to go with the key they had.
 
With Vista’s image based installer, we saw Microsoft consolidate all of this – one disc could contain every distribution of Windows, allowing a user to always be able to install Windows with any Windows disc, regardless of what their key was. This greatly simplified the installation process, resolving one of the most frustrating things about installing Windows XP.
 
So imagine our surprise when we’re taking a look at our TechNet copies of Windows 7 and find that there’s a different installation disc for each distribution of Windows. With the version of the Windows installer that comes with Win7, there is a new file at /Sources/ei.cfg that tells the Windows installer what OS it should install. Here’s what the file looks like from the ultimate disc:

[EditionID]
Ultimate
[Channel]
Retail
[VL]
0

When the Windows installer sees this file, it becomes keyed to whatever distribution the file specifies. In this case with an Ultimate disc, we cannot install Home Premium or Professional. We have not yet had a chance to test OEM and retail keys since we don’t have both, however it certainly looks like the installer is going to make a distinction there too.
 
Perhaps the most interesting bit of this is that the installation process itself hasn’t changed – the Windows installer still supports One Disc to Rule Them All operation, and the Windows image that comes with Ultimate for example has absolutely no problem installing lesser versions. In fact if you remove ei.cfg so that the Windows installer is not told to install a specific version, it will revert to One Disc mode. The distinction between discs is entirely trivial, dictated by a single 51 byte configuration file. You can have a One Disc installer, Microsoft just don’t want it to be the default action for some reason.
 
Now to be fair, this didn’t entirely catch us off-guard. We first saw this file and its functionality with the Win7 Beta, but until now we did not know if this was something that was specific to the testing versions of Win7, or if it was going to be pushed out in to retail with this limitation. Now we know our answer.
 
The biggest downer though is that this file is fairly tricky to remove. For copies of Windows packed in ISO files or burnt to discs, this requires remastering the ISO/disc in order to maintain its bootability – it’s not possible to just copy the contents to a new file/disc sans ei.cfg and have a One Disc. Building a proper bootable ISO/disc is still more of a dark art than a science. Users looking to install Windows from a USB flash drive will have an easier time – since installers set up on those types of drives are rewritable it’s easy to remove the offending file. Though this may not be the case with officially distributed flash drives should Microsoft go ahead and distribute Win7 that way, as rumors suggest they will.
 
In any case this is a significantly disappointing action coming from Microsoft. The One Disc returned the sanity to installing Windows, and made having so many distributions more bearable. Now as far as pressed media is concerned, we’re back to the dark ages of Windows XP (I guess Microsoft really was trying to copy everything about XP?). Geeks would be well advised to burn a copy of Windows 7 with One Disc capabilities as soon as they have it – if the experience is anything like Vista then the benefits will quickly make themselves apparent.
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  • Jalek99 - Tuesday, August 11, 2009 - link

    So again it will make things easier if legit users find the pirated versions the kiddies are playing with if they don't want to call MS all the time? I have the disks I started with and still have trouble getting it to work. Install the corporate versions with the leaked numbers or the slimmed down versions and there are no activation issues at all. I have an unused MSDN license as well, so pirating it isn't the issue, legitimate use being a PITA is.

    I mean, tweak bus speed and if windows comes up unstable so a device driver crashes, windows blows away the activation like it's on new hardware. Do that a few times, like when changing RAM or other hardware, and it gets pretty old putting in that number over and over, hoping the cell phone doesn't drop a digit. Still takes me a couple of tries to get the stupid activation reset.
    Reply
  • Sarcoptic - Monday, August 10, 2009 - link

    The real fun is making an x86/x64 all in one disc :) WAIK is a very handy tool for that. Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Monday, August 10, 2009 - link

    IMO there should only be 1 version, anyway. It's not like we need to save hard drive space these days - and if you do then make it easy to un-install what you don't use.

    Point of that is that lesser versions (Vista is the glaring example) tend to mean a lesser quality product, not just a product with less features.

    ;)
    Reply
  • BikeDude - Monday, August 10, 2009 - link

    W7 is broken! I'm staying with Vista!

    Nah, seriously, I'll probably switch. I suspect most builders out there will want USB flash with W7 on it, so this issue will hopefully disappear. My next laptop is likely DVD-less, so a flash memory installer is going to be vital. (sigh... buying a laptop w/4GB memory and a 32-bit OS? briliant.)
    Reply
  • Montreal Techman - Sunday, August 09, 2009 - link

    I'm a tech and I service both companies and home users. It would be much more practical if MS were to at the least offer a one disc solution to oems so that we would not have to keep multiple versions of discs on hand for service and installation purposes. They do this for Office 2007 and maybe they will for 7 as well.

    As far as small companies running different versions on their various systems, if they do that it is their own fault. Most small companies have a tech company that takes care of things and they should make sure that all the systems are on an even playing field.

    Anyways, I discovered this when I had downloaded the 7 Pro from Technet and tried to install it with the Ultimate key and it wouldn't take it. Now that I know the cause, I'm in the process of making my own install disc minus the file in question.

    But overall, 7 is definitely worth it. Runs great even on older hardware and I'm looking forward to a lot of upgrades in the months following it's official release!
    Reply
  • gochichi - Sunday, August 09, 2009 - link

    Well, Microsoft is always wrong I guess.

    I cannot think of a less important issue than whether all versions come in one disk or not.

    The ridiculously priced Retail copies are the only ones affected. The main issue, as far as any reasonable human being has experienced is the trouble of not having the option to install 32-bit and 64-bit from the same disk. That issue continues.

    But I can't see anything more self explanatory than having a clearly labeled disk for the product you just paid money for.

    Wish there wasn't a 32-bit Windows 7 but we all have our wish-lists I guess. At least I predict that the 32-bit version will be the less preferred version.

    Windows 7 is going to be great, and I say that not because I've done beta testing... I say that because Vista is already very good.

    I guess this post is ironic, because surely it's even more boring than the article... When an operating system is intended to cover so many different niches someone will always be displeased.

    I think that simplifying the situation for the casual user (one product- one specific disk) is a very sound decision. Maybe you think it's stupid that I wish the 32-bit version of Windows 7 didn't exist (and you're right to think that by the way) and it's just another example of how when you service so many people you can't please them all.



    Reply
  • MaxMax - Thursday, August 13, 2009 - link

    So Microsoft will apply this method so we can't get all the versions in one DVD !!

    I remember 5 days ago I struggled with a copy I downloaded from MSDN it was "Windows 7 Ultimate" so I burned the DVD and boom installer automatically select Ultimate !!

    I set around 2 hours trying to figure out which file is responsible for this automatic selection..

    I put My Windows Vista DVD and start to compare files and after 2 hours I found file called "ei.cfg" in Windows 7 DVD it was the brain for the automatic version selection !!

    I made an ISO Image of Windows 7 DVD I deleted "ei.cfg" burn it again and SURPRISE !! all versions appeared just like windows Vista !!

    I talked to much eeh ?! ;)
    Reply
  • taltamir - Sunday, August 09, 2009 - link

    Most families i know today have one computer per PERSON in the family. That is 5 computers for 5 people.
    Installing service packs degrades the quality of your OS, it is better to do a clean format with the SP integrated.
    Most tech guys have friends and family outside their own home whose computers they treat.
    It is worse for a small time computer repairman.

    I have LEGIT UNCRACKED copies of every flavor of XP and windows with me which I routinely upgrade to latest SP to install for people using their legit key. If you use cracks, you just install the latest 64bit windows vista autocracking disk, but if you want to be legit you are saddled with a dozen disks? this really sucks.

    I think I can see one reason for it though... people can install a TRIAL version of the wrong kind and then they cannot activate it with their key (ex: installed win7 ultimate trial, have a win7 home key)

    The solution of course, is to make the disk be TRIAL SPECIFIC, but allow you to install whatever you want with whatever key.

    EX: a Home Premium disk would ONLY install the home premium trial, but if you put in a key for ultimate, it will install ultimate instead.
    Reply
  • taltamir - Sunday, August 09, 2009 - link

    oh, and I forgot SMALL BUSINESSES with dozens of different computers running different OS versions Reply
  • swaaye - Saturday, August 08, 2009 - link

    Yeah it's dumb of MS to do this, but at least it's rather easy to fix. I'm sure there will be a zillion guides in no time. Reply

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