Adios Windows 7: What I learned on the road back to Vista

My wife's Acer laptop has been misbehaving ever since I upgraded it to Windows 7 a few weeks ago. The core issue is that the machine no longer wakes up from sleep or hibernate mode. Now the clock is ticking to either resolve it or restore the machine to its original Windows Vista factory image. She needs it back by Friday.  That would be ... tomorrow!

After reading Tuesday's blog in which I described my problems upgrading an Aspire from Vista to Windows 7, Ben Rudolph, a senior manager in the Windows business group, checked in with me to see how things were going. Ben has installed Windows 7 on a quite a few older machines -- he has about 60 running -- and he had a few interesting tricks and inside observations you'll want to know about if you try to move forward with a Windows 7 install on a legacy computer.

Rule #1: Your hardware may be older than you think.

I bought the computer, an Acer Aspire 5516, about a year ago, but it's more than a year old. I bought it on closeout for $299. It uses a much earlier vintage AMD Athlon processor and a graphics processor from a line that ATI no longer manufactures. Some of those parts could be as much as four years old, Rudolph says. But, he adds, "I've upgraded machines that are five or six years old." Clearly, I shouldn't give up just yet.

While the Aspire 5516 has plenty of horsepower, memory and storage to upgrade to Windows 7 (the Windows 7 compatibility checker found no issues other than a video device driver update, which I installed to no avail), some device drivers aren't "officially" supported by Windows 7. That doesn't mean the newer device drivers won't work. But that does lead us to Rule #2:

Rule 2: Don't rely on Windows update for the latest drivers.

I made this mistake, inspecting the drivers in the device manager and allowing Windows to go out and search for the latest version. The laptop, an Acer Aspire 5516, uses ATI's Radion Express 1200 video adapter. Windows did suggest an update, but Rudolph suggested downloading a much newer one from the ATI Web site. Apparently the Windows Update service lags behind manufacturers when it comes to including updated device drivers. Some, he says, never go through the approval process. They may work just fine. You just can't get them from Windows Update.

So I tracked down, downloaded, and installed the updates. Unfortunately, the system still wouldn't come back from sleep or hibernate states. Which lead me to ...

Rule #3: When all else fails, do a custom install and blow everything away.

I had chosen the express install, which replaced Vista but left most of the original programs and data intact. "That’s been my go-to solution for older machines," when nothing else works, Rudoloph says.

So I gave it a shot last night. I backed up the system data and let the Windows 7 upgrade blow everything away and perform a pristine, bottom-up install of the OS.

First the good news: I was able to recover from both hibernate and sleep mode -- but I had only waited a few minutes to attempt recovery. The bad news: I left the machine on overnight and the next morning it wouldn't recover. Subsequent attempts to revive the computer from sleep or hibernate mode also failed.

At this point I'm back to square one.

(BTW, if you do this you'd better back up the user's guide on your Acer Laptop. The supporting documents on Acer's Web site include only a quick start guide for the 5516. For the more in-depth user's guide it refers the user to the PDF file on their own system -- a rather silly state of affairs if you're looking for the user guide because the laptop is not working. Or you blew it away by doing a clean install of Windows 7. Not impressed.)

Also not impressed with myself here. I broke my own rule.

Rule #4: Don't overlook the obvious.

Readers of my previous blog post may recall that I was experiencing another issue with the integrated trackpad on the Aspire -- it suddenly stopped working about two weeks after I upgraded to Windows 7. It appeared to be working properly when checked out in the Windows Control Panel Device Manager, however. As part of the troubleshooting yesterday I also updated the trackpad device driver, but as I'm sure you've already guessed this was a separate problem that had nothing to do with Windows 7 or device driver updates.

In reviewing the user manual I discovered that the machine has a built in hardware switch that turns off the trackpad. I don't use the machine much so I'd never noticed the small button with a tiny finger icon imprinted upon it. Do-uh.

So where did all of this get me?  I upgraded a machine that met the specs for Windows 7 but that the manufacturer would not certify as Windows 7 ready. I ran the compatibility checker, which saw nothing insurmountable. It didn't work out. Was it a bad idea to give it a shot?

"Not necessarily," says Rudolph. "Most Vista-era computers will upgrade to Windows 7 very easily -- the vast majority will."

But not this time. Tonight I begin the process of restoring Vista. I sure hope this is the end of it.

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