Page last updated at 07:59 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 08:59 UK

Windows 7: How to upgrade your computer

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website

Windows 7 screenshot
Will Windows 7 allow users to forget Vista?

Microsoft has released its new operating system Windows 7. Here are a few tips on what to look out for should you decide to upgrade your computer, and a consideration of whether it is worth the effort.

For most computer users, upgrading to a new operating system is never routine, regardless of whether it is Microsoft, Apple or Linux.

But installing a new Microsoft operating system might fill you with particular trepidation. Two-and-a-half years ago, I made the experiment of upgrading an old computer from Windows XP to Windows Vista.

The fact that most people still prefer XP says it all. Back then I likened my upgrade experience to falling into the Vista trap .

So has Microsoft learned anything? To find out, I installed Windows 7 on three computers:

  • a two-year-old computer running Windows Vista
  • a ten-month-old netbook running Windows XP, and
  • a six-and-a-half-year-old computer running Vista (the machine that was the subject of my Vista trap story).

There are two options to put Windows 7 on your PC:

The upgrade, which works on Vista machines only; all your files and applications stay in place and, with a few exceptions (especially anti-virus software), you won't have to reinstall any programs.

The clean install, which wipes parts of your hard disk and forces you to reinstall all your applications, although Microsoft says its "Easy Transfer tool" will help you move across documents and profile settings. It's more laborious than the upgrade and may daunt those who see their PC as a black box - to be used but not tampered with.

For this experiment I decided to upgrade the first machine, and do clean installations on the netbook and the old computer.

GETTING STARTED

Step 1: Can you upgrade?

For starters, you need to check whether your PC is ready to run Windows 7. Microsoft offers a tool called the Windows 7 upgrade adviser . You have to download and install it, and the adviser tells you whether the hardware and software of your computer will work under Windows 7.

Clear and detailed instructions tell you whether and where to get new drivers, eg for your printer, or promise that Windows will fetch them after the upgrade.

In some cases the adviser will ask you to uninstall certain programs, eg your anti-virus software, and reinstall them after the upgrade.

Step 2: Back-up your files

Easy Transfer window screenshot
The Easy Transfer process is straightforward but slow

Before you do any upgrade or installation, you need to back up your computer. You should have an external hard disk to back up your digital life as a matter of course, but too many people don't do it, or don't do it regularly. (Hard disk failures are among the most common problems with computers; think what it would be like if you lost all pictures of your friends and family, all documents, music, e-mail in an instant).

External hard disks are getting ever cheaper - you can now get 1,000 Gigabyte (1 Terabyte) drives for well under £100 or just under $100 - they are well worth the investment.

So to get ready for Windows 7 - whether it is an upgrade or a clean install - connect an external hard disk to a USB port.

For the upgrade, Windows Vista has a back-up tool that allows you to save all your files and profile settings, although most hard drives like my Seagate Free Agent 1 TB come with good back-up tools. If you are paranoid like me (I once had a hard disk die on me), make two separate back-ups.

If you do a clean install, you will need to use another Microsoft tool, called Easy Transfer. It comes in two flavours - Vista and XP. You can download the Vista version here and the XP version here .

The process is straightforward, albeit time-consuming. Launch the application; it will ask you whether this is your old computer (i.e. the "Vista" or "XP" incarnation of the PC), and you decide which bits need backing up.

Step 3: Migrating applications

If you do the upgrade, most of your applications will stay put. For the clean install you will need the original installation disks of each application, or the downloaded file if you got it from the internet. In some cases you will be able to download the software afresh (which gives you the latest version), but remember that in most cases you will need your licence number handy to prove you are a legitimate user.

Step 4: Have plenty of time at hand

You don't have to do a lot during the upgrade, but making back-ups and transferring files takes time, so you can't do this in a hurry.

If you access the internet using wi-fi, it may also be useful to have an Ethernet cable at hand to connect directly to your router or modem - just in case your wi-fi card needs a new driver.

UPGRADE VISTA TO WINDOWS 7

This should be the easy option. Run the upgrade adviser, pop in the Windows 7 disk and wait for a shiny new operating system.

Not so.

The upgrade adviser's suggestions were very clear, flagging up potential problems with two printer drivers and my wi-fi card, which I would need to download after installing Windows 7. It also told me to uninstall Open Office, my Kaspersky anti-virus software and Microsoft's IntelliType Pro (a software for my keyboard that had given me particular grief during the XP-to-Vista upgrade).

The upgrade PC
Make: PCSpecialist.co.uk (custom built)
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6850, 2 x 3 GHz
Memory: 4 GB
Hard disks: 2 x 500 GB
Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium
Age: 2 years

I then did a back-up, and for safety's sake also used the Easy Transfer Tool to do a full copy. I've got plenty of files on my PC, pictures, music... some 150GB in all, and it took Easy Transfer nearly 8 hours to shuttle everything to the external hard drive.

Next I popped the Windows 7 disk into my PC's DVD drive. Windows ran a second compatibility check and flagged up four more problems. It told me to uninstall iTunes, but thoughtfully advised me to "de-authorise" my computer first (otherwise Apple would limit my options to move music to other computers); I also had to get rid of the Google Toolbar and the software controlling my ATI Radeon video card - at least until after the upgrade.

I tried again and after another compatibility check and clicking a box to confirm that I wanted to do an upgrade, the installation started for real. And didn't stop.

Windows 7 screenshot
Uh-oh ... stuck at 62%

Seven or eight hours later I got suspicious, because for many hours the installation process had not gone beyond the 62% mark. After 15 hours I lost patience, forced a shutdown of my PC and feared for the worst. Would the computer start, was my hard drive dead meat?

On relaunch Windows told me that "the upgrade was not successful. Your previous version of Windows is being restored." And within a mere 20 minutes I had Vista and my computer back - not a hair out of place.

So 10 points out of 10 for the roll-back facility, zero points for the install process.

A friendly Microsoft engineer put me straight. I had encountered a known bug, and Microsoft had a solution for it .

In a few easy steps I had to tweak the "environment variables" of my PC. No irony here, it's really easy.

Kind of. Because when I tried to install again, and again, it kept hanging at 62%. Fact was, when I pasted the single line of code into my PC's settings, I inadvertently added a single space to the value.

Once I had realised my mistake (a few days later) I went into the Windows 7 breach again.

The duration of the upgrade process depends on how many applications and files you have on your computer. In my case it took over 11 hours for the process to complete.

Windows 7 screenshot
Rolling back to Vista was swift

I didn't have to do anything in this time, but my PC was obviously out of action.

When Windows 7 was finally ready to launch, it just worked. As Microsoft had predicted, my wi-fi card and the printers were unhappy.

It would have been easier to use an ethernet cable to go online, but using a software tool from Asus (maker of my computer's motherboard) I managed to kick-start the wi-fi card and the PC was in Windows 7 land. Windows Update checked for new drivers and found them not only for the wi-fi card and my fairly new Konica colour printer, but also for my 16-year-old HP laser printer.

Every single application, freeware or paid for, every device, new or old, just worked. All five user accounts on this computer were in fine working order. All browser and application settings were in place.

At long last I had climbed out of the Vista trap.

I quickly installed the antivirus software and iTunes. Had it not been for the 62% hitch, and the snail's speed of the upgrade process itself, it would have been a nearly painless transition.

My PC now starts and shuts down much faster than before, applications run fast and - while it's early days - I have had not a single crash.

Except... I was plagued by three niggling problems, which I will describe below.

CLEAN INSTALL ON WINDOWS XP NETBOOK

The huge popularity of netbooks - small, low-powered laptop computers - caused a huge embarrassment for Microsoft. Vista is just too bulky to run on them. Rather than surrender the field to open-source rival Linux, Windows wheeled out trusty old XP again, which quickly became the dominant operating system for netbooks.

The Netbook
Make: Samsung NC10
Processor: Intel Atom N270, 1.6 GHz
Memory: 2 GB
Hard disk: 160 GB
Operating system: Windows XP
Age: 10 months

I love my little netbook. Despite the somewhat puny processor it was faster than my high-powered Vista PCs, and its low weight makes up for the small screen. Still, I decided to throw it to the Windows 7 wolves.

With Windows XP, it is impossible to go the upgrade route, so a clean install it had to be. The Easy Transfer process took just over an hour, and the netbook passed the compatibility check with flying colours.

Time to pop in the Windows 7 DVD... err... netbooks don't have DVD drives. I borrowed an external DVD drive from a friendly colleague (Note: You can install Windows 7 from a USB flash drive, but that's a pretty involved process; search the web for "install Windows 7 from USB " and you will find plenty of guides).

Windows 7 screenshot
Don't upgrade without a compatibility check

The installation was a breeze. Towards the end Windows 7 asked me for my wi-fi log-on details and when the process ended after 37 minutes I had both Windows 7 and was back online.

Next came a pleasant surprise. I had made a laborious list of all the software that I would have to reinstall. I needn't have bothered.

On launch, Windows 7 opened an "Easy Transfer Report" that told me which applications I had had installed under XP - listing every single program on my netbook, from Samsung's own PC utilities and the AVG anti-virus software package to my Moffsoft calculator, with useful links included.

Next I reimported all files using the Easy Transfer programme. Yes, it took a couple of hours, but at the end all user accounts were in place, and as I reinstalled my applications one by one, they picked up all previous profile settings, from Mozilla Firefox bookmarks and extensions and saved passwords, to Open Office document templates.

The only problem were actually those Samsung utilities, which have not been released yet for Windows 7. However, a brief web search yielded an extremely helpful guide by another NC10 owner, Ade Miller, as to which Vista versions of these utilities would work under Windows 7.

So what's the performance? The Samsung NC10 is very zippy under Windows 7, faster than Windows XP; battery life, however, is down a bit (instead of six to seven hours on a single charge I can now expect about five to six hours).

Admittedly, I've cheated slightly. Most netbooks come with 1 GB of memory; several months ago I replaced that with a 2 GB chip. Looking at memory usage under Windows 7 that's highly recommended.

CLEAN INSTALL ON OLD VISTA PC

On to the final challenge, the old Dell that had given me such huge headaches when I upgraded from XP to Vista.

The past year or so it had been at a crawl, because in my experience the longer you use Vista, the slower your computer gets. Would this old machine survive Windows 7?

The old PC
Make: Dell Dimension 8200
Processor: Intel Pentium 4, 2 GHz
Memory: 1.5 GB
Hard disks: 2 x 120 GB
Operating system: originally Windows XP, upgraded to Vista Ultimate
Age: 6.5 years

I decided to follow Microsoft's recommended route and opted for a clean install. Once again I used Easy Transfer to export profile settings and documents, made separate copies of software I had downloaded from the web and ran the Windows 7 upgrade advisor.

The adviser flagged up potential problems for my Creative SB Audigy sound card and the Linksys wi-fi card, and warned me that my seven-year-old Philips webcam probably would not work.

Windows 7 screenshot
Would my old computer escape the Vista trap?

Installing Windows 7 went without a hitch, although it took a bit longer: 50 minutes. The Easy Transfer process lasted one-and-a-half hours. Once hooked up to the web, Windows 7 without prompting proceeded to install the right drivers for my sound and wifi cards. Philips never wrote a Vista driver for its ToUcam webcam, but had a guide how to use the XP driver under Vista - and that worked under Windows 7 as well.

So what about the performance? As one would expect after a clean installation, the computer is now much faster. Under Vista it took close to four minutes from pressing the power button to being online. Under Windows 7 I'm online in half that time. And while it is still an old and slow PC, all applications - from an old version of Microsoft Office to some educational software for my children - now start up much faster.

PROBLEMS AND BENEFITS

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Windows 7's pros and cons: Jason Palmer takes a tour

Overall, Windows 7 is easy to use. In terms of user interface it is not the leap made by Windows 95 or Windows XP. But compared to Vista it is faster, more reliable and easier to use. I particularly love the "peek" and "taskbar preview" functions that make it easier to navigate crowded desktops.

At long last the "search" box in the Start menu deserves its name. Under Vista I had to rely on Google Desktop to find documents, e-mail and programs. Microsoft's search is nearly as fast.

All computers on my home network suddenly talk to each other. It's easy to move files between machines or play music or videos from one PC on another.

And the problems, apart from my time-consuming hiccup during the "upgrade" process?

Well, the upgraded PC is displaying a couple of niggling quirks. Unlike the "clean install" PCs, for a week or so it refused to connect to the internet automatically. After some prodding of the connection settings (helped by hints and suggestions on various forums) the computer is now on its best behaviour.

And while the two clean-install PCs have no problem using the "homegroup" functionality of Windows 7 (for even easier file sharing), the upgraded machine stubbornly remains the odd-one-out.

Finally, during the past two or three days, ever so often Outlook 2007 is slowing down or even freezing briefly on the upgraded PC. Coincidence? I don't think so. A reinstall of the Office suite may be in order.

So is Windows 7 worth the trouble?

The upgrade process, while much improved, is clearly still fraught with dangers. And yes, one could call it botched; something like the 62% error should not happen in a "release-to-manufacture" version of Windows 7. During the next few weeks, when thousands of users go through the upgrade process, we will find out whether their problems are as small as mine or whether we are dealing with a major problem.

So the clean install route is definitely the preferred option. It has extended the life expectancy of my old computer, and improved the speed and mobile capabilities of my netbook. Microsoft seems to have worked hard with its partners to make Windows 7 compatible even with old hardware and software.

This weekend, I may revisit the upgraded PC and subject it to another clean install.



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