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Set up a dual-boot system
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Install two versions of Windows on your PC for compatibility or just familiarity with our comprehensive guide

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he main reason for setting up a dual-boot system is to keep hold of a familiar operating system while experimenting with a new one. Each new version of Windows does things slightly differently with regards to their predecessor, and you may want a little time to run the two side-by-side as you familiarise yourself with a new way of doing things.
   There are also questions of stability - both Windows XP and Vista were notoriously flaky prior to the release of Service Pack 1 - and compatibility too. Will your existing software and hardware work with this new version of Windows? If not, keeping hold of your old copy of Windows gives you breathing space while you hopefully wait for a compatible update or driver to be developed - or failing that, the time you need to save up to purchase a replacement that is compatible with the new version of Windows.
   In an ideal world, you'd simply take your new copy of Windows and follow this guide to set it up alongside your existing copy of Windows. However, if you've purchased an upgrade copy of Windows Vista or Windows 7 you should read the box below before continuing.

Before you dual-boot

Prepare your hard disk
The first thing you need to do is sort out where your new operating system is going to go. It has to be installed to an internal hard drive - external USB and Firewire drives aren't quick enough, so if you don't have a second internal hard drive fitted you'll need to divide up your existing hard drive by partitioning it.
   The act of partitioning divides up a single large hard drive into two or more smaller drives, each of which is treated as a separate hard drive by your PC. Because your hard drive will be divided up into smaller chunks, you'll need enough free space on it to not only create a suitably sized partition for the new version of Windows, but also to leave enough free space on the existing partition for Windows to function smoothly.
   How much space you'll ultimately need to satisfy both conditions depends on the version of Windows you're currently running, and the version of Windows you intend to install on the new partition. First, determine what size partition you need to create for your new version of Windows. If you're installing Windows XP, you shouldn't need more than 10GB, which should leave you plenty of room for a large number of applications. Windows Vista requires around 30GB of free space, and Windows 7 around 25GB. Double or even treble this figure if you plan to install a number of space-hungry applications such as games.
   You'll also need to leave enough free space for your existing copy of Windows to function in: the following guidelines should be considered the bare minimum, so try to leave more if you can afford to: 5GB for Windows XP, and 10GB for Windows Vista and Windows 7.
   Add the two figures together to work out how much free space you'll need, then click the Start button and select Computer or My Computer. Right-click your Windows drive (drive C in most cases) and choose Properties, then check the available amount of free space. If you do have space to spare - anything from 15-40GB - then you can go ahead and partition your hard drive.

Separate data from Windows

   Partitioning is traditionally a destructive process, so you'll need to install a third-party partitioning tool to partition your drive without data loss. The best free tool for the job is EASUS Partition Master, so click here to follow a guide to partitioning your hard drive.
Install your new version of Windows
If you’re adding a new version of Windows alongside an older version (such as Vista alongside XP), then the process from here is straightforward – just install the new version of Windows on to the newly created hard drive and it’ll automatically set itself up alongside XP, with a boot manager appearing when you start up each time that enables you to switch between the two.
   When installing your new OS, be very careful when choosing which drive to install it to – sometimes drives get mixed up, so don’t assume the drive you want is necessarily in the same order as it appears in XP; instead, make sure the size and free space match the drive you created earlier. Consider adding a drive label to each partition prior to installing the new version of Windows to help you identify them: to do this, open Computer or My Computer, right-click the drive and choose Properties, then enter the label into the box on the General tab, which will help you identify it during the installation process.
Install an older version of Windows
In a perfect world, it's always best to install operating systems in order of age, eldest first. If this isn’t possible – for example, you want to add Windows XP to a system already running Vista - then you’ll need additional help.
   If your system is running XP and you’re looking to add an older version of Windows, you might prefer to install 98 or Me as a virtual machine using a free program called VirtualBox (click here). To add XP to Vista or Windows 7 requires some jiggery pokery. Thankfully there’s a free tool called EasyBCD, which lifts it beyond XP’s own boot manager. The walkthrough below reveals how it can fix the boot menu problem after you’ve partitioned your drive and installed XP to the new partition.

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Step-by-step: Install Windows XP alongside Vista or Windows 7

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