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Changing Your Computers Boot Sequence

Mona from San Diego, California asks:

A friend of mine called and said that she needs to reinstall Windows XP (she has the disk). She has done this before but she always used floppies; now she doesn’t have a floppy drive so she just uses her CD disk. She went to reinstall and her WinXP CD wouldn’t start. She sits there and it just goes right on to her desktop without even accessing the CD. What’s weird is that the CD drive works when she plays music CDs. Can you help?

I had this happen one time when I had to reinstall Windows 2000 for someone. Here’s the deal, though: I have to take you through what might be a terribly boring bunch of stuff to read, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t, believe me. Here we go:

When you first start your computer up, your screen is black with all kind of stuff that is written out and kind of flies by and you normally don’t sit and read it because when you really think about it, who cares what it is? I never did – all I cared about was getting to Windows as quickly as possible (I’m telling you, I am all about the speed).

Well, that black screen with all of the junk on it when you first boot (start) up your computer is what you see while your computer is starting to test hardware and other parts on your computer to make sure that everything is a-okay so that it can proceed into Windows. Your computer only knows how to do this by the chip on your motherboard telling it what to do. This chip is called the BIOS (Basic Input Output System). The BIOS is what’s responsible for checking the CPU, disk drives, the system clock, the system fans, etc. and so it issues the POST (the power-on self tests) to check everything. (I know this is probably way confusing, but bear with me, there’s a reason for all of this, I promise.)

When you started your computer, if the POST (all of the tests that the BIOS told it to make) went well, then it proceeds to look for the operating system, which it does by trying to access your floppy disk drive, your hard drive, or your CD drive, because one or two or all of them contain the files in Windows.

Sigh. Okay, I am going to wing an analogy.

You decide to take a long trip (and you’re going to drive; no three hour security/bathroom/restaurant lines for you!). Before you drive that far, you want to make sure nothing’s wrong with your car, so you take it to your mechanic.

Your car: Your computer.
Your mechanic: The BIOS.

Your mechanic then inputs all the instructions into the machine that runs all the necessary tests to make sure everything is working on the car.

Your mechanic: The BIOS.
Running the necessary tests: The POST.

The tests come back great; you can drive until your heart’s content, but you have to pay the mechanic before you can drive home.

Positive test results: the POST.
Pay the mechanic: BIOS finds way to enter Windows.
Drive until your heart’s content: Enter Windows.

Did that help? I told you I was going to wing it.

Let’s answer the question now, shall we? (Might be an idea.)

First things first: The screens may be different on different computers, so if your screen doesn’t exactly match the screens below, don’t worry; just look for the same wording and you’re set.

Notice that to get into Windows, the BIOS must have a way to do it. It will check the floppy disk drive, the hard drive, and the CD drive. It is configured to do it a certain way, too:


What this means is that first the BIOS will check the floppy drive for a way to access the necessary files to get into Windows.

If there are no disks in the floppy drive, then it will check the hard disk (your C drive).

Finally, if it can’t access Windows from the hard drive, then it goes to the third option, which is your CDROM – your CD drive.

In all probability, Mona, what is going on with your friend’s machine is that the CDROM is not the first device BIOS is looking for when it tried to access Windows. If she is sitting there looking at a desktop after she starts the computer, then the hard drive is the one being first accessed by the BIOS. Since she doesn’t have a floppy drive, her next boot device (after her hard drive) would be the CDROM. Remember that the BIOS takes the first device it can to access Windows files.

In order for her to have the Windows XP disk accessed first, she will have to go into BIOS and change the boot sequence. Now don’t get all queasy on me here; it’s easy!

Remember when I said that the black screen was the beginning of the BIOS/POST? Well, what you do is this:

When you first turn on the computer, the first screen you see will have the key you are supposed to press to enter setup. Mine is the delete key; sometimes it’s the F1 key, it just depends. Watch for ENTER SETUP to be displayed (it is in the first few seconds so look fast!) and press the correct key. Wait a second, and you are now sitting in front of a blue screen.

Don’t panic! It is not the blue screen of death! You have not lost Windows! You have simply entered a part of your computer you have never been to before. And since you haven’t been there before, please just do what you came for and leave. Don’t touch anything else or your computer will explode. Just kidding, but seriously, you are just in there to change the boot sequence so that’s all you’re going to do.

There are a whole lot of things listed that I couldn’t explain right now if I wanted to (which I don’t) or even if you wanted me to (which you don’t). All you’re concerned with is the ADVANCED BIOS FEATURES. This will lead you to the boot sequence screen I showed you above.


Now, using your keyboard arrows (it’ll show you how), change the First Boot Device to CDROM and the Second Boot Device to Hard Disk. You don’t have to worry about the third; she has no floppy drive. Just set it to Disabled.


Along the bottom are commands to tell you how to do things – Save, Exit, etc. Along the bottom of this screen you hit F10 to Save. Do that and then a box will pop up:


(Note: I won’t explain CMOS right now because it has nothing to do with Mona’s question. Besides, I’m too tired.)

I want to repeat this: The screens are all basically the same, but sometimes they do differ. In other computers, you will have a command to Save and Exit Setup after you get done changing the boot sequence.

After you press Y and hit enter, your computer will reboot. And this time – instead of going to your hard drive – the BIOS will access the CDROM first, which will let the Windows XP disk come up.

Pass this on to your friend, Mona; it may help and she’ll be grateful to you forever!
Just remind her to stick to just changing the boot sequence. You can render your system inoperable if you mess around with the settings. Just follow the commands and you’re golden. If you get confused you can always exit without saving and start over.

Thanks for writing, Mona! It was a great question!

~ Lori Cline