10 questions to consider when planning a Windows 7 upgrade

Whether you're anxious to upgrade to Windows 7 or you just want to know what to expect if and when you do, there are lots of factors to keep in mind. Deb Shinder addresses some of the biggest concerns, from hardware requirements to driver compatibility to upgrade paths.

Whether you're anxious to upgrade to Windows 7 or you just want to know what to expect if and when you do, there are lots of factors to keep in mind. Deb Shinder addresses some of the biggest concerns, from hardware requirements to driver compatibility to upgrade paths.

Windows 7 hasn't even been released yet, but the buzz around it indicates that many individuals are chompin' at the bit to upgrade as soon as it hits the market.

Despite this enthusiasm, however, much has been made of a recent survey by Dimensional Research. According to the survey, 84% of 1,100 IT professionals surveyed said they don't plan to upgrade to Windows 7 in the next year, 16% do intend to upgrade in the next 12 months, and 42% expect to upgrade within 12 to 24 months. In addition, 43% said the current economic downturn is one of the reasons they will delay upgrading to Windows 7. That would seem to indicate that improvement in the economy over the next year might change the upgrade numbers. It's also possible that this month's discontinuation of mainstream support for Windows XP, which most of the companies are currently using on the desktop, may influence some to upgrade more quickly than they might otherwise.

Sooner or later, it's likely that most home users and businesses will be upgrading from their current operating system to Windows 7. In this article, we'll address 10 issues to keep in mind when you begin planning an upgrade to Windows 7.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Do I need to buy new hardware?

Many people equate upgrading the operating system to the need to buy a new computer or, at the very least, add RAM and perhaps a bigger hard drive to their present systems. That's because traditionally, each new version of Windows has needed more disk space and memory than its predecessor.

Will you need to buy new hardware if you want to use Windows 7? That depends. Microsoft's recommended hardware specifications for Windows 7 Release Candidate include a 1 GHz processor, at least 1 GB of RAM, DirectX 9.0 support, 16 GB of free disk space, and 128 MB of graphics memory (for Aero). Those requirements are pretty much the same as the published system specs for Vista Home Premium/Business/Enterprise/Ultimate (the only difference is that the Vista specs list 15 GB of disk space). Many beta testers report that Windows 7 runs faster on their low-powered machines (512 MB of RAM) than does Vista.

Rule of thumb: If your computer is powerful enough to run Vista acceptably, it will probably run Windows 7 as well or better. If you're currently using XP on a computer with less than 512 MB of RAM or a processor that's slower than 800 MHz, you'll need to upgrade your hardware.

2: Can I upgrade directly from XP?

Many folks who are still running Windows XP want to know whether they can upgrade to Windows 7 without losing all their preferences and settings. The answer is, well, sort of. Microsoft is not providing a direct upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 7. An in-place upgrade is available only if you're running Vista SP1 or later. If you're running XP, even if your hardware is sufficient, you'll have to do a clean installation of Windows 7. However, you can use the Microsoft Deployment Tool 2010, which includes the User State Migration Tool, to transfer your user settings for the desktop and applications to the new Windows 7 installation. This article offers more details.

3: Can I do a Vista in-place upgrade?

If you're running Windows Vista, note that you must install SP1 or SP2 before you can do an in-place upgrade to Windows 7. If you attempt to upgrade a Vista computer that doesn't have a service pack installed, you will get a message informing you that "to upgrade to Windows 7, the computer needs to be running Vista with Service Pack 1."

4: Can I upgrade from Windows 7 beta to final release?

Many people are currently running either the public beta of Windows 7 (build 7000) that was released in January or one of the subsequent builds that has been leaked to various peer-to-peer sites since then. Many of them are wondering whether they'll be able to do an in-place upgrade to the RC and/or final release.

Microsoft has recommended that beta testers go back to Vista and upgrade from it to the final release, but that's something many will resist. Another option is to do a clean install, but again, many folks are using Windows 7 now on their mission-critical desktops and notebooks, and they don't want to have to start all over. In deference to them, Microsoft representatives have said that it will be possible to upgrade from the beta, but it won't be easy; it will involve a number of steps. The installer will tell you "no" when you attempt to do an upgrade from an earlier build of Windows 7. There's a procedure to bypass the version check so you can do the upgrade anyway.

Microsoft asks that you do this only if you "absolutely require" it. It's likely that you'll have a much more stable OS if you do a clean installation.

5: Will there be driver compatibility issues?

A big complaint about Windows Vista was driver incompatibility. Too many people upgraded their OS from XP to Vista only to find that a favorite peripheral, such as a printer or scanner, would no longer work. Vista also introduced a new display driver model, WDDM, which required video card vendors to write completely different display and video miniport drivers. And security enhancements in Vista affected how the OS handles drivers. Even though Vista was in development for five years, many hardware vendors did not have Vista drivers ready for all of their products when the OS was released.

Now that Vista has been out for more than two years, most hardware vendors have updated their drivers to work with it. Because Windows 7 uses the same driver models as Vista, the vast majority of hardware devices that work with Vista will work with Windows 7. For Vista drivers that won't install on Windows 7, you can usually solve the problem by installing in Compatibility Mode. To do this, right-click the driver's setup file, select Properties, click the Compatibility tab, enable compatibility mode, and select the appropriate operating system from the drop-down box.

6: Will there be application compatibility issues?

As with drivers, most applications that run on Windows Vista will run on Windows 7. You may need to enable Compatibility Mode on some applications, as described above. Interestingly, some applications that ran on XP and would not run on Vista will run on Windows 7. Microsoft reported in March that it had identified at least 30 old applications that will run on Windows 7 although they failed to do so on Vista. These are being referred to as "rescued applications."

7: What if I have apps that won't run on Windows 7, even in Compatibility Mode?

There may be some XP applications that you can't get to run on Windows 7, even using Compatibility Mode. In the past, that might have been considered a reason not to upgrade. However, you may still be able to enjoy all the benefits of Windows 7 without giving up your favorite apps, thanks to a new compatibility feature called XP Mode. XPM is a host-based virtualization solution that will reportedly be made available at no cost to users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions.

XPM includes a fully licensed copy of XP that runs in a virtual machine on your Windows 7 computer. This differs from just installing XP on Virtual PC or VMware. The virtualized applications appear like local applications on the Windows 7 desktop because they're published to the Win 7 host operating system. With XPM, you will be able to run any XP application on Windows 7. For more information about XPM, see Paul Thurrott's blog post on the issue.

8: Should I wait for Windows 7 release to buy a new computer?

Some individual computer users may be wondering if they should wait until Windows 7 is released to buy a new computer, to ensure that the system will work with the new OS. An advantage of waiting is that after Windows 7 is released, you'll be able to buy a computer that has it preinstalled, so you won't need to upgrade.

However, if you need a new system now, there is no need to suffer with an outdated, slow, or defective system. A Vista system purchased now will in all likelihood run Windows 7 with no problems. But even though you don't need to wait until the final release, you might want to wait until June 1 to make your purchase. Buying a Vista system after that date will make you eligible for a free Windows 7 upgrade license. (This applies to Vista Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate editions.)

9: Which edition of Windows 7 should I choose?

A big complaint about Vista is that there are too many editions to choose from. Windows XP offered only two retail editions: Professional and Home. (XP Media Center edition and Tablet PC edition were available only to OEMs.) But Vista offers a large and sometimes confusing array of options: Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. (Starter is available only in "emerging markets," and Enterprise is available only to volume licensing customers.)

Windows 7 will also have both Home Basic and Home Premium editions. The equivalent of Vista Business edition will revert to the Professional moniker. As far as we can tell, Enterprise and Ultimate editions will be the same, except that the former is sold only through volume licensing. There will also be a Starter edition, which will be installed on low-powered netbooks.

A major change is that each successive Windows 7 edition will include all features of the lower cost ones. Many Vista Business and Enterprise users were annoyed that they didn't get Windows Media Center, DVD Maker, and other consumer-oriented features that came in Vista Home Premium. Since Home Premium couldn't join a domain and lacked support for EFS and some other business-oriented features, if you wanted both, you had to buy Ultimate. Windows 7 Pro will include everything that's in Windows 7 Home Premium, and Enterprise will include everything that's in Business edition. Companies will be able to easily block the consumer features when they deploy Pro (or Enterprise) on their networks.

Most people will find that either Home Premium or Pro will fit their needs. If you need BitLocker or the ability to boot from a VHD, you'll want Enterprise or Ultimate.

10: What are the main reasons to upgrade to Windows 7?

Why upgrade to Windows 7 rather than stay with Windows XP or Vista?  If you're still running XP, an important consideration is the fact that Microsoft ended mainstream support for XP on April 14. Although critical security updates will still be provided at no cost until 2014, additional support is provided only to customers who pay for a support contract with Microsoft.

Windows 7 also provides the improved graphical user interface (Aero) you get with Vista. Search is improved, and consumers with children will appreciate the parental controls feature. The most important reason to upgrade from XP is security; both Vista and Windows 7 provide much better security.

If you're using Vista, some of the new features and functionality you'll get with Windows 7 include a more streamlined GUI with a more functional taskbar that features Jump Lists; new and more sophisticated versions of Paint, Wordpad, and Calculator; easier windows management with snap-to docking; elimination of the sidebar (while maintaining support for gadgets); and new built-in troubleshooting tools. While Windows 7 still focuses on security, User Account Control (UAC) is far less in your face and more user-configurable than in Vista. Windows 7 also has built-in support for touch (if you have a touchscreen monitor). Keyboard fans will find a number of new keyboard shortcuts to help you avoid use of the mouse in many situations.

For administrators, Windows 7 offers new tools such as PowerShell v2, improved Group Policy, and VHD image management and deployment.

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By Deb Shinder

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 add...