How-To: Install Windows 7 and live to tell about it

So you're thinking about going to Windows 7, eh? Chances are your head is swimming in a sea of TLAs and confusing charts -- enough to have the most adamant Microsoft defender reaching for a something with an Option key. Fear not, noble purchaser of legal software. Though XP users have been punished for skipping Vista by not being able to directly upgrade now, the process of backing up your data, formatting and installing Windows, and then restoring your goods again has never been easier -- even if you're on a netbook with less storage than your smartphone. Vista users have even less to worry about. We'll have our full impressions of the finally finalized OS later this week, but for now let's journey hand in hand down the gently sloped path of the upgrade process.


From XP 32 to Windows 7 64 on a desktop

From XP 32 to Windows 7 32 on a netbook

From Vista 64 to Windows 7 64 on a laptop

Easy Transfer app

Hardware gotchas

Upgrading from XP Pro 32 to Windows 7 Ultimate 64 on a desktop

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There were conflicting reports ahead of the Windows 7 RTM release about whether XP users would or would not be able to upgrade without going through the whole backup / format / re-install / restore / cry over forgotten files process. When Microsoft finalized just who was in and who was out for the in-place upgrade party, it became very clear that anyone who took a bye on Vista had better get ready for some pain. Sure enough, our XP Pro 32-bit desktop didn't want anything to do with a Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit install disc, lacking even the dignity to display a friendly dialog box. So, it was time to make with the backups (detailed below), then boot that DVD.

The bootable Windows 7 installation disc presents a prettier interface than previous Windows versions, which will do little to make up for the ire you may feel at having to format if you weren't planning to, but it's still far better than the old DOS-based installers Microsoft was pawning off just a few versions ago. Once the install interface has loaded, clicking on "Custom Installation" allows you to quickly get a list of your partitions, and we found that all our RAID and SATA storage was recognized immediately. Wiping and creating partitions is quick, with no need to wait ages for painful system-level formats like the good 'ol days. However, we were somewhat annoyed at the mandatory 100MB hidden system partition that the installer creates -- not such a big deal here with a large drive at our disposal, but responsible for a bit more pain on the 8GB netbook coming up next.

It took 25 minutes from re-booting onto the installation DVD to get to the first Windows 7 login screen, and another three or four to get past the initial configuration to the first, honest-to-goodness Windows 7 desktop. That included deleting and creating partitions, the full install, configuring OS settings, and getting logged in. Not bad for 30 minutes work.

Overall, the process looks like this for a clean desktop install:

  • Backup data

  • Boot to Windows 7 installation disc

  • Select "Custom Installation" and re-create primary drive partition(s)

  • Patience (approximately 30 minutes)

  • Re-configure OS and restore backup

Upgrading from XP Pro 32 to Windows 7 Ultimate 32 on a netbook

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Our netbooks were up next, an 8GB 1000H Eee PC and a Seashell model with a good bit more storage. We'd figured the 1000H would be a challenge, as Microsoft recommends 16GB free and 8GB of disk space as a requirement, so, we were expecting to have a little netbook with a juicy SSD bursting with the latest flavor of Windows and absolutely nothing else. Thankfully things weren't quite that bad, but they weren't far off. Again, in-place upgrading wasn't possible here on either of these two, so it was time to back-up and make with the re-partitioning.

An external DVD drive makes the installation process simpler, but Microsoft has detailed exactly how to install Windows 7 from a USB thumb drive or some other form of external storage. The instructions there are simple enough, starting with the DiskPart utility to format your thumb drive (an 8GB model will have plenty of room), copying the Win 7 install files over, and then making a one-way trip to Repartitionville. After that it's just a matter of modifying your boot order in the BIOS, running from the thumb drive, and going through the process of deleting and creating partitions before the install itself. You can also run the installer with a mere double click from Windows (as we did on the Seashell), but you get a bit less flexibility with partitions during the install -- booting to the drive is better.

That mandatory 100MB partition was now a real annoyance, as we don't really feel the need to use BitLocker and, from what we can tell, that's all it's used for. After install we had only 1.2GB free on the 1000H; even after painstakingly deleting every optional Windows contrivance we could think of (including games, DVD maker, and Media Center) we were still only able to get that up to 1.3GB of room to breathe. Knowing that we could have gotten there without having to forsake Mahjong Titans for a seemingly useless partition left us a bit sore.

The partitioning and initial installation process up to the first logon prompt took 36 minutes for the 1000H, and a further 15 were required to get to the desktop the first time. The Seashell took about the same time, and rather worryingly both suffered from black-screen crashes during their initial bootups. Thankfully this never occurred again on the 1000H, but the Seashell suffered frequent crashes after the installation was done.

Factor in the time we spent poking through the Add / Remove Programs dialog for bits and pieces we could dispatch and you're looking at a solid hour total -- a little less if you have more storage at your disposal. Again, only 1.2GB of unclaimed bits were left on the 8GB SSD, and while that isn't much, we're guessing many netbookers are getting by with less -- and there's still that 30GB second SSD to fill with apps and junk.

What the process looks like for a clean netbook install:

  • Backup data

  • Prepare thumb drive or other external storage with DiskPart utility

  • Copy Windows 7 installation files

  • Boot to external storage

  • Select "Custom Installation" and re-create primary drive partition(s)

  • Patience (about an hour)

  • Re-configure OS and restore backup

Upgrading from Vista 64 to Windows 7 64 on a laptop (in-place upgrade)

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It wasn't all doom, gloom, and reformatting; we did manage one in-place upgrade, going from Vista 64 to Windows 7 64 on a Dell Studio XPS 13 laptop. The process was easy: just put the disc in, run setup, and go get a cup of coffee. But, when we'd gone back for our second and third cups, getting jittery while the install kept going and going, we'd started to wonder if perhaps doing a clean install would have been the better way to go. Our fears were later confirmed when we noticed that post-install performance improvements were negligible.

But, the installation itself was pain free, just taking ages to copy over documents and settings. Total install time was 55 minutes, which was a good bit longer than we'd have expected given the speed of the machine. But, beyond nagging performance disappointments, the upgrade was successful, with all documents, bookmarks and settings getting carried over (even an iTunes library). All the machine's hardware worked immediately except for the integrated card reader, which was up and running after a few restarts. Even Hybrid SLI worked (flawlessly, we might add) after we'd located the driver disc, despite Microsoft's claimed disinterest.

Here's the process for a Vista upgrade:

  • Backup data (always a good idea)

  • Insert Windows 7 disc and click "upgrade"

  • Patience (about an hour)

  • Double-check everything works

Easy Transfer app lives up to its name

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Since we didn't have much luck on the upgrade front and wound up re-formatting most of our machines prior to installation (which honestly is a good idea anyway), we tried out a variety of other ways to back up important data and app settings, including selectively restoring pieces of automated backups from a Windows Home Server box and the 'ol "Copy everything I think I need to a thumb drive and hope I didn't forget anything" technique. But, far and away the easiest was Microsoft's Easy Transfer application.

It's not a new tool, having been around since Vista, but we found it to be the most comprehensive way to move either from one machine to the next (if you're replacing an older PC with a new one), or to restore user accounts and permissions after a reformat. The tool is in the \support\migwiz directory on the Windows 7 DVD, and it has a simple wizard interface that lets you select which accounts to back-up and, for each account, what content to preserve. We chose to just back-up account and application settings, and then dumped the resulting archive to a thumb drive -- we even remembered to not use the one we formatted for the netbook install -- but you can push settings straight over the network to your new machine if you like.

Each account required about 70MB, excluding any actual user-generated documents, but it included everything from usernames and passwords to the custom toolbars you spent hours getting pixel-perfect in Office. It only took about five minutes to bundle all that stuff into a backup file, and even less time to restore it all after the install was complete. This app won't archive your applications themselves, so you'll still need to dust off that leaning tower of installation discs sitting in the corner of your desk, but once installed (and re-activated, where applicable) it'll be like you and they were never parted -- many apps will even remember your most recently accessed files, just like you left 'em. Naturally, this works best with Microsoft apps and internal Windows settings, but it did surprise us by grabbing our Firefox bookmarks and history. Still, we'd recommend backing up important app settings manually to be totally sure it's all there.

Hardware gotchas

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Overall the install process went well; even backing up and restoring data was straightforward, but naturally there would be a few incompatibilities. Windows 7 includes a fairly comprehensive device troubleshooter that will walk you through some steps to fix the issue, including running the driver installation process in Compatibility Mode, which allows specifying exactly which version of Windows your driver is supposed to work with. But, sometimes even that didn't work.

Visioneer's ancient 4400 USB, for example, just would not function regardless of how we tried. But, since it didn't work with Vista either, that wasn't a surprise. In this instance we have to blame the manufacturer for not supporting their hardware past XP. In fact, the only hardware we could find that we could never get to work were things that wouldn't work in Vista either, confirming that Win 7 is at least not a step backward in that regard.

The formerly 32-bit XP desktop has in it an older, PCI WinTV tuner and video capture card from Hauppauge that was dead post-install, but a quick trip to the company's website (once we looked up the right way to spell it) and a driver download had us back recording in time for the Mad Men season premier. Similarly, a PCI Creative Audigy2 ZS Platinum sound card did work fine after first boot into Windows 7, but the additional ports on the breakout-box it ships with did not. Updated drivers from Creative's site (far easier to spell) made everything right as rain.

For the Eee PC 1000H, everything worked out of the box except for Bluetooth and the shortcut keys. The machine was able to get on a wireless network and the touchpad worked, but multitouch was sadly missing, requiring custom drivers from Elan. Getting the shortcut and function buttons beneath the screen required additional downloads from Asus's (painfully slow) support website, as did getting other keyboard shortcuts, like Fn-F2 to enable/disable wireless connections to preserve battery life. Asus does not offer Windows 7 or even Vista drivers through its site, but the XP ones work just fine.

Sadly, the Seashell suffered from frequent crashes and we eventually had to do a System Restore to an earlier state -- after which it seemed fine. Like with the 1000H the function keys for audio, wireless and display settings weren't working after the install, and the trackpad was lacking any sort of advanced driver, but the Bluetooth and card reader were picked up and installed by the OS without effort.

Like we mentioned in the install, the card reader wasn't working out of the gate for the Studio XPS 13, but it was eventually solved by Windows Update and a few restarts. Most of the other drivers carried over fine, but we'd managed to uninstall the NVIDIA GeForce 9500 Hybrid SLI graphics drivers before we upgraded, and while Windows 7 seemed to detect something was amiss, it took inserting the driver disc to finally solve the problem. After that we still had to run the Windows Experience Index to get full Aero graphics out of the machine.

Install done, time for testing

Overall the install process for Windows 7 is relatively pain-free, but we really weren't expecting anything else. There are no major advancements here since Vista, and if anything the inability to do an in-place upgrade from XP is something of a step back. But, hardware compatibility is solid, the partitioning and installation process was quick and easy, and at the end we found ourselves with a suite of freshly reconfigured machines ready for testing. The results of that testing? Stay tuned for our full review later this week.

Oh, and be sure to let us know about your own experiences with the Windows 7 install. Here's a poll to get you started:

Further reading:

Windows 7 review
Windows 7 arrives on the scene three short years after Vista, shoring up its predecessor's inadequacies and perhaps offering a little bit more to chew on. We've been playing with the OS ever since the beta, along through the release candidate, and now at last have the final edition in our grubby paws.

Windows 7 Release Candidate 1 impressions, insights, and expectations
We had a chance to sit down with reps from Microsoft to discuss the new iteration of Windows (and the company's current frame of mind) more in-depth, and we've taken the new build for a bit of a spin around the block.

Windows 7 multitouch: it's a gimmick (for now)
We've spent some time with Windows 7 Beta's new touch and multitouch features this week, and came away largely disappointed. It's not that they don't work, at least on occasion, it's that they don't really provide a comprehensive or pleasurable method for using a computer.

Windows 7 Beta in-depth impressions
Naturally, we're working with a beta here, so things can absolutely get better (or worse), and Redmond might be hiding a feature or two in the wings -- or for the inevitable SP1 -- but we'd say Microsoft has really put its best foot forward here.