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I want to reinstall my operating system, but I don't want my computer to be down for a day while I get everything set up again.

Can I install the new OS onto a fresh hard-drive through, say, Virtual Box, and then swap out my hard-drives on my physical computer and have it work?

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I suspect that that will work, but from the OS's perspective the underlying hardware will change. (Read: If you do that with windows it probably wants to be activated again). – Hennes Sep 1 '12 at 20:02
This has been asked before on SuperUser, let me find it… – Baarn Sep 1 '12 at 20:03
virtualbox and vmware (and even more linked under related under these questions) of course it is not the exact same question, but the answers should remain the same. – Baarn Sep 1 '12 at 20:06
@walter those are both closely related but I don't think either is an exact duplicate. – nhinkle Sep 1 '12 at 21:40
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes. In VirtualBox, the required feature is called raw hard disk access. I have done the reverse.

The potential problem is that the OS must be able to boot on the other hardware, and "be OK" with it. The first problem has to do with drivers. The VM's virtualized hardware is different than the actual hardware. Depending on the OS and how it is installed, when it is booted on the actual hardware, the drivers for them will be missing; or perhaps worse, the drivers that worked for the virtual hardware seem close enough, but don't actually work. So the OS will have to go through a round of detecting the new hardware and swapping all the drivers. Sometimes this works fine and sometimes it doesn't.

The second issue is mostly a Windows Activation thing. If it was activated on the virtual hardware, you'd have to re-activate on the new hardware. Depending on which SKU you installed, this may not be allowed, or require calling Microsoft to plead your case.

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You don't have to plead. Their automated phone system is actually pretty painless. – mpen Sep 1 '12 at 23:37

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