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Are you ready for Windows 7? It doesn’t take much to qualify. Pudgy old Vista’s slender successor requires nothing more from your PC than a gigabyte of RAM, a processor running at 1GHz, 16 gigabytes of hard drive space and a video card with support for DirectX 9 and WDDM 1.0. If those figures don’t mean much to you, here’s a real-world translation: Windows 7 will run on most of those skimpy netbooks and it will run on any halfway decent machine currently running Windows XP. No need for brand new, expensive hardware.

Admittedly, to take advantage of all of Windows 7’s bells and whistles you’ll need a PC with a little more oomph—for example, high-resolution video playback requires more from your graphics card and another gigabyte of RAM—but we’re not talking heavyweight hardware.

Upgrading from XP

The major hurdle in making the move to Windows 7 if you’re currently using Windows XP has nothing to do with hardware. Microsoft decided not to provide a direct upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 7. So although you’ll be able to buy the cheaper upgrade copy of Windows 7—instead of the expensive “full” version available to those with pre-XP copies of Windows—you will not be able to do an in-place upgrade of your operating system. Instead, you’ll have to perform a “custom” install.

Custom vs. In-place
Performing an in-place upgrade of your system is certainly a less arduous process, because it preserves your data and applications. However, it’s almost always a better option to perform a custom install. Doing a custom installation takes less time, eliminates any problems or inefficiencies lurking in your existing Windows setup, and ensures you get the maximum performance benefits offered by Windows 7.

A custom installation bundles up your existing operating system, applications and data and tosses the lot into a folder called windows.old. The old version of Windows is rendered unusable, as are your applications, although your data is still available if you go digging around for it within the windows.old\users folder. You can, theoretically, copy your data from windows.old into your newly created Documents folders, but you’d have to be a cockeyed optimist to rely on doing this. It’s a much safer bet to create a full data backup and restore your data from that once you’ve finished the operating system installation.

Upgrading from Vista

If, on the other hand, you’re using Vista with Service Pack 1 or Service Pack 2, you’ll not only be able to buy the less expensive upgrade copy of Windows 7, you’ll also be able to perform your choice of a custom installation or an in-place upgrade. An in-place upgrade preserves your data, your applications and your settings. The in-place upgrade takes a lot less time, but it does have its drawbacks.

De-authorize your computer
One thing that’s easy to forget when installing a new operating system is to de-authorize your software. Some programs, including Adobe’s applications, iTunes store accounts and others, limit your use of the application to a particular computer by requiring that you authorize that computer online. Before you do a custom installation of Windows 7, make sure you first de-authorize your computer for each of these apps, then re-authorize once you’ve made the upgrade.

Pre-installation checklist

The most important part of any Windows installation is what you do before you run the setup program. Before installing Windows 7:

  1. Check that it will run on your computer by running the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor.

Use the Upgrade Advisor’s report as a guide to which drivers you may need. If there is no Windows 7 driver for a particular component, visit the hardware manufacturer’s website and grab the Vista driver. It may work. But if there is no Windows 7 driver available for a crucial piece of hardware, don’t upgrade. Instead, contact the hardware manufacturer to see whether a Windows 7 driver is in the works; you don’t want to upgrade to the new operating system only to find a critical component of your computer system no longer works.

  1. Back up everything, even if you are intending to do an in-place upgrade of your system. Things can go wrong during an operating system upgrade, so you’re courting disaster to proceed without a recent backup. “Everything” means not just documents and photos and music, but also email, contacts and program data tucked away in places like the Program Files folders and the various ‘appdata’ folders. In Vista, type %appdata% in the Start search box and press Enter to locate this folder; in XP, click Start -> Run, type %appdata% and click Open to locate it.

Backing up to a USB external hard drive is by far the easiest option and the cost of these drives has plummeted in the past year, making it very affordable.

  1. If you have two hard drives in your computer and you haven’t yet done so, move (My) Documents, Pictures and Music to that second drive before installing Windows 7. To do so, right-click the (My) Documents folder and select Properties, then click Move and select a new location on your second drive. With your data on a second drive, you can do an in-place installation of Windows 7 – provided you’re running Vista – without having to reinstall the data. Even if you plan to do an in-place upgrade, back up anyway, of course.
  2. If you have drive imaging software, create a backup image in addition to your file backup. Then, if disaster strikes during the operating system installation, you can use the image to revert to your pre-7 system.
  3. Consider running Windows Easy Transfer. It can copy program settings as well as data from one computer to another. It works best with Microsoft applications, such as Office, but it will also transfer your Firefox bookmarks and certain other items. It won’t move fonts or drivers, nor does it copy your applications across—you’ll need to reinstall apps from their original installation discs—but it will save you having to rebuild time-consuming customizations such as Office toolbars. Windows Easy Transfer also provides you with a list of applications installed on your system, which is handy to know before you make the switch.

Windows Easy Transfer is built into Vista and you can download a copy for either your 32-bit or 64-bit XP system.

  1. Create a list of the applications you have installed on your computer. This makes it much easier to re-install all of them once you’ve finished the operating system upgrade. One of the best ways to create such a list is to use the free Belarc Advisor, which will not only generate a list of installed programs, it will also provide a list of serial numbers (see the next step).
  2. Gather together serial numbers and installation discs for all the applications you’ll need to reinstall.

What’s a driver?

A computer system consists of a number of components all working together. There’s the system unit itself, which houses the processor, random access memory, drives, on-board video, USB ports, and other central components. Then there are add-ons and external hardware, including the display, a printer, modem, perhaps an add-on video card, a scanner and so on. Your computer needs to be able to work harmoniously with all those add-on devices (often referred to as ‘peripherals’). To do so, the maker of a peripheral provides a piece of software called a driver. The driver tells Windows how to interact with the add-on component. Hardware manufacturers have to provide drivers for each version of Windows, with different drivers required for 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Sometimes a generic driver will do the job for components from different manufacturers, and sometimes, too, a driver written for Vista will work with Windows 7. In most cases, you’ll want to use drivers written specifically for whichever version of Windows 7 you’re using—32-bit or 64-bit.

Performing a custom install

A custom install is the only type of installation possible if you’re running Windows XP (or an earlier version of Windows), and it’s the type of installation I recommend for most users.

To perform a custom install:

  1. With your computer off, insert the Windows 7 DVD in the drive and then start your computer. When prompted, press any key to boot from the DVD. The Windows 7 setup program will load.
  2. Click the Install Now button.
  3. On the next screens, choose your language settings and accept the Windows license, then click Next.
  4. Click the Custom (advanced) option.
  5. The next screen lets you choose where to install Windows. By default, this will be your existing Windows drive. Unless you want to create a multi-boot system, simply click Next.
  6. Settle back and let the installation proceed without requiring any intervention on your part. It should take somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour.
  7. At the end of the installation, your system will boot into Windows 7 to perform some final updates, then reboot once more. After this second boot, you’ll be prompted to provide a username and password, a name for your computer, and your product key. You’ll also be asked to choose Windows Update settings—I recommend you choose to “Install important updates only” at this point—and regional settings. If you’re on a network, you’ll be asked to choose the type of network it is: home, work or public. If you choose the Home option, you’ll be able to take advantage of one of 7’s sparkling new features, homegroups.

Creating a multi-boot system

To boot Windows 7 alongside another operating system, do a Custom (advanced) install and, when prompted to choose the disk or partition where Windows 7 should be installed, select an available partition—its contents will be erased—or click Drive options (advanced) and create a new partition for Windows 7.

An in-place upgrade

If you’re upgrading from Vista and you’d like to preserve your data, your applications and your settings, do an in-place upgrade. I still recommend you back up your data first.

  1. Instead of booting from the Windows 7 DVD, start Windows normally and then insert the Windows 7 DVD in the drive.
  2. The Setup program should start automatically. If it doesn’t, locate setup.exe on the DVD disc and run it.
  3. Click “Go online to get the latest updates for installation”.
  4. Accept the Windows license and click Next.
  5. On the installation options screen, click the Upgrade option, then follow the prompts to complete the installation.

A truly “clean” install

Although a custom install entirely replaces your old operating system and it’s often referred to as a “clean” install, it leaves the old system files and data lurking on the system in the windows.old folder. This can be handy if you failed to backup all your data—you may unearth the file you need in the windows.old folder. But those old files take up a lot of room. If you’re trying to install Windows 7 on a system with limited drive space or if you’d like to maximize your available hard disk space, do a truly clean installation of Windows 7. To do so:

  1. Run setup by booting your computer from the DVD.
  2. Use the Custom (Advanced) option.
  3. When prompted for the install location, click Drive options (advanced) and use the Format option to wipe the destination drive or partition clean.

Post installation tasks

When you’ve completed the installation, it’s quite possible you’ll find one or two of your devices do not work properly. Windows 7 is remarkably adept at figuring out what’s ailing your hardware, so before you despair, try rebooting your system a couple of times. This is often all that’s needed to get Windows to notice the problem and locate a fix for it. If not, visit your hardware manufacturer’s site and search for new drivers.

Once your system is running smoothly, reinstall your applications and copy your data from the backup. If you used Windows Easy Transfer to copy files and settings, run it once more on the Windows 7 system to copy everything across.

Windows 7’s new Action Center will prompt you to install anti-virus software and, if you’ve enabled Windows Update, you should have updates ready to install almost immediately. Install them and you’re new system will be ready to roll.

Setting up a new computer

You should only need to install Windows 7 yourself if you are upgrading an existing computer running an older version of Windows. If you buy a new computer, Windows 7 should come pre-installed and all you should need to do is run some final setup tasks to configure the system to run smoothly in your home or work.

Setting up your homegroup

Windows 7’s homegroups make file and printer sharing a snap. During setup, if you indicate your computer is in a home network, you’ll have the option to join a homegroup.

If you already have another Windows 7 computer on your network, you’ll be prompted to set sharing options for your homegroup.

To locate your homegroup password, select HomeGroup from the Control Panel on a homegroup computer and click “View or print the homegroup password”.

Once you have the password, plug it into the settings on your new Windows 7 computer.