XP to Windows 7 migration: 6 tools to help you make the move

Whether you're upgrading dozens or thousands of XP PCs to Windows 7, these tools will make it easy (well, easier).

If you skipped the big upgrade to Vista you can now consider yourself fortunate that a number of vendors have stepped up to help you migrate your desktops from XP to Windows 7. Microsoft doesn't make it easy to make the move from XP without some pain and suffering, but does have one tool that can automate the process, along with at least five other vendors.

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[ See also: Free Windows 7 training videos (and more) and How to Upgrade From XP to Windows 7 ]

The tools include Laplink's PC Mover and Zinstall, both of which are designed for single PC approaches. And besides Microsoft's Windows Automation Installation Kit, there are Dell's Kace Kbox 2100, Viewfinity User Migration and Prowess' SmartDeploy, all of which can be used to move dozens or thousands of XP PCs over to Windows 7 and still keep some of the user data and application configuration of the older desktops. Prices range from $50 per desktop to enterprise-class appliances for five figures that can handle thousands of PCs. The chart below summarizes the different products and their basic approaches.

Windows 7 Migration Tools Summary

Tool, Link Price Approach Keep existing XP apps?
Laplink PC Mover $20 - $60 per PC (1) In-place single PC Mostly
Zinstall $89 per PC (1) Single PC, XP runs inside a VM Yes
Microsoft WAIK Free Automated WIM deployment (2)
Kace Kbox 2100 System Deployment $4500 for 100 PCs, additional $13/PC Automated deployment appliance (2)
Viewfinity User Migration Free while in beta Automated deployment No
Prowess SmartDeploy $2000 per enterprise Automated conversion of VMDK to WIM Yes


(1) Quantity discounts available

(2) Depending on how the master image is constructed

If you buy a copy of Windows 7, you can do an in-place upgrade -- meaning preserving your apps and user settings -- from Vista but not from XP. Each of these tools gets around this limitation in a different way, and some work better than others. Let's look at the single PC tools first.

Zinstall is more elegant, preserving your entire XP desktop inside a virtual machine that runs underneath Windows 7, and you have access at the touch of a button. PC Mover makes the in-place migration permanent to Windows 7, so you no longer have access to your original XP environment once you are finished. PC Mover is more reliable -- in our tests we had trouble getting a stable machine with Zinstall, where our disk wouldn't boot up after we were finished. That didn't inspire confidence, no matter how elegant the original idea behind the product.

The pain threshold is at ten desktops: fewer and you are probably better off using the single PC tools. This is because the four mass migration products require some learning curve and experimentation, particularly if you have a diverse hardware base of PCs that you want to upgrade. And who doesn't have a diverse hardware base these days?

There are also two tools to help you assess whether your PC inventory will be more or less ready to migrate to Windows 7, including a free Systems Management utility from Viewfinity (which can be very useful) and Microsoft's own Upgrade Advisor (which isn't).

The four automated deployment tools all work with broad similarities. Basically, you aren't really keeping XP around, just the hardware it is running on and some copy of the original data. The trick is preserving enough of its user footprint to make it feel like home. The entire machine is reimaged with Windows 7 -- just without you having to sit in front of it while the bits are put on the machine from a standard install DVD. The four tools all start out with a fresh copy of Windows 7 as a master image. Next, they stir in the particular applications that you want to deploy across your enterprise. This gives you the opportunity to clean house and create a more managed environment, which may not be what your end users want to hear. Each tool has ways to deal with the variety of hardware configurations that you place the image onto.

Two of the tools (WAIK and SmartDeploy) make use of a new Microsoft standard called Windows Imaging File Format or WIM. This was introduced in Vista and can be used to include the various files, drivers, and other digital data that make up a new OS install.

How do the four differ? Here is a quick summary, and obviously you are going to want to spend some time with the one that is most appealing to your situation:

  • The Kbox is an actual rack-mounted appliance that is used to create the master image and boot the desktops remotely, setup the new Windows 7 environment, and customize each desktop for each user. It can contain a centralized repository of these desktop images, and as the only hardware solution it has some appeal, particularly if you are going to be doing Windows 7 deployments for several months.
  • Think of SmartDeploy as the reverse of VMware's Converter program - it takes a virtual disk and turns it into a physical one. It creates a VMDK virtual disk file and then converts it to a bootable Windows 7 desktop. Another nice thing is that it has a "per technician" license, which is great for VARs and others that are going to be doing lots of these migrations.
  • Viewfinity relies on Active Directory to do its migration along with .Net Framework. It also doesn't migrate apps, just their settings such as Web bookmarks and Office style sheets. It is free while in beta.
  • Speaking of which, if free is important to you, then your only other choice is to use Microsoft's WAIK. If you have used any of the Microsoft automated deployment tools with past Windows migration, then this is a good place to start. However, it isn't a single piece of software and comprises a series of different tools with arcane interfaces and copious documentation to study before you can learn how to use it. The others are easier to use, but then you have to spend the bucks, too.

Which of the four makes the most sense will depend on several circumstances:

  • How much hardware variation in your desktops do you have to cover? Each tool handles this differently, and can be easy or difficult to deploy depending on what your inventory includes.
  • Do you need to keep your existing applications on each desktop? Then consider either SmartDeploy or the Kbox, both of which can be setup to preserve apps and user settings and data. The best solution is Zinstall, which maintains a virtual XP machine image that you can come back to and add and remove programs as if it were a physical desktop. But you can't count on it to work and it is a single PC at-a-time solution.
  • Do you have any experience with VMware? If so, then start with SmartDeploy, which has a very nice way to build Windows 7 virtual machines.

These six aren't the only products that can migrate desktops to Windows 7 - indeed, deployment tools such as Symantec's Altiris, Novell's Zenworks, or Landesk will also do the job and if you already have them around and know how to use them, then start there. But the tools covered here were designed for this express purpose, and are worth a closer look. Depending on your circumstances and how much time you want to invest in learning how to use them, these tools can save you a lot of time and effort in the process.

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