Flocking to Windows 7

After only a few months of availability, many are already moving to Windows 7. Here, readers offer tips and best practices for others making the flight away from Windows XP or Windows Vista.

For most Windows users, it has been awhile since the last operating system upgrade. Windows Vista was a bust, and many companies and individuals alike have been running Windows XP for the better part of a decade now. Windows 7 might just be the OS that finally ends the XP run.

In the weeks since its release, early indications show readers are indeed upgrading to Windows 7. Redmond asked readers to share their Windows 7 migration stories. Relatively few companies have begun full migrations to the new OS, so most of the feedback involved individual users -- primarily IT professionals -- moving to Windows 7 on their personal machines.

Still, these stories serve as advice -- or, in some cases, cautionary tales -- for other IT pros making the move at home or in the workplace. What we found is that, while some readers encountered difficulties, most either found the migration process to be relatively smooth or were able to work out any problems with relative ease. Early business adopters as well as Windows experts have also shared their migration tips and best practices.

Good Times, Bad Times
It's unusual for readers to reach out and speak well of a product; in general, a disgruntled user is more likely to take the time to complain than a pleased user. But our feedback on Windows 7 migrations should come as good news to Microsoft and IT pros alike: Most readers were happy with their Windows 7 moves.

"I upgraded my home machine from Vista Home Premium 32-bit to Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit," says reader Craig Burgess, system and network administrator for Digital Infuzion Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based health care IT firm. "It took a while -- 45 to 60 minutes -- but went great. Windows 7 found all my devices and downloaded drivers for them. My machine is running faster and I'm quite happy."

Windows 7 even played well for some users on netbooks, despite warnings from skeptics that the new OS is too much for such bare-bones machines. Reader Dennis Barr, manager of information technology at Larkin Group in Kansas City, Mo., had a smooth transition from XP Home Edition to Windows 7 Professional using the Windows 7 RTM code.

"Back in March 2009, I bought an ASUS Eee PC netbook," Barr says. "It was pretty standard fare -- 160GB hard drive, 1GB RAM, 1.6GHz [Intel] Atom processor. I upgraded the RAM to 2GB as soon as I bought it," he explains. He also replaced the 160GB hard drive with a 500GB model, although he notes that Windows 7 would likely have run fine with the original 160GB drive in place.

"I imaged the original Windows 7 disk to an external USB drive using Bart PE running from an external DVD drive," Barr continues. "Then, I removed the 160 and installed the 500GB drive. I restored the drive image from external storage and rebooted without incident. I booted from the external DVD drive with the Windows 7 disk. I ran the installer, using all the remaining space on the hard drive and a quick format. Total install time was somewhere around 30 minutes. Upon reboot, I had a Windows 7 desktop running in full Aero Glass, with all the new features that Windows 7 introduced. With this dual-boot setup, I could test the same hardware under XP and Windows 7. I have nothing but good things to say about my Windows 7 experience so far. The installation was speedy; finding drivers was not difficult, and everything I've installed has worked without a hitch."

Clyde Hague, information security officer for First Merchants Corp. in Muncie, Ind., even calls the XP-to-Windows 7 migration process boring because, "it did everything it was supposed to do, and I didn't spend time troubleshooting errors. It just worked," Hague says.

Driver Issues
Of course, not all users had such positive migration experiences. Most prominent among user complaints was one reminiscent of Vista: Windows 7 doesn't support their drivers.

"I'm having the same kind of trouble with Windows 7 that I had with Vista: drivers that don't work as advertised," says one reader in Minnesota, who asked not to be identified. "I built an Intel Atom machine and loaded Windows 7 using my Action Pack subscription. This was a full Windows 7 Pro RTM version, not the release candidate [RC] version. Three Intel drivers failed to load." A roundabout discussion with Intel support produced no fixes, the reader added.

"Microsoft is getting its hardware vendors upset by flipping on them with new driver requirements that change for every new release," he concludes.

Of course, in many cases, OEMs are also responsible for driver problems. Ken Stevens, a reader in Texas, reports success with his upgrade from 64-bit Vista to 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium. The only snafu he ran into involved drivers, he says.

"I had zero problems, except for a couple of driver issues," Stevens says. "Surprisingly, my 18-month-old notebook from HP -- purchased in April 2008 -- has a couple of drivers missing. HP seems to take pride on its driver Web page that it will not be bothered producing drivers for older equipment. I didn't think two-year-old notebooks are ancient. I'm very disappointed about that."

In rare cases, there were near-disasters. Curtis Vaughan, of AvantGuard Computer and Security Systems in Seattle, ran into problem after problem with his upgrade from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7.

"I spent two days trying to upgrade Vista Ultimate to Windows 7," Vaughan says. "If I wasn't paying close attention, I'd discover the computer in a blue-screen-of-death state.

Otherwise, I'd notice that the installation was hanging at 62 percent for too long, and I'd eventually do a forced reboot."

Frank Ong, an independent small business consultant, had a similar experience: "I installed another hard drive in my computer, made it the primary boot drive in the BIOS and proceeded to install [Windows 7] from a DVD," Ong says. "I experienced install stoppages with the install hanging at about 62 percent. I tried various versions of Windows 7 and different DVDs from my TechNet RTMs, but got the same results. Finally, I changed the hard drive from the Seagate I installed -- and which was working fine with XP before it was wiped -- to a Western Digital. I breezed through the routine in about an hour."

Microsoft offered a "Fix It" patch for the 62 percent installation problem in November; more information about it is available on the Microsoft Fix It Blog at Microsoft has been and is still working on fixes to known issues in migrating from Vista, and will very likely have issued more patches by press time.

Migrating at Work
Not all readers shared strictly personal experiences. Charles Wilde, CTO of Aton International Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., says his whole company has already moved to Windows 7. "We're a small shop," says Wilde, whose shop has fewer than 10 desktops. Nevertheless, Wilde is on the leading edge in terms of having a workplace migration experience.

Microsoft provides an automatic upgrade from Vista to Windows 7, but XP users -- who still represent the vast majority of Windows users -- will have to do a clean install of Windows 7 on their XP machines. That means paying attention to data retention.

"We had one machine that did have Vista running on it, and we did the Vista-to-Windows 7 migration," Wilde says. "That worked and saved us some time. For the rest of the machines, we had to back up the data files, wipe the machine and reload it."

Hal Heindel, president of Unitac International Inc. in Webster, N.Y., is familiar with the process. He gives his company's user base a tongue-in-cheek -- but useful -- step-by-step process for moving from XP to Windows 7. First, he says, run the Microsoft Upgrade Advisor tool to see whether the XP machine can handle Windows 7. If it can, here's what Heindel recommends: "Save all your files and settings to an external drive using Windows Easy Transfer, a free Microsoft migration tool," he says. "If you don't have an external drive big enough, you won't be able to use Easy Transfer. Deactivate all programs that require activation, such as Microsoft Office and Adobe suites. Gather up all the installation disks for your programs and any associated license keys. Manually reinstall and activate all your programs after you install Windows 7. Make a big pot of coffee and pray!"

For Wilde, the coffee likely served as a pick-me-up on a few late nights during the XP-to-Windows 7 transition. Which part of the process kept Wilde awake at all hours? Hunting for drivers. And it's not just device drivers that cause a headache, he says. Chipset drivers can also cause problems.

"I went nuts tracking down the drivers," Wilde says. "Microsoft should put some energy in tracking down Windows 7-compatible drivers. It's not obvious what chipset drivers you need. That's the one point Microsoft missed -- a central registry for addressing the driver problem."

J. Peter Bruzzese, co-founder of Clip Training LLC, Windows expert and frequent contributor to Redmond, says that just about anything that worked in Vista will work in Windows 7. Therefore, it's generally possibly to download and use Vista drivers in an XP-to-Windows 7 migration. But Wilde advises fellow IT professionals to have their ducks -- and drivers, particularly chipset drivers -- in a row.

"While your XP machine is still up in running, go into the device manager and find out what chips you've got in there," he says. "Itemize what's in your machine. By the time you get around to installing Windows 7, you have no view as to what's in there."

But finding drivers isn't always as easy as downloading them from an OEM's Web site, as Wilde found to his frustration. Some deep Web searching can be in order.

"You can't depend on the OEMs. This is the kind of thing that, if Microsoft had an interest, it would have a program you'd run on your existing XP machine that would itemize and manifest drivers," Wilde says, adding that no program of that type exists at this point.

It's not just drivers that need updating. Kevin Pearson, senior network administrator at Cleo/Streem Communications in Loves Park, Ill., recommends updating applications for Windows 7 as well. "Application-wise, you want the latest versions of everything," Pearson says. "Especially Adobe products -- they're notoriously bad."

Wilde also advises holding off on installing 64-bit versions of Windows 7, saying that his company ran into application-compatibility problems and ended up moving machines running the 64-bit OS back to the 32-bit version. "The benefits of continuing to run 32-bit for another year or two outweigh the gains you might get on 64," he says.

Another trick to watch out for, users say, is Microsoft's strict enforcement of version control for Vista-to-Windows 7 upgrades. Reader Richard Smedberg was surprised to find that his upgrade options weren't as extensive as he had expected.

"I took the offer to preorder Windows 7 at 50 percent off," Smedberg says. "I ordered the Professional edition specifically for the Backup and Restore feature. I planned to use the upgrade option to preserve my settings and installed software, but found out on Microsoft's Web site that I can only upgrade between Vista Home Premium and Windows 7 Home Premium or Ultimate editions, unless I'm running Vista Business."

Bruzzese commiserates: "I wanted to go down from Windows Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Professional," he says. "Microsoft would not let me. It refused to let me go backward." It's something that small businesses in particular might want to take into account cost-wise, Bruzzese says, before making the decision to upgrade from Vista to Windows 7.

Tools and Tips
Microsoft has not left Windows 7 travelers to migrate alone. The Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) toolkit is the enterprise version of the Upgrade Advisor tool. "It'll go out there, and it'll check out all your systems as to what can be upgraded and what can't," Bruzzese explains.

He adds that there are lots of free tools from Microsoft that can aid migration. The most important could be the User State Migration Toolkit (USMT). USMT lets migrated users see their familiar desktop backgrounds, downloaded e-mails and browser settings.

"What a lot of people want is their personality to come with [Windows 7]," Bruzzese says. "That's more than just their files. It's easy to move the files over. It's easy to upgrade the OS. It's the personality that's missing. A lot of that little junk that people feel is important; as soon as they get on their OS, they say, 'You changed all my settings.'"

Windows will store a user's XP files in a Windows.old folder, and the USMT can help with the "personality" transition. But an XP-to-Windows 7 upgrade, given that it's actually a clean install, won't automatically move over the "little junk" the way a Vista-to-Windows 7 upgrade will, Bruzzese says.

XP Mode, however, will preserve those personality elements. With XP Mode, users can run XP virtually in a hypervisor inside Windows 7. It'll likely be a common solution, Bruzzese says, to the problem of familiarizing users with a new OS. Users can run applications in XP Mode while getting comfortable with Windows 7, and can eventually phase out XP Mode if they choose.

But XP Mode, Bruzzese cautions, requires hardware-assisted virtualization, which could mean extra hardware investments for companies that don't have the required gear. XP Mode also only works for the Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise versions of Windows 7, Bruzzese adds.

There are tools, however, that allow users to run XP mode without hardware. One of them is Zinstall, offered by the company of the same name. Zinstall allows users to toggle between XP Mode and Windows 7 and copy and paste certain settings between the two. Most importantly, Bruzzese notes, Zinstall will run a virtual version of XP in a hypervisor without the need for virtualization-ready hardware.

"It will reach out and pull everything from XP and run it in a hypervisor," Bruzzese says. "You toggle between the OSes until you're completely comfortable with Windows 7."

Zinstall can also help with driver issues, he notes: "With that toggle situation, all the drivers should be there for Windows 7." XP comes installed as a virtual machine running under a hypervisor. "The drivers are not real," Bruzzese adds. "They make calls to the real drivers when you need them to. That's the beauty of it."

XP Mode, he says, is more seamless to users and doesn't involve a toggle, but Zinstall could be a good application for penny-pinching or smaller companies. On its Web site, Zinstall lists the price of a single migration license for its Zinstall XP7 product as $89.

Other helpful non-Microsoft tools include KBOX, an all-around migration application from KACE Networks Inc., as well as PCmover from Laplink Software Inc., which are designed to move programs, files and settings from XP to Windows 7. Bruzzese gives a word of caution to IT professionals, saying that before buying any migration products, they should make sure they're not buying something that Microsoft might be giving them for free.

Decision Time
Despite good reviews, most of the readers who contacted us for this story say that their organizations have no plans to move to Windows 7 in the near future. "The upgrade prices from XP or Vista to Windows 7 are steep -- $120 to $220," Heindel says. "If you're running XP, I don't see a compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 7."

Bruzzese offers a counterargument, noting that XP is now outdated. Microsoft has also revealed that it will end extended support for XP Service Pack 2 in July.

And even with some hesitation to upgrade among users, the new OS is turning heads. Wilde, the business user, loves Windows 7. "The thing has been just really great," Wilde says. "It's met all of our expectations and then some."

Lee says: I love writing stories like this because they give me the opportunity to interact with a large number of readers. We got many more e-mails than we were able to use in the story, and a number of them were very compelling. It was tough in the end choosing which ones made it, but we tried to represent a variety of stories and points of view. Keep the feedback coming -- it's great for us and for you.


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