Windows 7 upgrade: What you can, can't, and should do

by James E. Gaskin - Today's tip comes from William Stanek, author of Windows 7: The Definitive Guide, published by O'Reilly. The book will ship the same day as Windows 7 -- October 22.

First, a quick list of available in-place upgrade options: you can go directly to Windows 7 from Vista SP1 or SP2, but not from non-upgraded Vista or an older OS like XP or Windows 2000. In addition, you can't cross architectures (32bit to 64bit or vice versa) or native language versions (Vista in English to Windows 7 in German). That said, Stanek believes that upgrading carries forward a lot of baggage, while a new install clear out many programs and drivers you forgot you had.

Second, you can't upgrade any Vista home versions to Windows 7 business versions. This may be a concern for companies buying laptops that often ship with a Vista Home Basic or Home Premium version. Those units will have to be wiped and a clean Windows 7 install performed to move up to a Business, Professional, or Ultimate license.

Sites with multiple language support across their PCs using add-on language packs can upgrade between languages with a little extra work. You must uninstall the language pack, upgrade to Windows 7, then reinstall the language pack.

Stanek recommends those interested in Windows 7 to strongly consider moving up to 64bit architecture. Desktop PCs sold for the last three years or so, and laptops 18 months old or younger, should support Windows 7 64bit edition. Unlike with Vista, all the drivers needed, both 32bit and 64bit, are included. The USMT (User State Migration Tool) version 4 will pull 32bit settings and apply them to the 64bit installed operating system.

Another advantage of USMT version 4 is the use of hard-link remapping for user data files. In the past, techs had to migrate data before the upgrade. Now, Windows 7 with USMT tracks the user's data during the upgrade and pulls the settings and files from the Windows.old file. As long as the data files are in the expected places (My Documents, etc.), and the active hard disk partitions remain in place, the data will be available in the expected places after the upgrade. USMT is free and can be downloaded from download.microsoft.com as part of the WAIK (Windows Automated Installation Kit).

Smaller companies without the resources to automatically apply USMT via remote client management tools should check out Windows Easy Transfer. The utility copies settings and data to external storage such as a network or USB hard drive. After the upgrade, most of the settings and all the data should be applied correctly. Have patience, however, and verify your backup before starting the process.

Windows 7 XP mode works quite well, but is available only on business, not home, editions. You can add XP applications to the primary start menu. When started, those applications automatically kick off the Hyper-V based XP mode process. Users never have to worry about starting or stopping XP mode.

This features does, however, require a Hyper-V capable CPU and a BIOS tweak to activate Hyper-V on startup. Most newer CPUs, including models from both Intel and AMD, include Hyper-V support. Make sure you ask the vendor specifically, because not all new processors will support XP mode.

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