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.

Good morning. If you're doing a simple upgrade, you're done with prep work and can skip down to the "Run the Upgrade" section below. But if you're planning a clean (aka custom) install, you've got more preparation to do.

You need to gather up installable versions of all of the programs on your hard drive that you want to keep. If you bought a program as a physical package, you'll need the disc. If you downloaded the program, you'll have to either find the installation file or download the latest version (really your best option). I suggest you make a stack of physical programs, and put the downloaded files into a folder in My Documents.

You'll also need the license or product ID numbers that prove you purchased the program. If you bought the program as a physical package, this number is probably on the disc sleeve or somewhere else on the box. If you purchased and downloaded the program online, it's probably in an e-mail that you hopefully didn't delete.

What if you can't find the license? Open the program and select Help > About. There's a good chance your license or product ID will be displayed there. Jot it down and triple-check it for accuracy. Or contact the vendor and see if they have it.

A utility called Product Key Explorer 2.2.1 might also help, although in my experience it doesn't always. The free, demo version can't print or save what it finds, so you'll have to either write the numbers down by hand (be sure to double-check them) or pay the $30 registration fee.

Run the Upgrade

Are you ready? Now it's time to take a deep breath, bite your lip, and take that step forward into the next generation of Windows computing.

There are two ways to start the installation: You can boot from the Windows 7 Upgrade DVD, or you can insert the DVD while in your current version of Windows and start from there. If you're doing an upgrade installation, you'll have to start from inside Windows. For a clean install, either way is fine.

Exactly what pages the installation wizard displays, and in what order, will depend on how you started the installation, what's already on your PC, and what choices you make. But here are some of the major options you will see along the way:

  • Early on, you'll get the option to check for compatibility online or install. That first option just brings you to the Web page for the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. You should have run that by now. Click Install Now and get on with it.
  • After agreeing to the 5545-word End-User Licensing Agreement (no, I haven't read it either, but as someone who's paid by the word, I'm envious), you have to make the big decision: an Upgrade or a Custom (aka: clean) install. I've explained the reasons to pick one or the other above.
  • You might be asked to pick a partition. Unless you're planning on a multiboot system, pick the one with your current version of Windows.
  • If you're doing an upgrade install, you'll receive a compatibility report. It will warn you about certain issues (for instance, if you use Windows Mail, it will inform you that the program is no longer included). It may also tell you to cancel the upgrade and uninstall a particular, problematic program or driver. It's best to do what it says.
  • If you're doing a clean install, a warning box will tell you that you're about to lose your existing version of Windows. You're not; you've got that image backup. The warning will also reassure you that you won't lose your files. They'll be moved to a new folder called C:/Windows.old. Be glad they are.

When the Installing Windows box appears with its list of automated tasks (Copying Windows files, Expanding Windows files, and so on), get up, jog, read a book, or take a nap. It could easily be an hour--maybe more--before you're needed.

The wizard will eventually come back, this time running in Windows 7 on your hard drive. The new set of questions will be pretty self-explanatory, but a couple are worth noting:

  • You don't have to enter the Product Key when asked, although you will have to enter it eventually. If you click Next with the field blank, then click No, the install will continue. You can always enter the Key and activate Windows once it's running and you're sure you like it.
  • One page, titled "Help protect your computer and improve Windows automatically," offers options for how Windows will update itself. I recommend the middle option, "Install important updates only."

When the wizard is done, your PC will reboot (not for the first time in this install, but for the last), and bring you up in a full, interactive version of Windows 7.

Congratulations. You've installed Windows 7. If you did an upgrade install, you're almost done. But if you did a clean install, you still have a ways to go.

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