Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

If you've yet to check that your existing hardware is compatible, scan the system requirements and run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor Belarc tool. Current Vista users shouldn't have any problems here.

Next, you need to decide between upgrading your current version of Windows or going for a clean, fresh install. The upgrade is easier, since your applications, settings and data travel with you and there's little to do after the install is complete. After a clean or ‘custom' install, you'll have to set up your users and network, reinstall drivers and programs and move your data back into place.

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Is my PC Windows 7 compatible?

On the other hand, a custom install is cleaner than an upgrade. Windows accumulates junk as you use it. Flushing it out every so often makes sense, as 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. A custom install is the only option. The following instructions apply to both types except where stated.

Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

Upgrade Checklist

A compatible PC: If you run XP, use the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor

Upgrade disc and product ID

Image backup software: An image backup can undo any changes if necessary. Try Macrium Reflect

An external hard drive: It'll need at least the same capacity as your internal drive

Pencil and paper

Your apps in installable form: If you want to start Windows 7 with a clean slate, you'll need to reinstall every app you want to keep

Time: You could have Windows 7 up and running in two hours. But it could take all day

Prepare your PC

Before you insert that Windows 7 DVD, consider the driver issue. If you're upgrading from Vista you should have no driver problems. If you're currently using XP, you almost certainly will.

Make sure you can get Windows 7 or Vista drivers for your display, audio and networking adaptors. If you use a wireless keyboard or mouse, you'll need to check drivers for those as well. If you're not sure how to identify these, check Device Manager.

In XP, select Start, right-click My Computer, select Properties, click the Hardware tab, then Device Manager.

In Vista, click Start, type device manager, and press Enter. Don't forget to check for such peripherals as printers and scanners.

Once you know the devices, how do you find the drivers? Check the Windows 7 Compatibility Center. As we write this, this was simply a holding page, but that's likely to change imminently. In any case, the Vista equivalent that's currently linked there is a good substitute, particularly if you're upgrading from XP to Windows 7.

You can also check your device manufacturers' websites. For example, we were able to get hold of a driver for the
two-year-old Rock laptop we upgraded from Vista Home Premium, having found that Windows 7 didn't recognise its dedicated nVidia GeForce 8600M GS graphic chip.

It's also a very good time to update your firmware, particularly if you're not in the habit of doing so regularly. If you're new to firmware updates and their benefits, see the firmware update guide.

Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

Back up and back off

No matter how good your precautions are, OS upgrades can still go horribly wrong. The chances are that at least one important program or device won't work in the new environment. Perhaps Windows 7 won't boot. Or maybe you just don't like the new interface. Whatever the reason, you'll need to be ready with a way to restore your setup.

An image backup of your hard drive offers an easy, dependable way to do just that, since it restores everything on the hard drive, from Windows itself to the applications, data and even the Master Boot Record. To create one, you'll need an external hard drive and an image backup program. We recommend the free version of Macrium Reflect, although other utilities will do just as well.

Plug in the external drive before you create the image, then select that drive as the backup destination. Be sure to create the bootable Rescue CD before you upgrade.

An image backup of a large drive can take hours. Run it overnight, with plans to do the upgrade itself the following morning.
Once the backup is complete, you're just about ready to begin the upgrade - assuming you've opted for the simpler ‘in-place' upgrade option.

For a clean (custom) install, you've got more preparation to do. First, you need to gather up installable versions of all the programs on your hard drive you want to keep. If you purchased a program as a physical package, you'll need the disc. If you downloaded the program, you'll have to either find its installation file or download the latest version.

You'll also need the licence keys for your purchased software. These can often be found on the disc sleeve or somewhere on the box. If you downloaded the program, it may have been sent to you in an email.

If you can't find the licence, open the program and select Help, About. Your licence or product ID will probably be displayed there. Alternatively, contact the vendor.

A utility called Product Key Explorer 2.2.1 might also help. If you're using the free version you'll need to jot down what it finds by hand.

Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

Run the upgrade

Now it's time to take a deep breath, bite your lip and take that step forward into the next generation of Windows computing.
You can start the installation by booting from the Windows 7 Upgrade DVD or by inserting the DVD while in your current version of Windows and starting from there. If you're doing an upgrade installation, choose the latter path, starting from inside your current Windows installation. 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. Here are some of the major options you will encounter.

Early on, you'll be asked whether you want to check for compatibility or go ahead and install. The compatibility checker
simply takes you to the web page for the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. Assuming you ran that earlier, you can skip this and just click Install Now.

Windows 7 full coverage

Agree to the end user licence agreement, then choose either the Upgrade or Custom (clean) install. If you're asked to choose a partition, go for the one that contains your current version of Windows. The only exception is if you're intending to create a multiboot system.

If you're doing an upgrade install, you'll receive a compatibility report. This will warn you about certain issues (for instance, if you use Windows Mail, it will inform you that the program is no longer included). The report 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, you'll get a warning that you're about to lose your existing version of Windows. You've got a backup, so don't worry. As per the onscreen message that appears, you'll also be told that your files won't be lost - they'll be moved to a new folder called C:/Windows.old.

Next, the Installing Windows box will appear with its list of automated tasks. Copying Windows files, Expanding Windows files and so on may take an hour or more.

We suggest you let the process run its course and come back later.

Once Windows 7 is installed, you'll need to answer some pretty simple questions.

You don't have to enter the product key when asked, although you will have to enter it eventually. Instead you can click Next with the field blank, then click No, and the installation will continue. You can always enter the key and activate the new Windows once it's running and you're sure you like it.

On the page ‘Help protect your computer and improve Windows automatically', we recommend choosing the middle option, ‘Install important updates only'.

When the process is complete, your PC will boot into Windows 7. If you did an upgrade install, you're almost done. If you did a clean install, you still have some tasks to complete.

Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

Tweaking the desktop

With Windows 7 up and running, lean back and admire the new view. It should look great, but if the resolution is too low and all the objects on your screen are too big, you'll need to right-click the desktop and select Screen resolution to fix the problem. You may also need to do this after reinstalling your video drivers.

In the lower right corner (where the system tray used to be) you may see a flag icon. Click this to bring up a problem report. It will probably just be a prompt to protect your PC with antivirus software and Windows Defender has yet to scan your PC. But it might give some useful advice, too.

Where's my driver?

Now it's time to deal with your drivers. If you did an upgrade install from Vista you'll probably just check Device Manager and discover everything is fine. If you did a clean upgrade from Vista, any problems you encounter should be easy to fix. But if you started with XP, expect some challenges.

However you upgraded, select Start, type device manager, and press Enter. Double-click any item accompanied by a yellow exclamation mark, then click the Update Driver button. Select Search automatically for updated driver software and await the results. With luck, that will take care of any driver problems.

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If it doesn't, and you did a clean install from Vista, click the Update Driver button again. This time, click ‘Browse my computer for driver software'. For the path, enter C:\Windows.old\Windows, make sure that ‘Include subfolders' is ticked, then click Next.

In most instances these steps will work because, along with your data, the installation program moved all your Windows files to the location C:\Windows.old. This will include your old drivers and the error is thrown up because the installer doesn't know to look for drivers where it put them.

However, these steps won't work if you upgraded from XP. The old drivers will be visible but won't be compatible.
Before you go any further, install and update your security software, then go back to the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor and look up the device there. A web search on the device name and ‘Windows 7 driver' or even the device name and ‘Vista driver' may help.

Reinstall everything

If you did a clean installation of Windows 7, you now need to reinstall all your programs. If you followed our advice, you'll have these to hand. You'll find the downloaded files are in a subfolder of C:\Windows.old\Documents and Settings\logon\My Documents.

Start with your security software, if you haven't installed it already. Install the other apps in any order you wish. Make sure you have the licence keys handy. As soon as a program is installed, check for updates.

You created a login for yourself near the end of the installation, but if other people use your PC and have had their own logins in the past, you'll need to recreate them.

If you can't remember all the usernames, use the folders inside c:\windows.old\users (or c:\windows.old\documents and settings, if you upgraded from XP) as a reference. To create user logins, select Start, Control Panel and click ‘Add or remove user accounts'.You don't have to create a Public or shared account, since it's already there.

Upgrading your OS is fraught with problems and anxiety, and occasionally things will go seriously wrong. But by taking the necessary precautions and assembling the right materials you can upgrade without gaining any grey hairs.

Data discovery

Restoring your data is straightforward. Go to the C:\Windows.old folder, select Start, type C:\users and press Enter. If you don't already have the c:\windows.old\users (or c:\windows.old\documents and settings) folder open, open it now.

You now have two Explorer windows open. The windows.old one, which we'll call the source, contains your data. The C:\users window (the target) is where your data should end up. For each user's folder, open the respective folders in each Explorer window (so that the source window is open to C:\Windows.old\Users\yourname and the target window is open to C:\Users\yourname).

Make sure hidden folders are truly hidden. If you see an AppData folder in the target, select Organize, Folder and search options. Click the View tab. Select ‘Don't show hidden files, folders or drives', then click ok. Drag all the folders (but not the individual files) from the source to the target.

You'll get asked a lot of questions as the files move. When Windows tells you that you need administrator permission, make sure that ‘Do this for all current items' is selected and click Continue.

If told ‘The destination already contains a folder named...', tick ‘Do this for all current items' and click Yes. And if told that there's already a file with the same name, select ‘Do this for the next X conflicts' and click Move and Replace.

XP keeps pictures, music and videos inside folders within My Documents, while Vista and Windows 7 store them separately. You'd expect that change to cause problems, but Windows 7 is clever enough to put everything in the right place.

When you've finished organising the user folders, repeat these steps for the Public folders. If you upgraded from XP, your source won't have a Public folder but it will have a shared folder. Move folders from that shared folder to the target's Public folder.

At this point, Windows 7 is ready to use. But keep the Windows.old folder around for a few months. There may still be something important inside.

Final reminders

If you didn't enter your product ID to activate Windows 7 during the installation, now is a good time to do so. Select Start, type activate and press Enter. Click 'Activate Windows online now' and follow the prompts.

Ex-Vista users should check out suggested tweaks for suggestions on retrieving some Vista features you might actually miss. Yes, really.

Once Windows 7 is set up the way you like it, create another image backup. Should you ever need to reinstall Windows, you can simply restore the image.