Whether you’re preparing to upgrade an older Windows operating system to Windows XP or studying for Microsoft’s Windows XP exam (number 70-270), you need to take a few careful precautions when planning an XP upgrade. Mistakes made while upgrading can result in data loss and a late night. No one wants that.

Preparation is paramount
Although the Windows upgrade process has improved, you should never attempt an upgrade until you’ve performed several steps. For best results, follow this quick checklist to prepare for a Windows XP upgrade:

  • Verify that the OS can be updated to Windows XP.
  • Ensure hardware compatibility.
  • Check software application compatibility.
  • Delete unused, unneeded, and incompatible applications.
  • Defragment the partition where Windows XP will be installed.
  • Close all applications.
  • Back up all data.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Verify that the OS can be updated to XP
You can’t upgrade Windows 95 (or heaven forbid, Windows 3.11) to Windows XP Professional Edition, nor does Windows XP support upgrading from a Windows NT Workstation 3.51 system.

Windows XP Pro upgrade installations can be performed only on the following platforms:

  • Windows 98 and Windows 98 SE
  • Windows Millennium Edition (Me)
  • Windows NT Workstation 4.0
  • Windows 2000 Professional
  • Windows XP Home Edition

If, by some strange token, you find Windows XP Home Edition creeping into your enterprise, remember that it can update only Windows 98, Windows 98 SE, and Windows Me. Windows XP Home Edition can’t be used to perform an upgrade installation on Windows NT Workstation 4.0 or Windows 2000 Professional.

Ensure hardware compatibility
Don’t try upgrading a system to Windows XP before you’ve verified the client machine possesses sufficient system resources. The minimum system requirements for Windows XP Professional are:

  • 233-MHz Intel or AMD-compatible processor.
  • 64-MB RAM.
  • 1.5 GB of free disk space.
  • Super VGA (800×600) video adapter and monitor.
  • Microsoft-compatible keyboard and pointing device.

You also need to ensure that the system’s components are supported. Do so by typing D:\winnt32.exe /checkupgradeonly, replacing the D with the appropriate letter for the CD-ROM drive holding the Windows XP CD-ROM. The /checkupgradeonly switch triggers Windows XP’s Setup program, which creates a report listing compatibility issues that will exist when XP is installed.

For the most up-to-date information, check Microsoft’s Hardware Compatibility List.

Check software application compatibility
Just as hardware compatibility must be checked, so too should software programs be reviewed for proper use with Windows XP. The Winnt32.exe /checkupgradeonly switch, in addition to checking hardware compatibility, also logs software application warnings.

You can find more information on application compatibility on Microsoft’s Web site. For the exam, remember that the/checkupgradeonlyswitch works only with Winnt32.exe (not Winnt.exe) and that it provides compatibility information not just on hardware but for installed software applications too.

Delete unused, unneeded, and incompatible applications
Upgrading a system has one major drawback: Legacy files and programs can be left behind. Having a variety of old programs and files scattered throughout the registry and on the hard disk can considerably slow Windows XP’s performance.

Fortunately, you can help limit the impact of old programs and files even if you can’t remove all traces from your system completely. Delete files you no longer need and uninstall applications that are no longer used. It’s also particularly important to remove applications that are incompatible with Windows XP. Carefully read the report that the Winnt32.exe /checkupgradeonly command creates. The Setup program will list any applications that must be removed before an upgrade begins.

Defragment the partition where Windows XP will be installed
A good rule of thumb is to always defragment the partition that will be receiving an upgrade. It is especially important to defragment if you’ve just removed files and applications in preparation for an upgrade. You run the risk of extending the time an upgrade takes and adversely affecting Windows XP’s performance if you don’t.

Close all applications
Remembering to close all open applications is an easy step to forget, especially if the Taskbar is set to auto hide. Make a note to close or exit out of any open applications. Antivirus programs are particularly problematic. When troubleshooting an upgrade that won’t continue, remember to verify that any antivirus software has been disabled.

Back up all data
Back up all your e-mail messages, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and other files you need to keep. Then, verify the backup backed up the files properly. Only then should you proceed to the next step—but the next step isn’t beginning the upgrade.

Update the system’s boot disk or emergency repair disk (ERD). Should the upgrade go astray, the odds of recovering your old system are greater if you have a recent boot disk or ERD.

There’s still one more (hopefully) quick step before you begin an upgrade: Locate the original installation CDs for the software programs you use. If an upgrade fails, and applications are corrupted as a result, you’ll return your system to operation more quickly if everything you need is handy.

Once the files are backed up, the backup is verified, the boot disk or ERD is updated, and original installation CDs are found, it’s time to begin the upgrade.

Performing the upgrade
You can upgrade an eligible platform to Windows XP using one of two methods. One way is to simply insert the Windows XP CD-ROM and let AutoRun trigger the Setup Wizard. If AutoRun is disabled, click the Setup.exe file in the i386 directory on the Windows XP CD. The other method is to use the Winnt32.exe command.

Several switches are available for use with the Winnt32.exe command, and you should familiarize yourself with them, especially if you’re preparing for the Windows XP exam. They are as follows:

  • /checkupgradeonly—Instructs Setup to check only for Windows XP compatibility
  • /cmd:command—Executes the supplied command before Setup ends
  • /cmdcons—Adds Recovery Console option, which can be used to help rescue a corrupted system, to the operating system selection screen
  • /copydir:i386\foldername—Creates a permanent new folder in the systemroot
  • /copysource:foldername—Creates a temporary folder in the systemroot
  • /debug level:filename—Creates a debug at the level specified with the provided filename
  • /dudisable—Prevents Dynamic Update from running, meaning that only original distribution files will be used to complete Setup
  • /duprepare:pathname—Specifies the location as given in the pathname of the Dynamic Update files (previously downloaded from the Windows Update Web site) that should be used by Setup
  • /dushare:pathname—Instructs the system to use Dynamic Update and specifies where Setup will find the files that the Winnt32.exe /duprepare command has been applied to
  • /m:foldername—Instructs Setup to look for Setup files in an alternate location before using the default Setup file location
  • /makelocalsource—Specifies that all installation files first be copied locally before Setup proceeds
  • /noreboot—Instructs Setup not to reboot the system after Setup’s first stage completes
  • /s:sourcepath—Specifies source location of Windows XP installation files
  • /syspart:driveletter—Copies Setup’s startup files to the specified partition and marks the disk active, enabling the drive to be moved to another system before Setup continues (requires /tempdrive switch)
  • /tempdrive:driveletter—Specifies where Setup should place temporary files
  • /unattend—Specifies that an unattended installation be used in which Setup takes all settings from the previous installation
  • /unattend number:answerfile—Specifies an unattended installation and answer file to be used
  • /udf:identifier,filename—Specifies the identifier Setup uses to determine how a Uniqueness Database File (UDF) modifies or overrides an answer file

Eckel’s take
I don’t recommend upgrade installations. I believe, as many IT professionals do, that entirely too many registry entries, stray drivers, and other files are left behind that do nothing but slow down the new OS.

That said, fdisking a machine, installing the OS from scratch, and restoring applications, files, and e-mail configurations isn’t always possible. Plus, you’re likely to be tested upon a few of the nuances of the Windows XP upgrade process on the 70-270 exam. Thus, it’s important to understand how best to prepare for an upgrade and how to make the most of upgrade installations.