Brace for bumps in Windows upgrade

CorrespondentAugust 19, 2009 

It's amazing how many people are still using Windows XP.

We need to talk about this because Windows 7 is scheduled for release in late October. In between the two, we've had Micro soft Vista, which has been something less than a success. From the oversold Aero interface, which taxed PC performance for a small payoff in looks, to the misleading "Vista Capable" sticker that implied a computer was ready to go when it could handle only the basic Vista version, the interim operating system has been a frustration all around.

No wonder so many businesses and individuals have continued to run XP while hoping to bypass Vista and go straight to Windows 7. And no wonder Microsoft is hoping for great things from Windows 7 -- its Windows revenues have, for the first time, dropped year over year.

But we XP holdouts are now going to pay the price. For if an upgrade from Vista to Windows 7 is a relatively painless process, the cut-through from XP to Windows 7 is fraught with challenges. It turns out that XP users can't exactly upgrade. What they have to do is back up all their data and run a clean install of Windows 7, thus eliminating their programs, their associated drivers, and anything else they've left on the disk. Good luck finding all those old installation disks when you're hoping to reinstall the programs you use daily.

Windows 7 will wipe out your hard disk data for you during the installation phase, so whatever file folder organization you've established will be eliminated in the process. Transferring your personal data is eased somewhat by Microsoft's "Easy Transfer" program, which can move your information to an external hard disk and restore it to the newly established Windows 7 environment on your PC. Even so, moving data is a chore, and any long-time XP user with a disk stuffed with files will wish for a cleaner way to proceed.

You might think I'm about to trash Windows 7 after having spoken well of it in the past, but I'm actually of two minds about all this. Over the years, I've made it a practice to periodically back up all my data and do a clean Windows install every eighteen months or so. Performance is much snappier when you do such a reset, for reasons that doubtless have to do with mangled registry settings and all the digital detritus that builds up after installing program after program. It's time-consuming, but a clean install offers serious performance benefits if you're confident of your data backups.

Just be aware of what Windows 7 will ask of you if you're currently running XP. If a new computer is on the horizon anytime soon, consider simply waiting until the manufacturers are selling machines with Windows 7 preinstalled. You'll avoid the hassles of the "upgrade" and will have a fair assurance that Windows 7 will have the right drivers for your hardware, something that at present may not be the case for older equipment. And again, if you're running Vista, the regular upgrade process seems to be relatively quick and painless.

Be sure to check your current system to make sure it has the requirements for running Windows 7. A complete list is posted at , and bear in mind that these are minimums.

Many will wait and see

Meanwhile, the rollout of Windows 7 may not be as easy as Microsoft would like. Two recent reports have noted that about 60 percent of businesses will not buy Windows 7 at launch, while a study from PCMag Digital Network found that 32 percent of consumers will buy Windows 7 in the six months after it becomes available.

Those numbers surprise me a bit because Microsoft is pitching Windows 7 as a cleaned up version of Vista, one in which performance is made paramount and tuneups to the user interface make it easier to use. With the underlying engine being much the same, then, the need to wait for the first service pack release -- many businesses do this when new operating systems appear -- seems to be negated. Judging from the "release candidate" software many reviewers have seen, Windows 7 is already robust and a significant improvement over Vista.

Things would have run so much better if the transition from XP to Vista had been seamless, but Vista's problems have kept millions using the older system, and that has complicated the Windows 7 picture immeasurably. So have the legions of netbooks still being sold with XP as their primary system. Having skipped Vista on my main machine, I'll do the "clean install" from XP whenever possible, looking forward to a new operating system while remaining dismayed at how exasperating Microsoft system upgrades always turn out to be.

Paul A. Gilster, the author of several books on technology, lives in Raleigh. Reach him at

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