FAQ: How to prep for an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade

With Windows 7's launch just a day away, it's time to start thinking about how to prepare your aging-but-still useful PC running Windows XP for that move you're dying to make.

Problem is, Microsoft's not offering an "in-place" upgrade from XP to Windows 7 , one that will leave everything in place and simply swap out the operating system. Unfortunately for XP fans, that's reserved for Windows Vista users only. And you avoided Vista like a bad case of H1N1, right?

It's not any comfort when you read lines like "upgrading from XP on the same hardware will be tricky."

That's why we're here to help lower your blood pressure with answers to your questions about how to get ready for tomorrow -- or later -- when you pull the trigger on Windows 7 and finally, finally leave XP fading in the rearview mirror.

How do I know if my XP machine can handle Windows 7? Run the "Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor," which went final just yesterday. Download and install the advisor from Microsoft's support site , then run it. (Warning: You have to have .NET Framework 2.0 or later to run this on XP.) The advisor will give you a bottom-line appraisal of your XP-based hardware: It will either green light the upgrade, tell you the machine won't make it as is, or spell out what you need to beef up.

The advisor will also mark those devices, both external hardware like printers and internal components such as the graphics chipset or card, that will require new Windows 7 drivers, and indicate whether those drivers are available.

What if I need more juice? In the time remaining, you may be hard pressed to futz with the hardware, but one thing you can do in a few minutes to make the machine more Windows 7 worthy is to add more RAM. Microsoft says the minimum memory is 1GB for the 32-bit version of Windows 7, but recommends 2GB for "optimal performance" on the 64-bit edition. Frankly, those numbers are just crazy. RAM is dirt cheap these days, and even if the new OS runs in just 1GB or 2GB, it'll run much better with 2GB or more. Punch it up to 4GB -- the maximum for 32-bit Windows 7 -- or beyond (for 64-bit) and you'll be livin' the dream.

Our favorite source of RAM is Crucial.com . It's the not the cheapest place on the Web to buy memory, but we've never been disappointed by the quality of the modules it sells. Plus, the online scanner is slick: Just run it from the PC you want to upgrade and it will sniff out how much RAM is already in the machine, how much it can take, and what modules apply.

How do I know whether my software and peripherals will run on Windows 7? Yesterday, Microsoft finally fired up its Windows 7 Compatibility Center , a searchable database that you can ping to see what software and hardware is up to Windows 7's standards.

The most conspicuous absentees on the software side include security programs: You'll probably have to upgrade to a new edition of your favorite (and pay the price). Microsoft has set up a page here that lists the security software compatible with Windows 7. Another option: The for-free Microsoft Security Essentials , which went live late last month .

Okay, my system is up to snuff. What next? Your first step should be to make a disk image of your XP machine as it exists now so that, heaven forbid, if you later decide Windows 7 isn't worth its disc and you want to return to XP, you can do so without a lot of hassle.

There are lots of free and for-a-fee backup programs for XP, some of which create a disk image, a bit-for-bit copy of the hard disk. Among the free choices are Macrium Reflect and DriveImageXML , which run on XP and let you create an image on a CD/DVD, external drive or flash drive.

Disk image done. What about my data? Good question.

Since the Windows XP-to-7 upgrade -- Microsoft calls it a "custom" install during the process, others dub it a "clean" install -- will delete all your data, you need to back up the files you want to access later. Windows 7 includes a migration utility called "Windows Easy Transfer" that backs up files you select. Frankly, most users will take that tack to shunt their stuff from old to new.

Microsoft has an old, but still valid set of instructions on how to use the utility on its support site. Print out the page for reference when you do the upgrade.

But if you do it yourself, sans Windows Easy Transfer, you'll have more control.

You can back up data using any number of backup programs to a variety of media, including CD, DVD, a flash drive or an external hard drive. A simpler method, though, is to simply copy the files from the XP machine; that means you'll need more space -- backup software typically compresses the data -- but on the plus side, you can just copy it back to the computer once Windows 7 has been installed.

Remember: Even if you use Windows Easy Transfer, you'll need a backup destination, like an external or flash drive, CD or DVD.

I don't have a CD or DVD drive to burn discs, and I don't have an external drive. Where do I back up my data? You're the perfect candidate for an online storage service.

Computerworld 's Lucas Mearian covered a number of consumer-grade online backup services last July, but two deserve special attention for this part of your Windows 7 prep: Mozy and Carbonite.

Mozy offers 2GB of storage space for free, and lets you buy an unlimited amount on a per-month basis for just $5 a month. Carbonite , meanwhile, gives prospective customers an unlimited amount of storage free for 15 days, plenty of time to back up your data from Windows XP, then restore it to Windows 7 once that's on your PC.

Both Mozy and Carbonite work with Windows 7 now, according to the two companies.

Another contender is Microsoft's free SkyDrive , which maxes out at 25GB of storage space. The caveat: SkyDrive limits individual uploaded files to 50MB or less.

What about e-mail? How do I prep that? Tough one.

If you're using Outlook Express -- the now-obsolete free e-mail client bundled with Windows XP -- you'll find a full set of instructions here on how to migrate the kit and caboodle to Windows 7 (you'll have to download Windows Live Mail separately, since Microsoft dumped, among other programs, an e-mail app from the new OS).

Similar directions for moving content of the more full-featured Outlook from one machine to another (as in an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade) can be found here .

For other e-mail clients, your best shot is to search using strings such as " e-mail client name migrate" and see what comes up. That search for Thunderbird, for example, revealed that all you need to do is copy the "C:\Documents & Settings\ username \Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles" folder found on the XP machine to your backup destination, then later copy that to the same location on the new PC after reinstalling Thunderbird.

I don't want to recreate my browser's bookmarks and site passwords, or all the other tweaks I've made to app? What do I do? If you're using Internet Explorer on XP, it's pretty straight-forward.

In IE8, for instance, click on "Favorites," then on "Add to Favorites Bar," and select "Import and Export." Chose "Export to a file," then click "Next." Select all three boxes -- "Favorites," "Feeds" and "Cookies" -- then "Next." Pick a folder to export-- the umbrella "Favorites" exports all three -- then save the file to the drive by clicking "Next" one last time. The files will be "bookmark.htm," "feeds.opml" and "cookies.txt." Finally, copy those files to your backup destination. After upgrading, reverse the process by importing those files to the new copy of IE on Windows 7.

Note: The steps will be slightly different for other editions of IE. (Your passwords are exported to the cookies.txt file, by the way.)

For Firefox, it's even easier: Copy the "C:\Documents and Settings\ username \Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles" folder to your backup destination -- CD, DVD or online service -- then later copy that to the same location on Windows 7 after reinstalling Firefox. That will move all your bookmarks, site cookies and passwords to the just-upgraded PC.

You're on your own for other browsers. Hit your favorite search engine with strings like " browser name migrate" and find a solution that works for you. We did a quick search for "Opera migrate," for example, and found these instructions .

Data safely secured. But what about the apps I'm running? You'll have to reinstall all the software you plan to run on Windows 7, so gather all the installation discs you can find, as well as the activation or registration keys necessary to activate and use the software.

If you're running applications you've downloaded from the Web, you'll need to make a list and dig up the activation/registration keys or codes. (You did save those, didn't you?) Most for-a-fee application developers send you an e-mail with the codes after you've purchased and downloaded their software. If you've been on top of things, you saved those e-mails.

If not..., root around each application for the screen that shows the code, and jot it down.

Some electronically-purchased software may reinstall on the refreshed PC only from the original downloads. If so -- it's more legwork, I know -- see if you can find them on the XP system. Add them to your data backup.

For free applications, the easiest way to get them on Windows 7 is to download them again from the upgraded machine. It's likely that there's a new version in any case, hopefully one compatible with the new OS. Add those apps to your list; later you can search using Google or Yahoo or Bing, then grab the app again.

Hint: Be smart, and compose your lists, including URLs, in an e-mail, then send it to a Web-based account. That way you can later pull up the e-mail and just click on the links. Saves typing time, and typo problems.

Do I have to reinstall every app I have on XP? Hardly. This is the perfect time, say experts, to cull the chaff. Those programs you rarely, if ever, use on XP don't have to make the move to Windows 7. Strike them off your to-do list.

This sounds like a lot of work. Isn't there an easier way? Yes, as long as you're ready to plunk down some cash.

One option is Laplink Software's PCmover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant, a utility that promises to move virtually everything from Windows XP to Windows 7 during an upgrade on the same PC. Laplink is running a half-price special on the software, which allows one migration, until Thursday. The $14.95 program , regularly $29.95, can be downloaded from the company's site.

That's still work. Can I get someone to do the migration for me? Sure. Call a few local computer shops and ask whether they're doing Windows 7 upgrades, moving data transfer.

Or you can touch base with a New York company called iYogi, which bills itself as the "fastest growing on-demand tech service" in the country. iYogi offers several services for XP users who want to move up to Windows 7, including a $29.99 "Windows 7 Professional Migration" and a $39.99 "Windows 7 Professional Migration." The former provides tools for retaining data and applications during the upgrade, while the latter promises that a Microsoft-certified technician will do it all for you via remote access.

More information is spelled out on iYogi's site ; the migration services won't be available until tomorrow.

This story, "FAQ: How to prep for an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade" was originally published by Computerworld.

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