Upgrading to a new operating system — whether it's one personal computer at home or an office full of workstations — can be a stressful experience. You do it to take advantage of new features or to be able to run new applications, but you approach it with trepidation because you know there are always things that can go wrong. In this article, we'll look at some of those potential problems and explain how you can prevent them or work around them if they do occur.
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#1: Insufficient hardware
In general, new operating systems require heftier hardware than their predecessors. A system that runs the old OS just fine may run the new one very slowly or not at all, so be sure to check out the hardware requirements before you do the upgrade. You might need a faster processor and you almost always need more memory. Other components might need to be upgraded, too. For example, Windows Vista requires the proper video card to support the Aero interface.
If you get the new operating system installed and find that performance is inadequate, you might be able to make the necessary hardware upgrades. However, if your computer needs several components upgraded to run the new OS, it might be less expensive to buy a new computer. And of course, if the system is a laptop, it may be difficult or impossible to upgrade the hardware to a level that will run the new OS.
#2: Setup errors and freezes
Probably the worst case scenario is when the Setup process fails in the middle of an upgrade. This can leave you stuck in computer purgatory, with neither the old operating system nor the new one usable.
A possible cause is insufficient disk space. According to Microsoft's specifications, Vista Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate require at least a 40GB disk with 15 GB of free space. You might be able to install with less space, but you may encounter problems.
This can also be caused by a hardware issue. For example, Vista seems to be more sensitive to a bad RAM module than XP. Replacing or removing the bad RAM allows Setup to proceed normally. In other cases, the problem may lie with the hard drive or with the optical drive running the installation media. Some users have solved this problem by installing drivers for the hard drive before selecting the drive on which to install the OS.
#3: Driver problems
Driver problems are one of the most common causes of all sorts of trouble connected with an OS upgrade. Just because you get through the installation process and the OS runs, that doesn't mean things haven't gone wrong. You may find that your soundcard no longer works or that you can't print in the new OS. That's usually a driver issue.
The first thing to do is check the Web site of the hardware component vendor for updated drivers. Unfortunately, vendors sometimes don't update their drivers to work with the new operating system, especially on older devices. Sometimes, this is a technical issue, but the cynics among us will note that they have a vested interest in forcing you to buy a new card or printer.
#4: Activation error
What could be worse than installing your new operating system and then, when you go to activate it, being told that you don't have a genuine copy of Windows? Microsoft's recent operating systems, including Windows XP and Vista, use Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) technology, which requires activation after installation (and after you upgrade certain hardware components). If you don't activate Vista within 30 days, it will go into a limited functionality mode, where you can no longer use the Aero interface and will lose other premium features.
However, Vista Service Pack 1 (due to be released in early 2008) is supposed to change this behavior so that systems identified as non-genuine will pop up a nag screen but won't have their functionality disabled. Even a nag screen is an irritant, though, if you mistakenly get caught up in the cogs of the antipiracy mechanism.
If the validation tool won't run on your computer (and thus prevents you from downloading updates), the first thing to do is run the WGA diagnostics.
#5: Application incompatibilities
Another common thing that goes wrong when upgrading an OS is that you're no longer able to run some applications. This can be mildly annoying if your favorite game won't work, but it can be a minor catastrophe if a mission-critical business application fails to run.
In some cases, you can get an uncooperative application to work by running it in compatibility mode. In Vista, navigate to the program's executable and right-click it, select Properties, and then click the Compatibility tab. Select the Run This Program In Compatibility Mode For check box. Then, in the drop-down box, select the operating system under which you were previously running it (for example, Windows XP (Service Pack 2).
If this doesn't work, another solution is to run the older OS, such as XP, in a virtual machine using VM software, such as Virtual PC or VMWare. Install your incompatible applications on the virtual machine and you can use them in a window on your Vista desktop. Be aware that you need to have a license for the older OS to run it in a VM.
Of course, another option is to upgrade your applications to versions that are compatible with Vista.
#6: Wrong OS edition
What else can go wrong when you upgrade your OS? With Vista, especially, you might finish the upgrade process and discover that you've upgraded to the wrong edition. That's because Vista comes in four editions that are available at retail, each with its own set of features.
What if you install Home Premium edition and then find that your computer can't join your Windows domain? Or you install Business edition, only to find that Windows DVD Maker is missing? Did you know that Home Basic doesn't support the Aero interface that gives Vista its special "eye candy" look?
Be sure to determine exactly what features you want and need before selecting an edition for installation. You can find a quick features comparison of the Vista editions on the Microsoft site. If you do install the wrong edition, all is not lost. Through the Anytime Upgrade program, you can get a more feature-filled edition of Vista online. Find out more about that here.
#7: Data loss
Your data is the most precious thing on your computer. The operating system and applications can be reinstalled, but data is often unique and you might not ever be able to re-create it. Upgrading your operating system (as opposed to wiping the drive and doing a fresh installation) should leave your data intact, but what if something goes wrong?
It's best, as a matter of course, to store user data on a different partition from the one on which the operating system is installed. Storing it on a different physical hard disk is even better, and for the best protection of your data, store it on a server or other computer on the network. Wherever you store it, make sure it's backed up regularly — especially just before you perform an upgrade of the OS.
Loss of valuable data is one of the most frustrating, but also the most easily preventable, things that can go wrong when you upgrade the operating system.
#8: Performance problems
Your upgrade installation proceeded without problems, but when you reboot and start using the system, you discover that the new OS runs much more slowly than the old one did. What's up with that? Usually the problem comes down to one of the items discussed above: insufficient hardware, the wrong drivers, application incompatibility, etc.
One of the most frequent complaints about Vista is that it lags in performance when compared to Windows XP. Short of upgrading the hardware, there are ways to increase performance, such as using ReadyBoost, disabling certain services, using CPU priority settings, or even turning off Aero. See "Follow these tips to boost Vista performance" for additional details.
#9: Permissions/access problems
You've upgraded to a new operating system and now you're being denied access to some of your files. Here's a common scenario: You try to open a folder called Documents, but you get an "access denied" message. It may be that what you're clicking on isn't the Documents folder at all, but a "junction" or type of shortcut. Read more about that here.
This can also happen with real files and folders if your user account information has changed in the new version of Windows. Or you might be trying to access system files. You may be able to fix the problem by taking ownership of the object. You'll need to be logged on as an administrator to do that. For more on how this works, see "Easier Way to Take Ownership and Grant Access Files or Directories in Vista."
Another possibility is that the file or folder was encrypted with EFS in Windows XP Pro. If you've now installed Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium edition, EFS isn't fully supported. However, if you have the EFS certificate that was used to encrypt the file, you can decrypt it at the command prompt. For more information on how to do that, see "Troubleshoot "access denied" when opening files or folders."
#10: Interface problems/learning curve
Although learning a new interface is always part of the process of upgrading the operating system, you can certainly feel as though something has gone terribly wrong if you discover that you no longer know how to do simple tasks or you simply don't like the new ways of doing things. You can ease your transition to a new operating system such as Vista by configuring settings to make the interface look and behave more like the older and more familiar versions of Windows. You can change the desktop back to the classic theme, get back the old hourglass wait cursor, set the OS to use the classic Start menu, return Control Panel to the old, classic look, and so forth. For tips on how to make Vista look more like XP, see this video on CNET TV.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. These include Scene of the Cybercrime: Computer Forensics Handbook, published by Syngress, and Computer Networking Essentials, published by Cisco Press. She is co-author, with her husband, Dr. Thomas Shinder, of Troubleshooting Windows 2000 TCP/IP, the best-selling Configuring ISA Server 2000, and ISA Server and Beyond.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.