FAQ: How to upgrade XP to Windows 7

You skipped Vista for all the right reasons, but are you ready for 7?

If Microsoft wants Windows 7 to succeed, to do better than limp like Vista, it has to convince the majority of users to ditch their comfortable-as-an-old-shoe -- older than an old shoe, actually -- OS.

Microsoft has to beat itself by one-upping its most successful OS edition of all time: Windows XP.

That's going to be tough. Even Microsoft knows that. Last month it conceded to critics, including Gartner's Michael Silver, who had complained that the company's policy for continuing XP "downgrades" was a "real mess." In response, Microsoft actually extended the availability of XP until April 2011.

So the pressure's on to make an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade as painless as possible. But is a pain-free process what you'll face if you make the move? Not exactly.

Where are the bumps in the upgrade road? How difficult will the migration really be? Excellent questions.

We'll try to answer them.

Can I upgrade from Windows XP straight to Windows 7? You betcha. And no, you don't have make Vista a middleman.

There's always a catch. What's the catch this time? Unlike people running Vista, you can't do an "in-place" upgrade from XP to Windows 7 (even though that was offered as an upgrade choice to Vista, and Microsoft's bragged numerous times about how Windows 7 "is Vista, a lot better."

Presumably, Microsoft doesn't want to repeat the drama -- and complaints -- that XP users generated when they threw up their hands over in-place upgrades to Vista. It hinted as much in an April post to the "Engineering Windows 7" blog: "We realized at the start of this project that the 'upgrade' from XP would not be an experience we think would yield the best results. There are simply too many changes in how PCs have been configured (applets, hardware support, driver model, etc.) that having all of that support carry forth to Windows 7 would not be nearly as high quality as a clean install."

Whatever the reasons, you'll have to do what's called a "clean" install of Windows 7, which means you'll need to restore backed up data, recreate settings throughout Windows and reinstall all applications. ("Clean install" isn't a choice on the Windows 7 install-type selection screen; you'll pick "Custom" from the two-option list.)

What are the system requirements for Windows 7? They're very similar to those for Vista. According to Microsoft, here's what you need:

  • 1GHz or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
  • 1GB RAM (32-bit) or 2GB RAM (64-bit)
  • 16GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
  • DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver

Take those with a grain of salt. Vista runs slowly on a PC with just 1GB of memory; Windows 7 may do better, but you're still likely to be disappointed.

How do I know if my XP machine can handle Windows 7? Run the "Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor," which as of July, was in beta. Start here, download and install the advisor, then run it.

The advisor will give you a bottom-line appraisal of your XP-based hardware and give you the green light, tell you the machine won't make it as is or spell out what you need to beef up.

Can I buy the cheaper Upgrade edition of Windows 7, or do I have to fork over a small fortune for the "full" version? Yes to the first, no to the second.

Windows 7's Upgrade editions, such as Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade -- $120 suggested list -- check to see if there's a legitimate, activated copy of Windows on the PC before it lets you proceed. At the least, Windows XP and Windows 2000 qualify here. (Even older editions, such as Windows 98 may be eligible -- Microsoft's not been clear -- but it's very unlikely that hardware that old will take the Windows 7 strain.)

I'm running XP Home now. What are my Windows 7 choices? You can upgrade to Home Premium ($120), Professional ($200) or even Ultimate ($220) if you want.

If you were smart, you bought your upgrade during the two-week sale that Microsoft ran from June 26 through July 11, when Home Premium was priced at $50, Professional at $100. Unfortunately, those discounts are done.

I'm running XP Professional. What are my Windows 7 choices? Same as if you were running XP Home now: You can upgrade to Home Premium ($120), Professional ($200) or Ultimate ($220).

What's the process going to be like? We won't know for sure until Microsoft makes final Windows 7 Upgrade discs available, but the company will help you back up and then restore settings and data with the Windows Easy Transfer utility it includes on the Windows 7 DVD.

The process is too long to spell out here, but Microsoft posted a step-by-step back in January, while BlogsDNA added screenshots to those instructions.

What should I do before I start the upgrade? Tops on our list: Make a disk image of your XP machine as it exists now so that, if you later decide Windows 7 isn't worth the disc it's written to and you want to revert to the ancient XP, you can do so without a lot of hassle.

There are scads of free and for-a-fee backup programs for XP, some of which create a disk image, a bit-for-bit copy of the hard disk. Among the free choices are Macrium Reflect and DriveImageXML, which run on XP and let you create an image on a CD/DVD, external drive or flash drive.

I hear that the Windows 7 media comes on a DVD. I don't have a DVD drive, just a CD-ROM drive, on my XP PC. What do I do? Start crying.

Microsoft recommends that you "rent, borrow, or buy one if you want to do the installation yourself. Alternatively, you can take your PC and DVD to a service provider that has a DVD drive available that can be used to do the upgrade."

Right. The $50 to $120 you've laid out for Windows 7 Home Premium just wasn't enough to spend, was it?

Rumors have circulated that Microsoft may offer Windows 7 Upgrade on a flash drive -- a 4GB thumb drive has more than enough room -- but, so far, it's only wishful thinking on the part of the drive-less, like people running netbooks.

You can do it yourself by buying Windows 7 as a download from Microsoft's own e-store -- the only one that now offers that delivery method -- then build a bootable USB drive. There are several how-to-do-that guides on the Web; our favorites are by noted Windows blogger Long Zheng, and this step-by-step.

Can I upgrade to a 64-bit edition of Windows 7? Yes, if the processor inside your PC supports 64-bit.

Retail copies and electronic downloads of Windows 7 will ship with both the 32- and 64-bit versions of the operating system, and since you have to do a clean install anyway -- also a requirement if you're moving from, say Vista 32-bit to Windows 7 64-bit -- you can move up to 64-bit if you want.

Download and run the free "SecurAble" utility to see whether your processor supports 64-bit; as an added bonus, it also says whether you'll be able to run the Windows XP Mode available to users of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate.

Will I be able to run my old Windows XP software? Yes, if you bought the upgrade to either Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate.

Those two editions let you run Windows XP Mode, an add-on (and separate download; it doesn't come on the DVD), that creates an XP virtual environment running under Virtual PC, Microsoft's client virtualization technology, within Windows 7.

XP Mode comes with a fully-licensed copy of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), so you don't have to spring for an additional license. The mode, however, requires processor-based virtualization support. To determine whether your PC's CPU provides that support, download and run the free "SecurAble" utility.

A beta of XP Mode can be downloaded from here and run with Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC).

I'm not forking over another $80 to Microsoft just to run programs in XP mode. What are my options? You have several.

First, you can wait until you upgrade to Windows 7, then install and try out the software you've been running on XP. It might work fine. (Most likely to have fewest problems: Products from Microsoft and other major vendors.)

If the program won't run, you can try to run it in "compatibility mode." Right-click on the program's shortcut, select "Properties," then click the "Compatibility" tab. Next, check the "Run this program in compatibility mode" box, and in the drop-down list, choose the version of Windows, in this case Windows XP.

Or you can run free virtualization software on Windows 7, such as Sun's VirtualBox, with a copy of Windows XP as the "guest" OS within the virtual environment. You'll need an XP license to install inside the virtual machine.

That may be your biggest hurdle, since if the copy of XP you're now running came with the PC, you're not allowed to transfer it to another system, even a virtual one (even if that PC is now running Windows 7). And if you're upgrading from XP to Windows 7, no matter how you acquired the license for XP, the activation key on the XP CD will probably not work. (During the upgrade, the PC sends a key-cancellation request to Microsoft's servers to nullify the XP activation/product key and link the machine to the new Windows 7 key.)

You can still buy copies of XP, but they're pricy. On Newegg, for example, we found a copy of XP Home (the OEM edition, designed for small computer makers, but you can use it, too) for $90.

What happens if I hate Windows 7. Can I revert to Windows XP? Yes, you can, but you'll have to do another "clean" install, this time scrubbing the drive of Windows 7 and replacing it with XP.

Before you do that, you'll need to back up your data files and note your settings. Don't bother with Easy Transfer Utility, which is available for XP; it's a one-way street and doesn't help in "downgrade" scenarios, which is what we're talking about here.

You'll need to reinstall all your applications on XP, too.

If you thought of this before, you'd simply wipe the drive and restore from the disk image you made earlier (see "What should I do before I start the upgrade?").

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