How to Upgrade to Windows 7

Whether you're moving from Vista or from XP, we'll help you get up and running on Windows 7 without headaches.

Upgrading your operating system is always fraught with problems and anxiety, and quite often with disaster. But by taking the right precautions, gathering the needed materials, and hoping for the best while preparing for the worst, you can upgrade your PC without losing functionality or gaining gray hairs. I'm here to tell you how.

Since you're reading this, I'll assume you've already made the decision to upgrade, have checked to make sure your hardware is compatible, and have purchased your upgrade. If you haven't yet checked your hardware, download and run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor (as a general rule, if you're running Vista, you probably already have Windows 7-capable hardware).

You have one other early decision make: Do you want to upgrade your current Windows installation, or go for a clean, fresh install? The upgrade is certainly easier--your applications, your settings, and your data travel with you, and there's little you have to do after the install itself is complete. After a clean or fresh or (Microsoft's word) custom install, you'll have to set up your users and network, reinstall your drivers and programs, and move your data back into place.

A custom install is cleaner than an upgrade. Windows accumulates garbage as you use it, and flushing it out every so often makes sense. So does starting a new version of the OS with a clean slate.

If you're currently using XP, the choice has been made for you. The custom install is your only option.

These instructions are for both kinds of installs. I'll let you know when instructions are only for one group or the other.

For more of PCW's Windows 7 coverage, read our in-depth Windows 7 review, and read how we tested Windows 7. And for ongoing information about Windows 7, sign up for PC World's Windows News and Tips newsletter.

Prepare Your PC

You've got a few chores to do before you insert that Windows 7 DVD.

First, consider the driver issue. If you're upgrading from Vista, chances are you'll have no driver problems. If you're currently on XP, you almost certainly will.

Make sure you can get Windows 7 or Vista drivers for your display, audio, and networking adapters. If you use a wireless keyboard or mouse, you'll need to check drivers for those, as well. If you're not sure what these are, check Device Manager: In XP, select Start, right-click My Computer, select properties, click the Hardware tab, and then the Device Manager button. In Vista, click Start, type device manager, and press Enter. You'll also want to check for your printers and scanners.

Once you know the devices, how do you find the drivers? Check the Windows 7 Compatibility Center At press time, that site was still "coming soon," but the Vista equivalent is a good substitute until it's ready, especially for XP-to-Win7 upgraders. You can also check your devices' manufacturer Web sites.

Speaking of hardware and visiting manufacturers' Web sites, now would be a good time to update your firmware, especially if you're not in the habit of doing this on a regular basis. Go to your system manufacturer's site for system firmware updates. See "Firmware and You: A Comprehensive Guide to Updating Your Hardware" for details.

No matter how good your precautions, operating system upgrades can go horribly wrong. Some important program or device won't work in the new environment. Windows 7 won't boot. Maybe you just don't like the new interface. Whatever the reason, you need a way to go back to where you were before.

An image backup of your hard drive offers an easy, dependable way to do just that, since it restores everything on the hard drive: Windows, applications, data, and even the Master Boot Record. To create one, you'll need an external hard drive, and an image backup program. I recommend the free version of Macrium Reflect for image backup, although others will do. Plug in the external hard drive before you create the image, and select that drive as the Backup destination. Also, be sure to create the bootable Rescue CD (this option is on Macrium Reflect's Other Tasks menu) before you start the upgrade.

An image backup of a really big hard drive can take hours. Run the backup overnight, with plans to do the upgrade the following morning.

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