Opinion: Your XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade path: Buy a new PC

Microsoft's leaders really, really want you to forget about Vista and move right on to Windows 7. And who can blame them? Vista was a train wreck. No one who knows what they're doing runs Vista, not even the Microsoft faithful. Windows 7, on the other hand, is a worthwhile desktop operating system. There's only one little problem -- there's no good way to get from XP to 7.

Actually, that's not a small problem at all. According to Net Applications' Market Share report, in August 2009, 71.7% of all desktops were running XP, compared to a mere 18.8% running Vista. That means the great majority of Windows users will have to try to migrate from XP to 7.

I use the word "migrate" deliberately instead of "update" or "upgrade" because this will be a migration. If you are among the small minority using Vista, you can upgrade to 7 without any fuss or muss, so long as the move is between equivalent versions like Vista Home Premium and Windows 7 Home Premium -- or if you're jumping up, for example, to Windows 7 Ultimate.

I only wish that were the case for XP. The only way you can get from XP to Windows 7 is to do a clean install. Period. End of statement.

What's involved with a clean install, you ask? It means you erase every last program and file on your hard disk during the "upgrade." Ow.

You can save some of it. Microsoft's Windows Easy Transfer, which comes in Windows 7, will let you save your files and settings. Of course, some of those settings may not work anymore with Windows 7, but that's a relatively minor pain.

The major headache is that you can't transfer your old programs and device drivers from XP to Windows 7. So, do you know where your install disk is for Quicken 2008? How about Office 2003? Or, for that matter, do you really want to download iTunes and Firefox, plus a half-dozen must-have Firefox extensions, all over again? Well, you'd better know what you have on your current XP system, and you'd better be ready to reinstall them all and reset them to just the way you like them, because that's exactly what you're going to need to do.

For an individual, that's annoying. It took me two or three hours, but I'm always installing and updating operating systems. Microsoft estimates that heavy users, people with 125GB of data and 40 applications, would need between 2 hours and 40 minutes and 5 hours and 43 minutes to upgrade their systems. A super user could take close to 20 hours. But wait, those Microsoft numbers are for Vista to Windows 7! XP to Windows 7 can take much longer. At best, I suspect we're looking at a full day for heavy users to make the migration. Now, imagine multiplying that by a business' dozens to tens of thousands of PCs. That's not just a headache; it's the kind of major suffering that companies try to avoid whenever humanly possible.

Let's say you have 100 PCs in your business running XP and you want to move them to Windows 7. Assume it will take eight hours per PC to do the job. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' hourly wage numbers for computer support specialists from May 2008, the latest numbers that are available, the total cost of the labor needed to complete the upgrade process would be $17,832.

I'm presuming, of course, that your business is using a standardized software package and that you have all the program install disks at hand. If you don't, your bill is going to be much, much higher.

And of course, you have to add to your bill the licensing fees for Windows 7. While Linux upgrades are free and Mac OS Snow Leopard costs $29 for Leopard users, you'll need to pay a pretty penny for Windows 7. If you upgrade from, say, Windows Vista Business to Windows 7 Professional, it will cost you $199 per PC. I presume that Microsoft will offer a similar deal to XP Pro users. If not, it will run you $299 retail for Win 7 Pro. But let's assume Microsoft is going to cut you some slack. Still, our 100-PC company has to shell out nearly 20 grand, $19,900, for its Win 7 licenses.

So, all together, that's $37,732 for the Windows 7 migration. Perhaps you're thinking that's not too bad. Except -- whoops! -- most older XP systems don't have the hardware to run Windows 7. Windows 7 "officially" requires a 1 GHz processor, 1GB of memory, 16GB of free hard drive space and 128MB of graphics memory on a chip set or card capable of supporting DirectX 9.

But don't believe this official version. In my Windows 7 testing, starting with Build 7000 to the RTM (release to manufacturing) version, I've found that 7 requires at least a 1.6-GHz processor and 2GB of RAM to run at an acceptable level. So, I think it's a good bet that many XP users are going to need to upgrade their RAM. The average price for a stick of 1GB RAM seems to be about $30. Of course, you'll need to install it, so let's throw in another $5,229 for our 100-PC business for that.

Now we're just shy of $42,961. I won't even mention the time and cost of getting users to relearn how to use their computers. It's not that Windows 7 is all that different from XP, but it is different enough to slow users down.

Does your IT budget have enough money to migrate to Windows 7? Maybe. But is it worth it?

I like Windows 7. It's much better than Vista. But if you were to ask me to name the one feature that makes it a step up from XP, I'd be left speechless. If you also can't think of a good, sound business reason to upgrade to Windows 7, you'll be a lot better off ignoring Windows 7 when it finally arrives on Oct. 22.

In 2009, you have to be more aware of your bottom line than ever. When you have to replace your XP-running PCs, you can move to Windows 7, but until they fall apart under your users' hands, I wouldn't move to Windows 7. It's just not worth the time, money or annoyance.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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