Windows 7: How to Upgrade

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How to Upgrade to Windows 7

Prepare Your PC

You've got a few chores to do before you insert that Windows 7 DVD.

First, consider the driver issue. If you're upgrading from Vista, chances are you'll have no driver problems. If you're currently on XP, you almost certainly will.

Make sure you can get Windows 7 or Vista drivers for your display, audio, and networking adapters. If you use a wireless keyboard or mouse, you'll need to check drivers for those, as well. If you're not sure what these are, check Device Manager: In XP, select Start, right-click My Computer, select properties, click the Hardware tab, and then the Device Manager button. In Vista, click Start, type device manager, and press Enter. You'll also want to check for your printers and scanners.

Once you know the devices, how do you find the drivers? Check the Windows 7 Compatibility Center At press time, that site was still "coming soon," but the Vista equivalent is a good substitute until it's ready, especially for XP-to-Win7 upgraders. You can also check your devices' manufacturer Web sites.

Speaking of hardware and visiting manufacturers' Web sites, now would be a good time to update your firmware, especially if you're not in the habit of doing this on a regular basis. Go to your system manufacturer's site for system firmware updates. See "Firmware and You: A Comprehensive Guide to Updating Your Hardware" for details.

No matter how good your precautions, operating system upgrades can go horribly wrong. Some important program or device won't work in the new environment. Windows 7 won't boot. Maybe you just don't like the new interface. Whatever the reason, you need a way to go back to where you were before.

An image backup of your hard drive offers an easy, dependable way to do just that, since it restores everything on the hard drive: Windows, applications, data, and even the Master Boot Record. To create one, you'll need an external hard drive, and an image backup program. I recommend the free version of Macrium Reflect for image backup, although others will do. Plug in the external hard drive before you create the image, and select that drive as the Backup destination. Also, be sure to create the bootable Rescue CD (this option is on Macrium Reflect's Other Tasks menu) before you start the upgrade.

An image backup of a really big hard drive can take hours. Run the backup overnight, with plans to do the upgrade the following morning.

Good morning. If you're doing a simple upgrade, you're done with prep work and can skip down to the "Run the Upgrade" section below. But if you're planning a clean (aka custom) install, you've got more preparation to do.

You need to gather up installable versions of all of the programs on your hard drive that you want to keep. If you bought a program as a physical package, you'll need the disc. If you downloaded the program, you'll have to either find the installation file or download the latest version (really your best option). I suggest you make a stack of physical programs, and put the downloaded files into a folder in My Documents.

You'll also need the license or product ID numbers that prove you purchased the program. If you bought the program as a physical package, this number is probably on the disc sleeve or somewhere else on the box. If you purchased and downloaded the program online, it's probably in an e-mail that you hopefully didn't delete.

Can't find all your software product keys? Product Key Explorer can hunt them down for you.
What if you can't find the license? Open the program and select Help > About. There's a good chance your license or product ID will be displayed there. Jot it down and triple-check it for accuracy. Or contact the vendor and see if they have it.

A utility called Product Key Explorer 2.2.1 might also help, although in my experience it doesn't always. The free, demo version can't print or save what it finds, so you'll have to either write the numbers down by hand (be sure to double-check them) or pay the $30 registration fee.

Run the Upgrade

Are you ready? Now it's time to take a deep breath, bite your lip, and take that step forward into the next generation of Windows computing.

You can choose between upgrading your existing installation, or wiping it out and performing a clean install of Windows 7.
There are two ways to start the installation: You can boot from the Windows 7 Upgrade DVD, or you can insert the DVD while in your current version of Windows and start from there. If you're doing an upgrade installation, you'll have to start from inside Windows. For a clean install, either way is fine.

Exactly what pages the installation wizard displays, and in what order, will depend on how you started the installation, what's already on your PC, and what choices you make. But here are some of the major options you will see along the way:

  • Early on, you'll get the option to check for compatibility online or install. That first option just brings you to the Web page for the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. You should have run that by now. Click Install Now and get on with it.
  • After agreeing to the 5545-word End-User Licensing Agreement (no, I haven't read it either, but as someone who's paid by the word, I'm envious), you have to make the big decision: an Upgrade or a Custom (aka: clean) install. I've explained the reasons to pick one or the other above.
  • You might be asked to pick a partition. Unless you're planning on a multiboot system, pick the one with your current version of Windows.
  • If you're doing an upgrade install, you'll receive a compatibility report. It will warn you about certain issues (for instance, if you use Windows Mail, it will inform you that the program is no longer included). It may also tell you to cancel the upgrade and uninstall a particular, problematic program or driver. It's best to do what it says.
  • If you're doing a clean install, a warning box will tell you that you're about to lose your existing version of Windows. You're not; you've got that image backup. The warning will also reassure you that you won't lose your files. They'll be moved to a new folder called C:/Windows.old. Be glad they are.

While Windows 7 goes about the business of installing all of its various files, you can walk away and find clever ways to kill the time.
When the Installing Windows box appears with its list of automated tasks (Copying Windows files, Expanding Windows files, and so on), get up, jog, read a book, or take a nap. It could easily be an hour--maybe more--before you're needed.

The wizard will eventually come back, this time running in Windows 7 on your hard drive. The new set of questions will be pretty self-explanatory, but a couple are worth noting:

  • You don't have to enter the Product Key when asked, although you will have to enter it eventually. If you click Next with the field blank, then click No, the install will continue. You can always enter the Key and activate Windows once it's running and you're sure you like it.
  • One page, titled "Help protect your computer and improve Windows automatically," offers options for how Windows will update itself. I recommend the middle option, "Install important updates only."

When the wizard is done, your PC will reboot (not for the first time in this install, but for the last), and bring you up in a full, interactive version of Windows 7.

Congratulations. You've installed Windows 7. If you did an upgrade install, you're almost done. But if you did a clean install, you still have a ways to go.

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