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If You're Going to Upgrade to Windows 7, Be Sure PC Can Take It

If You're Going to Upgrade to Windows 7, Be Sure PC Can Take It

Edward C. Baig

October 16, 2009

You’re tempted by Windows 7, the superior operating system Microsoft delivers next week. But you’re not sure if your computer can run the latest software, or if you can avoid the palpitations that typically accompany the upgrade ordeal.

It depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re running Windows Vista, Microsoft’s current operating system, the move to Windows 7 should be relatively stress-free. If you’re traveling from the older XP, brace yourself for a more exasperating time.

Not all of you should upgrade an existing PC to Windows 7, even if you pine for a better computing experience. (Windows 7 is far friendlier than the Windows Vista operating system it replaces on Oct. 22 – my full review is coming shortly.) There are risks, however small, associated with surgery, and migrating from one computer operating system to another qualifies as a big-time operation.

If your computer is getting close to retirement anyway, take the plunge and buy a new PC if you can afford one. A new machine in which Windows 7 comes installed arrives with far fewer hassles, naturally. In this troubled economy, there are almost certainly deals to be had. Versions of Windows 7 even run on sub-$500 computers.

If you’re inclined to upgrade, the procedure doesn’t have to be painful. My own experience has been smoother than any Windows upgrade I’ve performed in the past. It costs $120 to upgrade to the Home Premium version of the software, sure to be the most popular. What you need to know:

*Does my computer have what it takes? Most PCs bought in the last few years should handle Windows 7 just fine. But keep in mind you’ll need at least 1 or 2 gigabytes of RAM and 16 to 20 GB of free disk space (more is better, of course). The sums depend on whether you have an older 32-bit type computer or newer 64-bit system. In simple terms, 64-bit machines can digest more data in any one chunk. By contrast, 32-bit systems can’t take advantage of more than 3 GB of memory no matter how much RAM is installed.

Meeting minimum storage requirements might be an even bigger obstacle on some systems, especially if you had a cramped drive to begin with.

*Upgrading from XP. There are way more Windows XP computers out there than there are Vista PCs. Upgrading from XP is far more tedious.

You must perform what Microsoft calls a “custom” or “clean” installation. Essentially, you’re starting from scratch. A clean install involves wiping out programs, files and settings on the machine’s drive, then restoring the whole enchilada (or at least the stuff you can’t live without) afterwards.

Before proceeding, you’ll want to copy files and settings onto an external drive or network. But your programs are another matter. Post surgery, you’ll have to dig out original installation disks (if you can find them), and reload all the programs, including any software patches or updates that came later.

You can copy the files and settings (but not programs) that you previously had backed up using Microsoft’s Easy Transfer wizard. Even Microsoft says some people might seek technical assistance.

Though I haven’t tested it, Laplink’s PCmover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant software promises to help you upgrade from any version of Windows (from 2000 on), without copying files to another drive. Your hardware must still be up to snuff. Laplink’s software costs $15 under a promotion that runs through Oct 22. Details are at

*Upgrading from Vista. The move from Vista is a breeze by comparison, though you still may see a few bumps. As before, insert an installation CD, but this time you can choose an option in which programs, files and settings are retained. (You can still select the custom option if you’re into housecleaning.) Upgrading in this fashion takes anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours, as was the case with me. When all is said and done, your data ought to be intact. They were in my tests.

*Will stuff work afterwards? Run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor software, free from Microsoft’s website. It tells you if there are known incompatibilities with third-party programs and hardware. The Advisor recommended that I get the latest video driver from Nvidia for one of my PCs.

On a second machine, the Advisor program suggested that I remove, then (after Windows 7 is onboard) reinstall the Trend Micro security software on my PC. Since I didn’t have an original disk, I called Trend Micro customer service. They told me that my existing software would not work with Windows 7, regardless of what the Advisor program said, and that I’d need a new version. Since I had months to go on my subscription, Trend Micro automatically upgraded me to the new program at no charge, and it’s all gone smoothly ever since.

It may be time for Vista to rest in peace. That doesn’t mean your computer has to call it a day.

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