Lost your Dell OS disks? Here’s how to get a fresh copy.

Reinstalling Windows XP is painful enough, but it becomes a real hassle if you have a system originally built by a large OEM and you can’t find the original disks that came with it. With Windows XP, the installation media for this type of system uses a technology called System Locked Preinstallation (SLP) to prevent its use on a system other than the one it came with one from the same manufacturer and the same product family. [Updated per comments.] The good news is that you don’t have to enter a product key or activate an SLP system. The bad news is that if you lose the CD that came with your system, you’re out of luck.

Or at least you were. I’m not sure how long this Dell Support page has been around, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it earlier today:

Dell Customers can now request a set of backup discs containing the factory-installed operating system as well as the device drivers and utilities specific to your system.

Requests are limited to one (1) set of backup discs per system purchased.
The backup discs requested must match the operating system that was factory installed on the original order.

Please note that Dell will provide you the most up to date Resource disc available, containing the latest drivers and diagnostic tools currently being shipped on new systems. Due to the frequent updates, this Resource disc may not have all the drivers needed for your specific system, especially if it is over one (1) year old.

One widely held belief is that Dell and other big OEMs only provide so-called recovery media that reinstalls the original factory configuration, complete with trial programs and other crapware. In my recent experience with Dell Dimension and Inspiron computers, this is no longer the case. As of July 2004, the disks shipped with those brands include the full operating system and a separate disk with drivers and utilities. The option to get back to the original factory installation using the hidden recovery partition is still there, but only via the Dell PC Restore by Symantec utility (press Ctrl+F11 at startup to access the partition).

If you’ve got a Dell (or any OEM PC), your best bet is not to lose the disks in the first place. But if they do go missing, it’s good to know this option exists.

(If you own a PC built by a different royalty OEM, such as HP, Gateway, Toshiba, Lenovo, or Sony, help me out. Was it purchased after January 2005? If so, did you get OS media or just recovery media? Does your OEM offer an option to get a replacement disk? Add a comment with any details that might expand this post beyond Dell.)

30 thoughts on “Lost your Dell OS disks? Here’s how to get a fresh copy.

  1. When I bought my Sony VAIO notebook last year, there was a recovery partition at the front of the drive. When I booted the system for the first time, I was given the option to build recovery media from the partition onto two blank DVDs (which I supplied myself). The entire process took about an hour, but I’ve since used the recovery DVDs to rebuild the system to a factory-fresh install without too much difficulty. I now use Vista on the machine rather than the XP SP2 it was shipped with, and keep system images of Vista handy thanks to Image for DOS.

  2. My two ThinkPad machines have a special hidden partition on the drive with the original XP setup. There are also programs for creating recovery disks. There is no pop up notification to remind the owner to create the disks, so you have to know the program is there, and go start it up on your own. This disk creation is a one time only procedure and if those disks are lost…so sorry, says Lenovo. However, you can call Lenovo and have new disks sent to you for forty dollars or so.

    The restore procedure is straight forward, but it destroys everything on the hard drive except the hidden OS utility partition. It’s a hour and a half long job.

    There are no CDs or DVDs with the operating system, just that partition and the creation software.

    I also use a commercial imaging program, and it takes me less than 15 minutes to create/restore a image. Good for experimenting without the attendant disasters.

    Browsing the Thinkpads dot com forum, I’m surprised at how few people are aware of the creation software on their ThinkPads.

  3. Fujitsu Siemens computers come with recovery discs (CDs or DVD) and OEM software – often I’ve had to install bluetooth drivers and other software as required – this is a refreshing experience as opposed to say HP/Compaq where everything is pre-loaded whether you want it or not. A Philips Media Center PC came with instructions on how to build recovery media with a provided utility. However, I now routinely use Acronis or Paragon to take backup images.

  4. I spend most of my time reinstalling Windows for customers who have trashed their os beyond repair. Dell have always been the most helpful of the major OEMs. IBM on the other hand, couldn’t really care less, and wanted to charge me £40…. A blatant rip off in my opinion.

    With regard to Sedar’s comment; Acer laptops also ship with no recovery disks and the end user has to create them with their own media (either 2 DVDs or 6 CDs I think). I suppose its another cost cut, but also helps the average consumer remember the disks are in case of emergency as they had to spend an hour or so creating them!

  5. Ed, that is correct. I had to supply my own blank DVDs to create the backup set. I was a bit surprised by this myself at first, but the program that burns the discs also runs a read test on them to make sure they have been burned correctly. You can also recreate the backup disks at any time if you haven’t blown away the rescue partition — and when you use the rescue discs, the rescue partition itself is also restored.

  6. IBM normally charges $A80 for a set of Recovery CDs for ThinkPads.

    I ended up with a corrupted partition table on my machine whilst under warranty, which precluded using the recovery partition on my model. IBM sent me a set of discs for my machine for nothing. I understand that later models use a different methodology for their partition tables.

    Their expectation is that you would use the supplied utilities to burn a backup of your system. If your machine doesn’t have a burner (like mine) – well, so sorry.

    It’s fair to say that the prevailing attitude at IBM/Lenovo in regards to this matter could be best described as “user hostile”. Pressed CDs don’t cost that much, in reality.

  7. Here’s my experience with the oem’s recovery systems. I will break it down by manufacturer. I buy a lot of HP products and I have alot of experience with them. Pre 2005 they shipped recovery media with their laptops that broke down similar to Dell with seperate disc s for drivers, OS, and another for crapware/applications. Their desktops did not although they had a utility program to create back-up discs that dated back to 2003. Last HP notebook that I recieved (November 2006) did not have recovery discs, but instead used the utility software to create backups. The introduction program provided instructions to create the discs. All of the HPs have had a recovery partition in addition to the backup utility dating back to at least 2003. HP does offer when you order your computer from their direct site to charge you for recovery media if you choose not to create your own, but I have not had the opportunity to test out whether it is a clean OS install. IBM/Lenovo does not prompt you to create media, instead relying upon the built in partition to reinstall. (I found it interesting that there is a utility with thinkpads, but my patience with IBM/Lenovo is so thin, I rarely let the original install last 24hrs before I slap a new image on it.) If you use the partition you will of course restore it back to the factory image with all of the bloatware that follows it. (HP is no different in that recovery process. And also restores the bloatware packages with this type of recovery as well with any installs from the recovery discs that you create.) IBM/Lenovo does one thing that is helpful to those that desire a clean OS and creates two seperate files in the hard drive that contains the apps and drivers for the system. If you look on the root of the C: drive you will see them under IBM tools or SWTOOLS. It does reduce the time spent trying to grab drivers during a clean reinstallation. I have only had one opportunity to play with a Vista reinstall/install on an HP tablet. An employee came to me with a new tablet and we decided to try a clean install. I used a clean copy of Vista, used the product key on the bottom and did a clean install with the usual driver hunts from the HP website. This installation method required me to phone home to MS to get an activation code for the tablet involved (since I did not use the OEM media). Not a bad process, but was concerned about the cobbled together drivers on the tablet. It used the NVIDIA shared graphics driver (not supported by Vista and downloaded from HP) and did not seem as sharp of a display after the clean install as compared to a dedicated ATI graphics card on my current laptop. I haven’t had a lot of time to experimint further, there may be a similar driver cache on the local discs for HP as well and I haven’t found it yet. Also, I may be imagining the display degradation. Hope this helps.

  8. I bought a Dell E1405 late last year and got disks. Complained about it on my blog. Some time later a Dell rep got ahold of me and said to contact him and he would set me up.

    The laptop came with Media Center and he asked if I wanted XP Pro instead? No, I said. Guess what came? XP Pro anyway…at least he tried. I didn’t have the heart to complain again, but I might attempt this anyway…thanks.

    Welcome back.

  9. Not all Dells have recovery partitions, thank goodness. Dell understands that XPS buyers would hate that so there is no recovery partition on the XPS Dimensions. When you buy an XPS, you get all disks included in a nice leather display case that holds four of the disks.. My XPS 600 came Feb 2006 and the XP Pro SP2 Reinstallation disk is just that. There are NO junk files on it.

    My previous Dells (8300 in Nov 2003, Dimension XPS 450 in 1999 ) also have come with all disks included and nothing but the OS on the Reinstallation disk. I would not buy from Dell if they sent only a recovery disk or insisted on a ghost partition which would reinstall all the junk that comes on Dells so I would have to use the PC Decrapifier. No thank you. A major reason to buy from Dell is that you do get the Reinstallation disks at least with the better Dells.

    It is also not true that you can use the Reinstallation disk only on that Dell that it shipped with. That disk can be used on any Dell machine belonging to you or someone else to install/reinstall the OS that is on the disk. No activation is needed. I have made extra copies of my XP Pro SP1 disk and given them to techs who work on folks machines and who still use SP1 and the folks had no disk and the tech had only Dell SP2 disks. It works fine. The disk is NOT tied to a specific Dell. I don’t know where that idea is derived from because Dell will readily tell you that the disk will work on any Dell machine even a very old Dell. It may be against the EULA, as far as Microsoft is concerned, to use an XP disk to install on a Dell machine that currently has 98SE or on a VMWare machine but it will work.

    As for folks losing their disks…don’t most folks have burning software these days with at least CD burning capability? Any sensible user will immediately burn copies of all disks sent by Dell and surely the user is not so inept as to lose the copy as well as the original. It is not against the Microsoft EULA to burn a backup copy of the disks.

  10. Within the last 60 days I have bought 10 Dell desktops, 6 C521 and 4 E521 machines. They were ordered with XP Home. They had no recovery partition on the HD. All came with media, which appears to do a full, semi automated installation (without the crapware). They also came with driver disks.

    The media I got installed just fine on an older Dimension 8200 where the original media had long since disappeared. The original copy of XP Home on the HD was so violated by virus and spyware it had been relegated to a place under the workbench.

    Also using the same media on a Dimension 8400 I installed it just to see if it would work. It did.

    You are probably already aware of this, but all 10 of the new machines showed the same Product Key when examined with Keyfinder, as did the two older Dimensions that were reinstalled from the new media.

  11. Mele, thanks for the note. I was a little fuzzy in my original post and have edited the post to reflect your comment. It’s true that any Dell SLP disk can be used on any Dell machine from the same general product family; the SLP code is tied to the BIOS. For a company like Dell, which has used the same BIOS for a long, long time, it’s possible for newer SLP media to work even with an old machine. No guarantees, though. The media can’t be used with a machine from a different manufacturer, just as an HP SLP disk can’t be used with a Dell machine.

    As for the XPS machines, I have two recent ones, an XPS 210 and 410, and they do indeed include the reinstall partition (which I generally wipe out immediately). They also no longer include the little leather pouch. The XPS package is pretty similar to every other Dell machine these days. I’m quite happy with both machines, for what it’s worth.

  12. Lloyd (Webmoron), the key you see when you use Keyfinder is Dell’s master SLP key. If you were to try to use that key to reinstall from different media, it would fail, and you never have to enter it when you use the SLP media.

    I have a new C521 on the way right now, so I’ll look and see if it has a Reinstall partition. They’re pretty well hidden. I have an E521 here (purchased in January) which does have one.

  13. Ed, as usual you’re absolutely right! I still have a couple of the e521 machines that haven’t been deployed, so I grabbed one and put it on the bench. There is a 39 meg partition and a 3 gig partition set aside. Your incoming C521 will probably be the same. The only difference I can see between the two machines is the case. The BTX motherboards for the E and C versions appear to be the same.

  14. eBay is another good place to get Dell CDs. People who take delivery of hundreds of identical/similar systems don’t need all the disks that come with each system, so some offer them for sale on eBay. It can be helpful, esp. if you are looking for something older. For systems like Optiplex, I have found that any Dell Optiplex XPsp2 CD will reinstall Windows and any same-age or newer Optiplex Resource CD will install drivers for any Optiplex.

  15. Follow-up. When I had to order a replacement recovery CD for my Alienware desktop machine, they sent me a Windows XP SP2 install disc that does not appear to be BIOS-locked; I supplied the license key from the sticker on my case. Unfortunately, the disc in question didn’t have the correct RAID drivers, so I had to engineer a bizarre series of workarounds to get it to load correctly. Idiotic.

  16. I have a Sony VAIO purchased two or three years ago. It did not come with recovery disks, and I tried to follow the instructions to make the 9(!) disk set. It failed on the 9th disk twice, thereby trashing all 18 disks. I called Sony, and they said I could purchase the set for $35 instead of making my own. I figured I’d wait until I needed them to purchase them.

    I helped a friend with an HP that was purchased in 2002, and it came with recovery disks, but the SLP key didn’t match the hardware. HP made us buy a set (and sent us the wrong ones the first time) for $20 or $25.

    According to the license agreement with Microsoft, Direct OEMs do not have to provide recovery media as long as they provide a method of recovery on the hard disk. They are not required to give you a method to make the recovery disks yourself.

  17. Since no one has mentioned Gateway, I guess I’ll chime in here. I purchased a Gateway Mt3705 in Feb 2007 with Vista pre-installed. It has a recovery partition on the hard drive and also came with disks for the OS and a separate one for all the crapware. My question is, if I have the disks, do I need to keep the partition? Do you view this as a necessary redundancy?

  18. Diana, I think it varies. In my case, the rescue partition was rebuilt when I used my restore CDs; the only way to find out might be to back up the partition and experiment.

  19. I got an HP notebook in December of 2006. For that reason, I could send in for Vista upgrade discs, which I did. The initial setup was with XP Media Center. I bought the restore discs which cost $30 extra (but are preselected for you by default on the purchase page). The restore discs do just that — restore the system to how it was sent to you by HP, “crapware” and all. These particular restore discs, powered by SoftThinks, are obnoxious as it takes about 5 hours for it to do its job — about 3 hours of copying some sort of (I presume) highly-compressed drive image of an XP system in factory imaging mode, and 2 hours of a script which reinstalls every single application. (First boot gives you a tantalizing glimpse of a bare XP system with just an icon for XP Media Center–but then it goes away for a blanking image telling you to not interrupt the installation process and the system may reboot. The system reboots 17 times in the process.) Then it creates a recovery partition. (Restoring from the recovery partition takes only about 45 minutes.) No option to choose which apps to install before hand. No clean XP disc.

    In contrast, the Vista discs sent to me by the “Express Upgrade” differ in that HP actually sends a full Vista install disc, and a separate drivers/software/”crapware” disc, and amazingly enough, this drivers disc actually presents you the option to refuse installation of any software/crapware or driver you don’t want. I suppose this is simply a consequence of HP not having a SoftThinks powered recovery program available for Vista, but they should realize the Vista Express discs are far more convenient than the five-hour recovery program.

  20. Oh yeah, HP does offer a way to buy recovery discs after the fact, if you didn’t order it with your PC…

    It’s hidden incredibly deeply in the HP site, but I put the link where my name should appear in the comments.

  21. Thanks a lot for the info, I just put in my request for a reinstall CD (didnt get one when I received my laptop), so hopefully this should all work out!

    One thing I’ve noticed about the Dell reinstall disks is that the ones I’ve tried seem to work interchangeably. For example, I have two Windows XP Home disks (pre-SP,SP1) and it installed on the original Dell Desktop (both cds), the original Dell Laptop, and a really old Dell Desktop (pentium II optiplex), but didnt work when I installed on a Compaq or HP. It looks like, to me, that these Dell install disks aren’t too picky about what systems they install on as long as they are dells. Anyone else notice this too?

  22. Since at least 2000, Dell has used the OS, Drivers, Applications trio of disks. At one time they stopped sending them with consumer systems, but have started again, if you request them from the sales person or on the web. Recovery partitions are really big in the consumer systems (DUH) and not used very often on business systems and gaming systems.

    There is no 100% perfect way of OS restoration, but Dell seems to give the best of both, quick, full (including crapware) recovery, or slow but custom recovery with the CD’s.

  23. I think Andrew is correct – I’ve got lots of Dells at work, of all ages. I have a number of XP discs, and I haven’t a clue which came which which systems. It doesn’t seem to matter – any Dell CD seems to work on any Dell system.

    Anyone know whether the same is true of Vista? I’ve not got any work machines with it yet, but it would be useful to know whether I can carry on using the installation CDs interchangeably.

  24. I asked Dell for replacement discs for my Dimension (3yrs old) they gave me a premium rate phone number to call and said I could buy the discs.????////They must have a different policy stateside.
    Gil Higham

  25. Robert. Ctrl+F11 will only work if you actually have a recovery partition. It’s possible you don’t have one. Why don’t you contact Dell support and get them to help oyu figure it out?

  26. CTRL F11 doesn’t work on Vista Home Premium. You have to tap F8 after the bios load. Choose Repair Your Computer. Then Choose Dell System Image Restore. This wipes your drive completely so be sure you back up your important personal files.

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