As Microsoft's Windows 7 is made available for pre-order, we look at the problems Windows XP users are likely to encounter when upgrading to Microsoft's latest OS, while also answering some of your burning questions.

There's no escaping Windows 7. Microsoft's latest operating system was this week made available for pre-order prior to its public launch on October 22.

But with many of us having given Vista a wide berth and stuck with the trustworthy Windows XP, will we find ourselves in for a tough ride when upgrading to Windows 7?

Gartner's Michael Silver seems to think so. Silver recently complained that the company's policy for continuing XP 'downgrades' was a "real mess". In response, Microsoft actually extended the availability of XP until April 2011.

We've looked at the process of upgrading from XP to Windows 7 to find out just exactly how hard it is and have put together a guide that we think answers your most burning questions.

Can I upgrade from Windows XP straight to Windows 7?

You betcha. And no, you don't have to make Vista a middleman.

There's always a catch. What's the catch this time?

Unlike people running Vista, you can't do an 'in-place' upgrade from XP to Windows 7 (even though that was offered as an upgrade choice to Vista, and Microsoft's bragged numerous times about how Windows 7 "is Vista, a lot better".

Presumably, Microsoft doesn't want to repeat the drama - and complaints - that XP users generated when they threw up their hands over in-place upgrades to Vista. It hinted as much in an April post to the Engineering Windows 7 blog.

"We realised at the start of this project that the 'upgrade' from XP would not be an experience we think would yield the best results. There are simply too many changes in how PCs have been configured (applets, hardware support, driver model, etc) that having all of that support carry forth to Windows 7 would not be nearly as high quality as a clean install," Microsoft said.

Whatever the reasons, you'll have to do what's called a 'clean' install of Windows 7, which means you'll need to restore backed up data, recreate settings throughout Windows and reinstall all applications. (Clean install isn't a choice on the Windows 7 install-type selection screen; you'll pick Custom from the two-option list.)

What are the system requirements for Windows 7?

They're very similar to those for Vista. According to Microsoft, here's what you need:

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

Take those with a grain of salt. Vista runs slowly on a PC with just 1GB of memory; Windows 7 may do better, but you're still likely to be disappointed.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Can my machine handle Windows 7

  1. We answer your burning questions
  2. Can my machine handle Windows 7
  3. Will a lack of DVD drive affect my install?
  4. Running XP programs in Windows 7 Home Premium

As Microsoft's Windows 7 is made available for pre-order, we look at the problems Windows XP users are likely to encounter when upgrading to Microsoft's latest OS, while also answering some of your burning questions.

How do I know if my XP machine can handle Windows 7?

Install and run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, which as of July, was in beta. The advisor will give you a bottom-line appraisal of your XP-based hardware and give you the green light or tell you the machine won't make it as it is and spell out what you need to beef up.

I'm running XP Home now. What are my Windows 7 choices?

You can upgrade to Home Premium, which Microsoft says will be offered at the reduced price of £79.99 from October 22 until "at least Dec 31", although when the discount is removed, the full price will be £149.99. Alternatively you can also upgrade to the Professional version (£219.99) and the Ultimate Edition (£229.99).

I'm running XP Professional. What are my Windows 7 choices?

Same as if you were running XP Home now, which was detailed above.

What's the process going to be like?

We won't know for sure until Microsoft makes final Windows 7 Upgrade discs available, but the company will help you back up and then restore settings and data with the Windows Easy Transfer utility it includes on the Windows 7 DVD.

The process is too long to spell out here, but Microsoft posted a step-by-step back in January, while BlogsDNA added screenshots to those instructions.

What should I do before I start the upgrade?

Top on our list: make a disk image of your XP machine as it exists now so that, if you later decide Windows 7 isn't worth the disc it's written to and you want to revert to the ancient XP, you can do so without a lot of hassle.

There are loads of free and for-a-fee backup programs for XP, some of which create a disk image, a bit-for-bit copy of the hard disk. Among the free choices are Macrium Reflect and DriveImageXML, which run on XP and let you create an image on a CD/DVD, external drive or flash drive.

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Will a lack of DVD drive affect my install?

  1. We answer your burning questions
  2. Can my machine handle Windows 7
  3. Will a lack of DVD drive affect my install?
  4. Running XP programs in Windows 7 Home Premium

As Microsoft's Windows 7 is made available for pre-order, we look at the problems Windows XP users are likely to encounter when upgrading to Microsoft's latest OS, while also answering some of your burning questions.

I hear that the Windows 7 media comes on a DVD. I don't have a DVD drive, just a CD-ROM drive, on my XP PC. What do I do?

Start crying.

Microsoft recommends that you "rent, borrow, or buy one if you want to do the installation yourself. Alternatively, you can take your PC and DVD to a service provider that has a DVD drive available that can be used to do the upgrade".

So, the £79.99 to £229.99 you've laid out for Windows 7 Home Premium just wasn't enough to spend, was it?

Rumors have circulated that Microsoft may offer Windows 7 Upgrade on a flash drive - a 4GB thumb drive has more than enough room - but, so far, it's only wishful thinking on the part of the drive-less, like people running netbooks.

You can do it yourself by buying Windows 7 as a download from Microsoft's own e-store - the only one that now offers that delivery method - then build a bootable USB drive. There are several how-to-do-that guides on the web; our favourites are by noted Windows blogger Long Zheng and this step-by-step from Kevin's blog.

Can I upgrade to a 64-bit edition of Windows 7?

Yes, if the processor inside your PC supports 64-bit.

Retail copies and electronic downloads of Windows 7 will ship with both the 32- and 64-bit versions of the operating system, and since you have to do a clean install anyway - also a requirement if you're moving from, say Vista 32-bit to Windows 7 64-bit - you can move up to 64-bit if you want.

Download and run the free SecurAble utility to see whether your processor supports 64-bit; as an added bonus, it also says whether you'll be able to run the Windows XP Mode available to users of Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate.

Will I be able to run my old Windows XP software?

Yes, if you bought either Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate. Those two editions let you run Windows XP Mode, an add-on (and separate download; it doesn't come on the DVD), that creates an XP virtual environment running under Virtual PC, Microsoft's client virtualisation technology, within Windows 7.

XP Mode comes with a fully-licensed copy of Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), so you don't have to spring for an additional license. The mode, however, requires processor-based virtualisation support. To determine whether your PC's CPU provides that support, download and run the the free SecurAble utility.

A beta of XP Mode can be downloaded from here and run with Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC).

Small business IT advice

NEXT PAGE: Running XP programs in Windows 7 Home Premium

  1. We answer your burning questions
  2. Can my machine handle Windows 7
  3. Will a lack of DVD drive affect my install?
  4. Running XP programs in Windows 7 Home Premium

As Microsoft's Windows 7 is made available for pre-order, we look at the problems Windows XP users are likely to encounter when upgrading to Microsoft's latest OS, while also answering some of your burning questions.

I'm not forking over another £100 to Microsoft just to run programs in XP mode. What are my options?

You have several. First, you can wait until you upgrade to Windows 7, then install and try out the software you've been running on XP. It might work fine. (Most likely to have fewest problems: products from Microsoft and other major vendors.)

If the program won't run, you can try to run it in Compatibility Mode. Right-click on the program's shortcut, select 'Properties', then click the 'Compatibility' tab. Next, check the 'Run this program in compatibility mode' box, and in the drop-down list, choose the version of Windows, in this case Windows XP.

Or you can run free virtualisation software on Windows 7, such as Sun's VirtualBox, with a copy of Windows XP as the 'guest' OS within the virtual environment. You'll need an XP license to install inside the virtual machine.

That may be your biggest hurdle, since if the copy of XP you're now running came with the PC, you're not allowed to transfer it to another system, even a virtual one (even if that PC is now running Windows 7).

And if you're upgrading from XP to Windows 7, no matter how you acquired the licence for XP, the activation key on the XP CD will probably not work. (During the upgrade, the PC sends a key-cancellation request to Microsoft's servers to nullify the XP activation/product key and link the machine to the new Windows 7 key.)

You can still buy copies of XP, but they're pricey.

What happens if I hate Windows 7? Can I revert to Windows XP?

Yes, you can, but you'll have to do another 'clean' install, this time scrubbing the drive of Windows 7 and replacing it with XP.

Before you do that, you'll need to back up your data files and note your settings. Don't bother with Easy Transfer Utility, which is available for XP; it's a one-way street and doesn't help in 'downgrade' scenarios, which is what we're talking about here.

You'll need to reinstall all your applications on XP, too. If you thought of this before, you'd simply wipe the drive and restore from the disk image you made earlier (see What should I do before I start the upgrade?).

See also: Turn your XP or Vista PC into Windows 7

  1. We answer your burning questions
  2. Can my machine handle Windows 7
  3. Will a lack of DVD drive affect my install?
  4. Running XP programs in Windows 7 Home Premium