Tech Lab

Some may find Microsoft upgrade a chore

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 22, 2009

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Ready to upgrade your old computer to Windows 7, Microsoft Corp.’s new operating system? I wasn’t, and I do this sort of thing for a living.

Windows 7 went on sale today. The upgrade edition costs $119 for the Home Premium version to $219 for the Ultimate edition. Like many tech journalists, I’ve had a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate for several months. I’ve used it with great success on late-model laptops, including a low-powered netbook computer from the Taiwanese company Acer. Believe the hype; Windows 7 is a smooth-running, good-looking product. It ought to undo much of the damage to Microsoft’s reputation wrought by its ill-fated ancestor, Vista.

Installing Windows 7 on a newish machine running Vista is just about painless. Slip in the DVD and follow a few simple prompts. The installation doesn’t meddle with the programs and files that are already onboard.

But nearly three years after it was released, only 20 to 25 percent of the world’s personal computer users are running Vista. Meanwhile, ancient Windows XP, released in 2001, is still found on about two-thirds of all personal computers. That means that right now, a lot of people are trying to decide whether to upgrade, and how. Going from XP to 7 is a bit of a chore, because Microsoft wants you to completely eliminate your old Windows installation. That also means reinstalling all the programs you use every day, from word processors to World of Warcraft. None of the necessary steps is especially difficult; indeed, Microsoft provides very good tools to ease the pain. But if you’re running XP, you’ve probably got a machine that’s several years old. That means some of your hardware components may not be up to scratch. Also, some of your old programs may not play nicely with a new operating system.

I upgraded two machines - one desktop and one laptop, each several years old. The basic process, while time-consuming, wasn’t all that complicated.

First, see if your machine can run Windows 7 at all. At, you can find the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, a free downloadable program that checks out your computer for possible compatibility problems.

The adviser told me that the desktop needed another gigabyte of memory to run the 64-bit version of Windows 7, which offers more efficient memory usage. I’d have been all right with the 32-bit edition, but decided to go for it. That cost me $65 at the local Best Buy. The laptop was good to go, but its relatively crude graphics processor meant that it wouldn’t display all of the pretty visual effects of the standard Windows 7 desktop. No big deal.

Next comes file backup, to ensure your vital documents survive the switch. The desktop was connected to the online file backup service Carbonite, so I was all set there. Once Windows 7 was running, I just told Carbonite to download and restore all my files. It took several days, but there’s no hurry. For the laptop, I dragged and dropped vital files onto a 64-gigabyte thumb drive.

Microsoft’s Windows Easy Upgrade software, available online or on the Windows 7 DVD, will automate the backup process. Just plug in an external hard drive or thumb drive, or move the files to a different computer on your home network. And in a bit of belt-and-suspenders thinking, Windows 7 doesn’t delete your old version of Windows outright. Instead, it’s stored in a folder on your hard drive marked, “Windows.old.’’ Curiously, the Windows.old folder on my laptop held all my documents, while on my desktop machine it only contained my old Windows XP settings. So play it safe; back up all your vital records onto an external storage device before installing 7.

Here’s one more vital tip: Before installing Windows 7, make sure that the software and hardware you depend upon will work with it. Go to for a listing of compatible products. That’s what I should have done.

Globe reporters are issued special security software that logs us onto the company network when we’re on the road. Without it, we can’t file stories or check company e-mail. Sure enough, this critical piece of software refused to work on my Windows 7 machines. The manufacturer said they’re working on a compatible version. Luckily, I’ve got a third machine that’s running XP, or you might not be reading this.

Windows 7 is good stuff, but XP still gets it done for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Even Vista isn’t too bad once you’re used to it. So why switch? Just to tell your friends what it’s like? No need; that’s my job.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at