Windows 7 Upgrade Guide: All Your Questions Answered


The amount of information pouring out of Redmond these days about Windows 7 is unprecedented, and so is the level of enthusiasm. In a frantic attempt to make sense of it all, Maximum PC has been releasing our ongoing Feature Focus series , which hopefully, has helped you determine wither upgrading to Windows 7 is worth it for you. Once you made that decision however, or buy a new PC that’s upgrade eligible, do you know exactly what you’re getting? Can I upgrade from Windows XP? Do I need to buy the same product edition when upgrading? Can I go from 32 bit to 64 bit? These are just a few of the many questions we seek to answer after the jump.

Check out our Windows 7 Buyers Guide here!

The Basics

Release Date : October 22nd 2009

Qualifying OS’s For Upgrade : Windows 2000, XP, Vista

Qualifying OS For In-Place Upgrade : Vista

Upgrade Editions : Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate

System Requirements :

•    1GHz or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
•    1GB RAM (32-bit) / 2GB RAM (64-bit)
•    16GB available disk space (32-bit) / 20GB (64-bit)
•    DirectX 9 graphics processor with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver

Can I Buy the Windows 7 Upgrade Edition For Use With Windows XP or 2000?

Yes, but there’s a catch. Only Windows Vista users will be able to do an in-place upgrade. This means that Windows XP or 2000 users will be forced to do a clean install. Maximum PC readers are generally technical enough to know that this is a good idea anyway, but if your planning on upgrading PCs for friends and family, bring a USB hard drive and be prepared to stay awhile.

I Only See One Version of Each Edition. Am I Getting the 32 or 64 Bit Version?

All retail editions of Windows 7 will ship with both the 32 & 64 bit DVDs. This is a huge improvement over Vista where users would need to order additional disks manually from Microsoft. Users who purchase Windows 7 digitally through the Microsoft store will be allowed to choose which version they want prior to starting the download.

How will I know if my Processor Supports the 64 Bit Edition?

Download and run GRC’s SecurAble processor testing application. The download is only about 100k, and like everything from GRC, doesn’t require an install. SecurAble will quickly tell you if your processor supports 64 Bit instructions, and if you will be able to use the coveted XP Mode found in Windows 7 professional. Just make sure it says Yes in the Hardware Virtualization field, and your good to go!

Since I Get a 32 Bit & 64 Bit CD, Can I Install It On Two Machines?

No. Since you are only given one CD key, you can only activate a single version at a time. The good news here is that your CD Key is interchangeable. This means that you can start out with the 32 bit edition if that’s all you need, knowing that you can easily format and change over to 64 bit later on if your requirements change.

Some home users coming from XP might be hoping to cheat the system by calling Microsoft for manual activations on additional machines, but I’m afraid it won’t work this time. Windows is constantly checking in with Microsoft for various reasons (most of which you agreed to in the EULA), and as with Vista, multiple activations are often caught, kicking both copies into non genuine mode. Even though this isn’t as serious as it used to be , it’s still not a good idea, and it’s defiantly illegal.

I Am Running a 32 Bit Edition of Windows Vista. Can I Upgrade to the 64 Bit Version of Windows 7?

Your only option in this scenario will be to perform a clean install. Upgrading a 32 bit edition to 64 bit or downgrading a 64 bit install to 32 bit using the in-place approach is not supported.

I Am Currently Running Windows 7 RC. Can I Upgrade to Windows 7 Retail After Purchase?

If you're using Windows 7 RC right now (as many of us are), you'll have to back up all your personal data and perform a clean install of the retail version of Windows 7. After installation, you'll need to restore your data and reinstall your apps. As stated in the Windows 7 RC download page, Microsoft doesn't recommend that you install RC on a personal or "production" machine. Their stance has always been for users to update beta and RC builds by formatting and reinstalling.

How Does An Upgrade Edition “Clean Install” Differ From Retail Copies of Windows 7?

The full upgrade process still hasn’t been finalized, but here is what we do know. Windows XP upgrade editions were pretty painless. The installer would prompt you to insert a copy of a previous OS for disk verification, and that was pretty much it. Assuming you passed this stage, XP would then prompt you to drop the original install disk back in the tray, and it would push ahead with a clean install.

This approach changed with Windows Vista, and not necessarily for the better. If you followed the official Microsoft approach, you were stuck installing Windows XP each time you wanted to format your PC. Once it verified that a qualifying OS was installed, only then could then upgrade to Vista. This hokey double install process was a terrible waste of time, and seemed like a pointless exercise.

A known workaround now exists that will allow you to bypass this step, and it’s easier than you might think. Simply insert your upgrade DVD, boot into the installer, and when prompted to enter your product key, simply refuse to do so. After you click through all the warnings and pick the version you purchased, it would push ahead with the install. Your product key could then be easily entered later on once you were booted into the OS, and you could then activate using the normal process.

It is still unclear which of the two verification methods Microsoft will choose for Windows 7, but they haven’t given us indication that the newer Vista style approach would be changing.  If that’s true, you might want to keep the workaround mentioned in the previous question in mind as it will most likely work in Windows 7 as well. It’s also worth noting that in Vista, the clean install work around also saved your Product Key, allowing thousands of users who were unhappy with Vista to downgrade back to XP.

What Happens to my old CD Key for Windows XP or Vista? Can I use it Somewhere Else?

Based on the terms as they are laid out in the EULA, no. Users who buy and install Windows 7 using the upgrade media should expect to lose access to the product key from their previous OS. While technically this has always been true with Windows upgrades, before XP, this worked on the honor system. With the debuted of product activations in XP, it is now a simple matter for Microsoft to enforce. During a Vista upgrade, the installer would collect your old product key, and send off a cancellation request to the activation server. Simply put, don’t bother upgrading a version of Windows that you will ever need to install somewhere else in the future (this includes dual boots). If you are hoping to make a multi-boot system, you will need to buy the full retail version of Windows 7, or find another spare copy to sacrifice to Redmond.

As mentioned in the previous step, many Vista users were able to use a workaround to get past this restriction by using the upgrade CD to perform a clean install without XP present. Legally you still aren’t allowed to use this version of Windows anymore, but if you ever chose to go back to the older OS instead, at least you would have that option. This is just one more reason (among many) to take the clean install approach.

Do Upgrades from OEM Editions Follow the OEM Activation Rules or Retail?

Online retailers will often sell heavily discounted versions of Windows bearing the OEM badge on the outside of the jewel case. What most people don’t realize, are the restrictions that come along with the discount. OEM editions are permanently tied to the first PC it is activated on, often using unique information gathered from the systems motherboard as an anchor.
Maximum PC readers who like to upgrade often will most likely find this restriction painful to live with, and in the long run, many end up finding it to be more of a hassle than it’s worth. Many Pulitzer Prize worthy stories have been spun in an attempt to get Microsoft to manually activate OEM editions on new hardware, but trust me, they’ve heard them all. In most cases if you simply reassure them it’s only installed on one PC, they will grant your request, but you shouldn’t count on that.

The good news here is that I’ve had no problem moving upgrade versions of Vista to new PCs when using Windows XP OEM product keys. Activations went through without a call to Microsoft, and if the same holds true for Windows 7, you might have finally found a use for an abandoned OEM edition.

As a Windows XP or Vista Home User, Do I Need to Buy Windows 7 Home Premium or can I Spring for Ultimate?

As long as you have a copy of Windows 2000, XP, or Vista, you can buy any upgrade edition you want. It’s important to note however that on the Vista side, this could impact your ability to perform in-place upgrades. For example, don’t expect to be able to do an in-place upgrade of Windows Vista Business to Home Premium, a clean install may be required. You can also upgrade a lower version such as XP Home to Windows 7 Ultimate. The price difference is covered in the upgrade cost.

If I Buy Windows 7 Home Premium, Am I Stuck With It?

Every copy of Windows 7 will have the ability to upgrade electronically to any higher edition. You could start with Home Premium for example, and move up to Professional or Ultimate at any point if you feel the need. The upgrade between versions doesn’t require any reinstall, and in many cases, is instantaneous.

Microsoft has not announced pricing yet on the upgrades, but you should expect to pay a premium on the retail price difference between the edition you purchased, and the one you wish to upgrade to.

With Windows 7 on the Way, Who Cares About Vista?

Windows Vista has matured into a very capable, and reliable OS that unfortunately, will not go down favorably in the history books. For those of you out there who resisted the urge to switch, but are at least a tiny bit curious, did you know if you plan on upgrading to Windows 7 anyway, you can try out the Vista Edition of your choice for around $10? This price tag assumes you missed out on the Windows 7 promotional pricing , which expires on July 11th. Between now and January 2009, any retail copy of Vista purchased from Microsoft will qualify for a free upgrade.

This is an excellent deal to consider if you are in need of a new copy of Windows, but aren’t comfortable with running a pre-release version of Windows 7. You might actually find it’s not all that bad, and the box will make for a great collector's item!

Will All of My Hardware be Compatible With Windows 7?

If it worked in Windows Vista, it will probably work in Windows 7. Many Beta and RC testers of Windows 7 have praised the new OS for its compatibility, but the truth is, if this were being released back in 2007 when Vista debuted, it would have the same problems. With almost 3 years of driver development behind us, Windows 7 will be born into a vastly improved driver ecosystem, and newer hardware will work just fine.

If you’re still not quite sure, feel free to run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor . It will let you know if it detects any incompatible hardware or software that might be a problem in the future.

I Just bought 3 Copies of Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade and Now Family Packs Get Revealed? I Got Ripped Off!
If you managed to get in on the promotional pricing, three copies of Windows Home Premium would have only run you $147.  The Family Pack license that will be offered by Microsoft will likely cost around $189 ($10 less than Apple), and as a result, you still came out ahead.

Which Version of Windows 7 is Right For Me?

Only you can decide on that one, but check out our handy Buyer’s Guide more information on which edition is right for you.

Here's an excerpt:

There are three Windows 7 editions that will be sold at retail in the US market:

  • Home Premium
  • Professional
  • Ultimate

If you tried out Windows 7 in its public Beta or RC versions, you used a pre-release of the Ultimate edition, although it's possible to tweak the installation process to install other editions. So, what are the major "core" features of these editions of Windows 7?

According to Microsoft's "Which One Is Right for You?" page , here are the common features (many of which we will cover in current or upcoming Feature Focus articles):

  • Improved GUI and desktop navigation
  • Windows Search
  • Internet Explorer 8
  • HomeGroup (Windows 7-specific networking)

Microsoft's list leaves out some significant core features, though, including:

Conclusion – In Place Upgrade vs. Clean Start

Hopefully this guide provided you all the information you will need when it comes to selecting a Windows 7 upgrade edition, but assuming you have a version of Vista capable of doing an in-place upgrade, should you? The answer to this is complicated, but it really depends on the user. Maximum PC readers will probably want to do a clean install for their top performing machines, but what about friends and family? The danger of doing a clean install here is that files, settings, applications, and even customizations they forgot they made are easily wiped out, leaving you to support them.

The good news here is that the upgrade process, based on my testing, works exactly as you would expect. Sidebar gadgets will still be on the desktop, applications and browsers will retain their settings, start menu icons will still be present, etc. You will also find that documents, pictures, and music will be properly tagged, and moved to the appropriate location. The only personalization settings you lose are the desktop wallpaper, quick launch settings, and in some cases, the odd application may need to be re-installed.

All things considered, the in-place upgrade works fairly well, but make sure you know the history of the machine before you proceed. If it was upgraded from Windows 98, to ME, to XP, to Vista, and now 7, your pushing your luck. Are you planning on upgrading? If so let us know what your setup is.

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