There was some confusion when I wrote about Windows 7 upgrades a couple of months ago, so let me try to be completely clear about how you should plan to get Windows 7 later this year.

  • You should get Windows 7 with a new computer.
  • You should not plan to upgrade a computer running a different version of Windows.

When you think about doing an upgrade, you probably imagine popping a DVD into the computer and emerging half an hour later with Windows 7 – all your programs intact, all your data right where it should be. That’s an “in-place upgrade.” It’s theoretically possible in a very small number of cases. Even if it’s technically possible, I don’t want you to do it.

If you have a computer running Vista and the technical expertise (or you want to pay me), you can reformat the hard drive in your existing computer and install Windows 7 from scratch (a “custom install”). A “custom install” – reformatting the hard drive – means you will have to back up your data and reinstall all your programs. It’s hard work.

If you have a 3-5 year old computer currently running Windows XP, don’t install Windows 7 on it. Don’t try a “custom install.” Walk away. Buy a new computer.

Those suggestions are based on prior experience with other OS upgrades, the early experiences being reported by bloggers and columnists, and the licensing requirements from Microsoft.

Take a look at one example of why I’ve tried to reduce it to the simplest possible suggestions.

Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal asked Microsoft for a chart laying out the requirements for Windows 7 upgrades – when is it possible to buy an upgrade license, and what process is supported to use it? Microsoft produced the chart on the left. I encourage you to click on it and look at the full-sized version. It is absolutely awful – a complete mess, virtually unreadable. Microsoft is clearly trying to frighten us away from upgrading our computers. 

Ed Bott, a very smart columnist, was so disgusted by the official chart that he spent an hour and created the chart on the right, which has the same information but simplified so it’s actually useful.


The simplified chart makes it a little easier to see the handful of ways to do an in-place upgrade from Vista to Windows 7. Even in those cases, the result will simply never be as troublefree and work as well as if the drive had been reformatted and the OS installed from scratch.

Let’s not do upgrades. Computers will be cheap this fall. Buy a new computer to replace that aging Windows XP machine, and keep running the Vista computers without changing them.

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