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I upgraded my wife's computer and want to share the exact process I used, and the results.

My wife's computer has been in need of a "reformat and reinstall" for some time. It just had some flaky behavior that couldn't really be attributed to anything specific, other than software rot.

After having and using Windows 7 on two new machines in the last couple of months, I'd come to the conclusion that it was a fine, fine replacement for Windows XP in our situation. The only open question was "would it work on her older machine?".

There were a couple of minor hiccups, but the short answer is: yes.

Let me describe the machine, my process, and what we have running today.

Before I begin, I do want to say that this is the exact same process I would use regardless of the state of the machine. I mentioned that this machine was in need of a reformat and reinstall, but even if it weren't these are the steps I would take. I'd also take these same steps regardless of whether the machine had been running Windows XP or Windows Vista or some other operating system.

An operating system installation is, in my opinion, best done by reformatting and reinstalling, from scratch.

So that's what I did.

The machine is a 4 year old Dell Latitude D610 laptop running Windows XP with Service Pack 3. It runs at 1.7 Ghz, and has 2 gigabytes of memory; the maximum it'll support. It has a 56 gigabyte hard drive.

"An operating system installation is, in my opinion, best done by reformatting and reinstalling, from scratch."

All in all this is certainly not a "current" machine by today's standards, but one that should run Windows 7 just fine.

Step 1: Back Up

Anyone that follows what I write at all could have guessed that the first step I took was to back up the entire machine. I actually did it two ways, one for safety and one for convenience:

  • I took a full system image using Acronis TrueImage. That's the safety net for the worst case scenario - if something were to go disastrously wrong, I could simply restore the machine to the state captured in that image. I'm also keeping that image as a long term archive, in case I ever need to retrieve anything I might have missed in the future.

  • I also copied (as in a literal file copy) the entire hard disk to some spare space on my machine. This misses certain system files that are in use at the time of the copy, but that's OK since that's not the point. It copies everything so that in a later step I can easily copy back those files that will be needed; an obvious example being all of my wife's email.

The irony is that the backing up - particularly since I stupidly did the second step over WiFi instead of to an external hard drive - took the longest by far compared to any step that follows.

Step 2: Install Windows 7

Quite literally, the next step was simply to insert the installation media for Windows 7 and reboot.

Now, you'll note that I seem to be doing the install without the pre-requisite reformat. That's because it's actually part of the installation process.

After the setup disk boots, and I waded through the introductory screens and license terms, I was given a choice between "Upgrade" or "Custom". The key here is to choose Custom:

Windows 7 Setup Type

Here's where the format comes in. On the resulting screen, I clicked on Drive options (advanced):

Windows 7 Setup Drive Options

Click on the partition you want to install on - make sure to click on the correct partition if you have more than one drive - and then click on the Format link. You'll get the nasty warning that "If you format this partition any data stored on it will be lost."

You've backed up? You have all your data that you want to save, saved somewhere?

I did, so I clicked OK.

Then I clicked Next and setup began copying files.

A while later after finishing the rest of the setup steps, I had a working Windows 7 machine. In this case I accepted the default security settings, and let it download recent updates.

Step 3: Install Applications

The next step boiled down to a very routine installation of the applications my wife uses most:

  • Firefox: While IE is available on the machine, my wife occasionally used Firefox, so I installed it and made it the primary browser.

  • Office 2003: for some reason I get asked often if Office 2003 will work on Windows 7. Absolutely it will, and my wife has the setup to prove it. She's an Outlook user. I'll talk about restoring her data below.

  • Trillian: the multi-service instant messaging program. In this case rather than installing the same version she'd had before I downloaded the latest.

That represented about 90% of what we needed, right from the beginning. Over the next week I'd uncover an application or two that I'd missed (a PDF reader, for example, or a Flash player), but this got the most needed applications onto the machine immediately.

Step 4: Restore Data

So far everything I've done has been to simply install software from the original installation media. I'd saved the media, and the product keys where appropriate, and downloaded new versions as needed.

There remained the problem of restoring important data like email, documents and configuration settings like default home pages and IM accounts.

The later two were easily handled by simply re-entering the account information into Trillian and setting the home page in Firefox.

As I mention in step 1, in addition to an image backup, I'd also copied off all of the files on the machine to a temporary holding location.

So I copied the important ones back.

It sounds simple because it is. Things like the documents in "My Documents", for example, just got copied from the saved location back to the equivalent location in the newly installed machine. I also took this opportunity to copy in a number of tools I use on all my machines.

Finally there was Outlook.

I started Outlook once, and did not allow it to configure any email accounts, and exited it. This caused Outlook to set up a profile and a default PST data storage file. I then effectively replaced the newly created empty PST with the (rather large) one from the saved location. Doing so restored all my wife's email, contacts and whatever else is kept in the PST back into the new Outlook installation.

The one thing not kept in the PST is the account configuration, so I then created an account and entered that information manually, pressed Send/Receive and the email that had accumulated while I was working on the machine was delivered.

Step 5: Deal with issues.

The machine had no sound, and the wireless network refused to work.

I was concerned when I went to the Dell website for the latest drivers for both only to find that there were no Windows 7 drivers for this machine. The machine's old enough that its support has long since come to an end.

A little research showed that the Windows Vista drivers were available for the audio card, so I downloaded and installed those. They worked.

The wireless card required that I head out to the card's manufacturer's web site (Intel). Sure enough, there were Windows Vista drivers available, and again after downloading and installing, the wireless network was once again available.

To date those are the only two issues we've seen - everything else worked flawless on install. Even these two I consider minor, since working drivers were relatively easy to locate for this older machine. (The network drivers, once installed, also appeared to update in a subsequent Window Update.)

At this point my wife had a working machine, successfully upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7.

Step 6: Deal with anything I missed.

As thorough as I like to think I am, I knew I would miss things. That's one reason I backed up as I did. As I mentioned above it was a couple of days later that my wife attempted to view a PDF document and found she had no reader. The first time she attempted to view a web video there was no flash player. A document here, an application there - over the next few days we added - and continue to add - those items that she find she needs.

The Bottom Line

It worked.

Actually it worked well, and went smoother than I had anticipated for a machine of this age.

My wife's been using the machine without incident, and doesn't seem too phased by the differences in UI when you make the leap from XP to 7. She even elected to take the laptop along when we left on a short trip the day after it had been reinstalled.

I firmly believe that one of the reasons that it worked as well as it did is that it was not an "upgrade", but a reformat and reinstall. Yes, a couple of minor issues - sound and wireless - surfaced, but they were easily dealt with.

By far the most important part of any upgrade is Step 1: Back Up. Whether you choose the "upgrade" route, or the "reformat and reinstall" route, having a complete backup of your machine to restore to in case the worst happens is a critical safety net that too many people over look.

Fortunately, I didn't need it, but I'm sure glad I had it in case I did.

Article C3947 - December 11, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Linn Barringer
December 15, 2009 8:51 AM

I'm on the brink of changing my computer from Windows Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Home Premium. No great reason except that although I really like Vista vs XP (honest!), my wife's new laptop has Win7, I just bought an Office 2007 3-user pack and want to get the two machines as close together as reasonable, and both "modern" (even with Office 2010 around the corner). My question is: do you have any feedback from other people who've made the WinVista -> Win7 and, ignoring your advice (why would we DO that???) preferred to do an Upgrade rather than Format and Install - good news or bad news welcomed, before the final decision day.

G Paul Whorton
December 15, 2009 9:00 AM

I find your articles very informative. I also installed 7 after considerable difficulty and help from a great Microsoft techie. Apparently a wireless mouse created a hardware problem during installation that caused the install to lockup at a certain point(found out long into the process). I had backup of my files, but for some reason I cannot access the info on my external hard drive. Says I have used 450 GB of space but when I click on directories only shows approximately 45 GB present in directories when all are added together. No directory exists that indicates the Backup from the prior day. Even using the hidden files (show) the backup simply does not seem to exist. Unfortunately the windows.old000 file in C Drive created during the install does not indicate the info either. Help on finding missing files would be appreciated if you can. Tip for future installers. If you are installing to a laptop with wireless mouse, unplug and use keyboard on the laptop.

December 15, 2009 9:15 AM

I have a program from Serif called PCmover which is a Windows 7 upgrade assistant which I intend to use upgrading from WinXP SP3 to Win7. have you come across it before and do you have any comments on its use. Many thanks

Not yet. I'd love to hear how it (or the competing PC-Mover software from LapLink) work for people.

Peter Dr
December 15, 2009 9:31 AM

This is certainly encouraging, particularly that it worked so well on an older computer. I also have a Dell -- Dimension 4550, running XP home, Sp3. I have run the "is this machine capable of running Win 7" program (I have forgotten the exact name), and it reported that the video card would not support the graphics required (it is nVidia). Apparently it would not have supported the Vista Aero (?) graphics. Am I right in assuming that if I want to make the jump to Wiin7 with that particular computer, I would have to install a new Video Card?

I did not run the upgrade advisor, and I probably should have. My wife's computer scores lowest on the video ability after the installation, so I suspect it's similarly limited. My believe is that Win 7 will install just fine, but either video performance will be poor, OR aero effects will not be available (or both).

Petr Janecek
December 15, 2009 9:38 AM

Microsoft provides two very helpful free tools for migration from old XP machines. Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor will check your hardware and drivers and recommend what you should get before the install. Windows Easy Trasfer backs up the data and application settings and reads them back during the install. The only scary moment during my install came when the system decided to reboot at least five times and every time I had to enter the serial number and a few other data from scratch, leading me to start believing it might be an infinite loop... but it was not.

Petr Janecek
December 15, 2009 9:46 AM

You won't miss much if you are not able to use the Aero graphics features - so far I have actually not found it to be useful for anything. You can install Windows 7 without upgrading the graphics card.

Mark , Grater Washington D.C. area
December 15, 2009 10:43 AM

I can comment on the Vista to Win& upgrade. After a full backup and disk image I decided to just try the upgrade mode rather than the clean install on my year hold HP with Vista. It went off without a hitch. Not a single issue thus far. All my data was where it should be, all my programs worked.

What went in my favor was that the machine was built for vista and that I was running fairly new software. I had no legacy issues to deal with. If your machine and software can handle Vista, Win7 should be no problem.

December 15, 2009 12:09 PM

That Dell Latitude D610 is what I am using for Windows 7. Try to do your touchpad software and you will have more problems, or not. It will give you some grief.
Now here's what I don't like about Windows 7, read below:

Windows 7 will remove icons from your desktop and systray. I have seen this happen just by trying to rename an icon.
Will not hold settings like Restoring Last Internet session
Can't drag & drop items to the task bar. U have to Pin them.
Can't go back to orginal Start Menu.
Can't set a default Mail program
W7 will take an icon on your screen and change it to a dead icon
W7 will change your non-Aero View to Aero view.
During Windows update I chose 2 updates and unchecked 2 others and Windows Update downloaded the ones that I had unchecked.
Cannot pull up another browser from the IE Icon from the taskbar.
Event Viewer - not showing a big screen for events that has happened like Checking the hard drive for errors. You have to scroll.
Cannnot rename icons that you have pinned to your Start menu unless you go to the icon's properties and go to the General tab.

December 15, 2009 4:34 PM

Is there some reason that your wife didn't do this upgrade herself? It seems to me that she would be more similar to a lot more of your readers. That is, she probably isn't a computer geek, but knows how to oprerate the machine.

Heh. Actually a good observation. I guess she's somewhat spoiled in that I do all the computer maintenance here. While she'd be quite capable I'm sure, it's not something she's ever had to deal with or think about. The other reason is simply that I wanted to do it so as to be able to document the process here.

Charles Tilley
December 15, 2009 9:21 PM

Although I have a new HP MS214 all in one with Windows 7 Home Premium, I also have a Dell Latitude D610. I may consider installing Pro on that one. Also, I have a C640 and I've seen one of those on eBay with Windows 7 for sale. My D610 specs are similar to yours, except my hard drive is 100GB (93GB usable). Why does Microsoft says you can't run Windows 7 on these legacy machines?

To reduce complaints and bad user experiences.

Seriously, I'm sure you can run Windows 7 on less than the minimum required hardware - but it may have issues. Perhaps the aero effects won't work, and if that was important to you then you've just had a bad experience. Perhaps it'll be slower than you need, and you've just had a bad user experience. Or maybe it'll be enough for you, but you'll officially be on your own.

Ravi Agrawal
December 15, 2009 9:49 PM

Regarding installation of programs, there is a nifty little trick I use to make a list of all that was there on the machine that I was going to format.

Generally, all programs are installed in subfolders under the C:\"Program Files" folder. Simply go to the Windows Command Prompt. Enter the following-

dir c:\"Program Files" >c:\prglist.txt

That's it. You copy this text document to your backup & you have a list of all programs that were previously installed on the Old PC before the format. Tada.

Refer to it after installing the OS and you are back to where you wanted. Almost there!

Ofcourse don't forget Windows Outlook backups & browser favorites.


Brian Walters
December 16, 2009 2:52 AM

Regarding Ravi's suggestion on making a list of the 'Directories' from the Program Files Folder.
the command should be:
dir c:\"Program Files" > c:\prglist.txt
Note the gaps between the >
Nice to be reminded what DOS can still do!

The way I would upgrade
December 16, 2009 6:54 PM

I would do it this way:
a> wait until 2012
b> get current late 2011 to mid 2012 hardware
c> install w7 in late 2012

Charles Tilley
December 27, 2009 2:52 PM

I finally did as Leo did, upgrade my Dell Latitude D610 from XP Pro to Windows 7 Pro. It was a piece of cake compared to a XP install (or reinstall). Since I had nothing of importance on it, and I had a driver disc for the laptop (they can be found on eBay for most makes & models for little as $5), I didn't backup. I took my XP disc and formatted the disk, then removed it and began my Windows 7 install. From the time I started loading the program, fully updating and finally downloading my favorite apps, all of an hour was consumed. How's that for speed? The only thing I needed from my driver disc was the multimedia audio controller driver. And that was it. Sure, I didn't have the Aero effects, but I didn't expect it, and I have all of that on my new HP all in one MS214. The laptop is 4 years old, and I'm happy that it will run Windows 7. My performance index is 1.0 because of the Aero deal, but the other numbers weren't bad. Windows 7 really perked my laptop up a lot. Now, you read that I didn't backup, and if there's nothing you don't need or want AND you have a driver disc (not a XP install or reinstall disc), you can pull it off. Just make sure you have the driver disc for your model. One other thing, you won't be able to run XP mode through Microsoft's Virtual PC, because your hardware wont support it. Next on my list is installing Win 7 Home Premium on my Dell Latitude C640. That will be interesting, running Win 7 on a 7 year old laptop.

Tim Hohs
December 12, 2010 12:17 AM

I just upgraded from xp to win 7 tonight on a Dell Dimension 4600. I had the same 2 problems with the wireless internet and the adi198x integrated sound card. The wireless I fixed in no time but none of the drivers I am downloading will get my sound card back. Which Vista driver did you use? (I tried r78477.exe) And should I uninstall or disable the old driver first? I keep getting a message that the old driver is up to date.

Dave Markley
February 24, 2012 10:09 AM

Being in the PC repair business, I am often installing Windows (or re-installing I should say) on an endless variety of computers. Sometimes due to a failed hard drive, but usually because of virus'. Installing Windows 7, regardless of the particular computer, is always fast and usually simple to get the proper drivers. I've found on almost ANY version of Windows, the WiFi drivers don't install, except with Windows Update or from the manufacturer's site. Sound drivers are an issue with Windows 7, but I've found (as Leo did) Vista drivers usually work. I've even had XP drivers work on occasion.
As far as the 'Vista Aero' effects, you can get an inexpensive ($25-40) video card to solve that problem on desktop PC's.
Every single time I've replaced XP or Vista with Windows 7, the PC ran faster and smoother than the original OS. Regardless of the physical components. I believe Microsoft did a wonderful job creating Windows 7!
I do recommend that anyone considering upgrading an older computer to Windows 7 run Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor Tool first so you know what hardware & driver issues to expect.

March 17, 2012 7:14 AM

I have to ask... Why would you not want to reinstall XP on the machine? Has Windows 7 improved your computing experience?

Last fall, the drive on my 5 year old XP machine at work started to act up. Rather than just put in a new hard drive and reinstall XP, the IT staff bought me a new machine with Windows 7 Pro. Then I had to spend TWO WEEKS trying to get my CAD and engineering software, email, and hardware working. When I was finally able to use the machine, I realized very quickly that it cut my productivity enormously. Half of the programs I use at work, refused to work under Windows 7 Or compatibility mode. We had to install a virtual machine with Windows 2K just to recover use of some of these programs. I also had HUGE problems getting my late model hardware (UPS, scanner, printer), USB hub, CAD dongle, etc.). Mostly due to driver compatibility issues. It took 6 MONTHS work with APC to get a working UPS link.) My new machine, with much faster hardware and 4 times the RAM is MUCH SLOWER than the old machine. Only 50% of the NEW Windows 7 applicatons I attempt to install EVER work. The file search of Windows 7 doesn't offer a third the options of XP, and it is very slow. (Hard drive is only twice as big.) I don't like the new Windows Explorer. I can't position and size the columns (filename, path, description, etc.) like I could in XP. Windows don't remember their open size, or where I placed them. I don't like how the event viewer, control panels, adminstrative tools, etc. present their information. It is not intuitive.

I can't think of ONE SINGLE THING that Windows 7 does, that improves my productivity, internet experience or enjoyment over XP. It's been a much WORSE experience. Isn't the purpose of having a new PC and new OS, a better experience and more productivity?

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