When Windows 7 drops this Thursday, you can either spend many, many hours watching a progress bar, or you can boot into a clean, speedy system with that new-OS smell. Let's get your system set up for a proper Windows 7 upgrade.
If you're jumping into Windows 7 for the first time this Thursday, or soon after, you won't find yourself facing an entirely new-looking, strange-acting Windows. Most of Windows 7's features are refinements, tweaks, and speed-ups from Vista. Your Lifehacker editors have been using 7 ever since the Windows 7 Beta dropped in January, and we've found a few things worth noting and, in some cases, crowing about, like these 10 things to look forward to in Windows 7, or Windows 7's underhyped features.
With many users planning to upgrade early, we thought it might be worth a little guidance for getting to ready to do just that.
Before You Upgrade, Part 1: What You Can Upgrade To
Are you running Windows XP? You can upgrade, but you'll have to do a whole-cloth "custom" installation, which will either wipe out your current system or, if you're planning on dual-booting, require some hard drive partitioning.
Running Windows Vista? You can do an in-place upgrade from a Vista edition (Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate) to an equivalent or lower-scale edition of Windows 7 (Starter, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate), assuming you're not moving up from 32-bit to 64-bit. Yeah, it's that simple. Ed Bott at ZDNet took a woefully confusing upgrade chart Microsoft prepared and made an easier-to-grasp, plain-English upgrade chart that's definitely worth checking out.
Before you buy an upgrade disc, though, you'll want to ensure your system meets the minimum specs for 7. Here they are in table form, stylishly cribbed from Wikipedia's Windows 7 page:
Need to double-check one of your system's stats against what Microsoft calls the bare minimum? They offer a free Upgrade Advisor download for Windows systems that will tell you whether your hardware and peripherals can live in the Windows 7 world.
Finally, if you're planning on upgrading from the Release Candidate you've been testing out and running happily since what seems like forever, know that it takes a bit more than just popping in a disc. Microsoft doesn't really want you to pay only an "upgrade" price to move up from a free system, but it can be done. Our own How-To Geek posted a detailed walkthrough of a Windows 7 RC to RTM upgrade at his home away from Lifehacker. Basically, you'll need to edit a single file on the Windows 7 installation disc, which requires a disc-to-hard-drive copy and a free extraction tool. If that's not your cup of tea, or you'd rather fulfil your licensing obligations, you've got until March 2010 before the Release Candidate starts nagging and auto-rebooting on you.
Before You Upgrade, Part 2: Back Up Your Data
Even if things go swimmingly with your upgrade, you'll want to have a fall-back copy of your music, pictures, documents, application data, and other important files. If you're doing a "custom installation" from Windows XP or any system without a Windows licence, it's an absolute must. Our readers voted up tools like Cobian Backup, SyncBack, and Acronis True Image in our Hive Five for Windows backup tools, but also suggested online, auto-monitoring tools like Mozy Home and Carbonite—which aren't free for more than token amounts of data, and probably can't get you backed up in time if you must jump into 7 this Thursday.
Upgrade Option 1: In-Place Upgrade from Vista
This one is the easiest option, since all your data files stay in place, your just-as-you-like-them computer settings stay in place, and you don't need to touch anything with the word "partition" involved.
The downside? Depending on how "clean" a user you are—in terms of removing unnecessary applications and keeping your media library trim and in one place—and the speed of your hardware, an upgrade to Windows 7 can take a seriously long time. Chris Hernandez charts his extensive testing and finds that a "super user" on mid-range hardware could wait more than 6 hours for a 32-bit upgrade to finish. That's a worst-case scenario, but if you feel like you've got a lot of applications and data that might hold things up, there is a way to get tidy in a jiff.
First off, install Revo Uninstaller and kill off any applications, helpers, monitoring programs, and anything else that you're not really using in Vista. (Won't it feel nice to have a cleaner system when you start up Windows 7?) Next, read our step-by-step guide to separating your data from Windows on a stand-alone partition. You'll benefit from doing this with any version of Windows, and especially if you're planning to dual-boot any time soon.
Separating your music, pictures, movies, Office documents, and other non-application files from the stuff Windows needs to run means that Windows 7 only looks at your core C: drive for an upgrade. From a peace of mind perspective, that also means that if things don't go well with your upgrade and you decide to run a clean install, you're in a better position to do so. Best of all, Windows 7's "Libraries" features makes it easy to access music, pictures, documents, and videos anywhere on your system, right from the Start menu.
Upgrade Option 2: Upgrading from XP or a Clean Hard Drive
Windows XP users can still get the Upgrade price discount, but there's no actual "upgrade"—you're doing a whole new install of Windows 7 on a blank hard drive, or at least a blank partition. If there's space enough on your drive, do as we suggest above and create a new partition for just your data, but you'll also want to back up your application data, in this case.
Microsoft has posted an official XP-to-Windows-7 migration video guide, and offers a User State Migration Tool that claims to capture desktop and system settings, user accounts, and the files you want and brings them over to your new Windows 7 system. The How-To Geek's partner in blogging, mysticgeek, also details how to use Windows 7's Easy Transfer tool with a USB drive to migrate files and settings. Obvious, but fair, warning: Be sure to run these transfer utilities in XP first, back up their file loads, and then run them in Windows 7, unless you're planning on dual-booting (detailed just a bit down this page).
Concerned about your favourite programs' compatibility in Windows 7? We've run down how to set up and use Virtual XP Mode in Windows 7. An official, final and free download of XP Mode should arrive this week for Windows 7, possibly at this page.
Upgrade Option 3: Dual-Boot Windows XP or Vista with 7
Technically, you could use our guide to dual-booting Windows 7 with XP or Vista to set up a crazy schizo-system with all three Windows versions available, but we're assuming that unless you're a developer, you probably want to at least move on from Vista, given 7's compatibility with, and improvements over, the much-maligned OS.
If you set up dual-booting, you can still use the User State Migration Tool or Windows 7's Easy Transfer tool to save time setting up your accounts over again in Windows 7—you just don't have to worry about putting the horse before the cart this way.
"Upgrade" Option 4: Boot Camp on a Mac
There's nothing too new about installing Windows 7 on a Mac with Boot Camp that hasn't already been done already with XP and Vista. Stroll over to our Boot Camp how-to guide to read up on how to set up a Windows system right next to OS X, with extra pointers on getting devices like Mac keyboards working properly in Windows.
Upgrade Option 5: Load Windows 7 on a Netbook
It's entirely possible to load Windows 7 onto netbooks that shipped with XP, Linux or some other system—it's just not quite easy. If you're up for a little ISO imaging, USB installing, and file compression, our sibling blog Gizmodo can walk you through installing Windows 7 on almost any netbook. You'll need a minimum of 1GB of RAM and 8GB of hard drive space on your netbook, along with a 4GB thumb drive and a valid copy of Windows 7.
If you've already gone through an upgrade to Windows 7, be it beta, release candidate, or (*cough*) retail, tell us what made the move easier for you, or what lessons you learned the hard way, in the comments.