Can you upgrade an old XP PC to Windows 7? Should you?

Can you upgrade an old XP PC to Windows 7? Should you?

Summary: My friend Lisa has a four-year-old Sony laptop running Windows XP. This machine, once a triumph of Sony hardware engineering, could easily be deemed ready to retire. But after careful consideration, I decided it was worth upgrading to Windows 7. I tried both a clean install and a new edition of Laplink’s PCmover software, which is specifically designed to ease this sort of migration. The XP-to-7 odyssey was an interesting one, with surprising results and several lessons I can share with anyone contemplating a similar adventure.

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How old is too old? I had a chance to think about this question twice over the weekend. Once while pondering my fifty-somethingth birthday (as of today, I am the same age as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons combined), and the other while deciding whether to upgrade my friend Lisa’s four-year-old Sony notebook to Windows 7.

The birthday will happen whether I want it or not. But as for that Sony? That took a little more thought. It would have been a no-brainer had this been a two-year-old PC that Lisa had downgraded to XP to avoid the tribulations of Vista. But this machine, once a triumph of Sony hardware engineering, could easily be deemed ready to retire.

After careful consideration, I finally decided to go ahead with the upgrade, taking careful notes and snapping lots of screen shots along the way. The XP-to-7 odyssey was an interesting one, with surprising results and several lessons I can share with anyone contemplating a similar adventure. Along the way I also tried out a new edition of Laplink’s PCmover software, which is specifically designed to ease this sort of migration. I found some surprises there as well.

I’ve divided this report into three parts:

Part 1: Can this PC be upgraded? Should it?

This ultraportable Sony VAIO was originally manufactured in August 2005, more than four years ago. Although it had plenty of resources for its time, it can be upgraded in only the most limited ways. Are its ancient CPU and limited RAM up to the challenge of a 2009-vintage OS? I was skeptical. The Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor said it would work. But see for yourself.

Part 2: Assessing the upgrade options

There’s more than one way to complete this transition. With the help of image backup software, I was able to compare and contrast separate upgrade paths: a clean install, with and without Windows Easy Transfer, and a migration using the PCmover software. I also considered and rejected a third option. In this section, the pros, cons, and tips for each one.

Part 3: PCmover tries to do what Microsoft won't

You can’t directly upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7. Microsoft’s Windows Easy Transfer utility moves settings and files, but not programs. The result is a process that can fairly be characterized as tedious. Laplink Software’s PCmover steps into the gap, promising to move programs and data and settings.

So how well did it do on this migration? Is it worth the extra cost?

Next: Can this PC be upgraded? Should it? –>

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Can this PC be upgraded? Should it?

Lisa's computer was named LittleVAIO. The moniker is perfectly appropriate, as this machine (officially named the VGN-TX651P) is a masterpiece of miniaturization. I have a more recent version of the same design, and I love it because it’s small and light (roughly 2.8 pounds), has an excellent screen, and runs for 7 hours on a single charge.

But this beautiful machine, built in August 2005, has pretty weak hardware by modern standards:

  • a Pentium M processor, running at 1.2 GHZ
  • 1 GB of RAM, which cannot be upgraded
  • a 60 GB HDD, with a 6GB restore partition leaving only 49.88 GB usable
  • The infamous Intel 915 chipset and video, which is incapable of running the Aero interface in Vista or Windows 7; this is the hardware component that led to the “Vista Capable” legal battle
  • Some good points: Two USB ports, FireWire, Ethernet, a built-in Wireless G adapter, and a new battery

Those specs actually put this PC in the same league as the current crop of Atom-powered netbooks, performance-wise. But the screen resolution of 1366x768 and the superb build quality of this machine, which has been well cared for, make it a better choice than a netbook.

It’s still running the original Windows XP installation, updated to SP3 and cluttered with Sony utilities, original unused trial programs, and lots of junk. Lisa has installed many, many programs through the years, using some only briefly and apparently never uninstalling any of them. The Add or Remove Programs dialog contained 111 separate entries. Here's a small sample:

Not surprisingly, performance on this machine with Windows XP was somewhere between abysmal and unbelievably awful. It took more than four minutes to go from a cold start to a working internet connection. Disk space was an issue as well. When I first looked at it this notebook it had only 8 GB of free space.

In a burst of cleanup activity, I removed 20+ programs and utilities and removed 15 GB or so of hidden backup files. When I was done, the system had roughly 30GB of free disk space and I had shaved a full minute off the startup time, although it still required more than three full minutes from a cold start before you could actually use this thing.

Finally, I ran the most recent beta of the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor from Microsoft’s website. It flagged the Toshiba Bluetooth stack as incompatible and alerted me to a couple other hardware components that might need updating, but gave the all-clear:

With that reassurance, I next looked at cost. I have a pre-ordered $50 copy of Windows 7 Home Premium due to arrive on October 22. There are no other costs associated with this upgrade. At that price, I decided to plunge ahead, stopping only to do two full backups of the current XP image so I could restore things if necessary.

So, what’s the best way to upgrade? Keep reading…

Next: Deciding which upgrade path to follow -->

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Assessing the XP-to-7 upgrade options

When it comes to Windows installations, there are two schools of thought. In one camp are those who argue that a software company should make upgrades as easy as possible. Switching to a new version of your OS, they say, shouldn’t require reinstalling apps or migrating data. It should all just work. Their opposition argues that most OEM PCs start out filled with crapware, that Windows decays over time, and that a clean install is the best possible way to get a fresh start.

The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle.

For one thing, it’s a false stereotype to believe that all OEM installs are worthless. A good OEM (yes, they exist) will include the right drivers, utilities, and hotfixes for your system to ensure that every feature on it works correctly. This is especially important on notebooks, where getting webcams, biometric devices, and control buttons working perfectly can be a real challenge on a generic installation.

In this case, though, the question is practically moot. The driver model changed dramatically from Windows XP to Windows Vista, and several categories of devices (including video drivers) changed again, albeit less dramatically, in Windows 7.

For this Sony notebook, a direct upgrade is literally impossible. That leaves me with three options.

I rejected the first option, which was to upgrade this machine from Windows XP Professional to Windows Vista Business and then to Windows 7 Professional. First of all, that would take a long time. Second, it wouldn’t allow me to use the inexpensive copy of Windows 7 Home Premium due to arrive soon. Instead, the upgrade path would require the much more expensive Windows 7 Professional. And finally, I was concerned that the upgrade wouldn’t fix the performance problems this system has.

Instead, I went with the second option, the one recommended by Microsoft: Use Windows Easy Transfer to copy files and settings to an external drive. Then do a clean install of Windows 7, restore the files and settings using Windows Easy Transfer, and reinstall any necessary programs. As it turns out, this system has less than 1 GB of data files on it, making the task particularly easy.

Copying all that data took literally a few minutes. Choosing this option also gave me the freedom to reformat the hard disk and blow away the unnecessary recovery partition. The full install on a freshly paved hard drive took around 45 minutes, and when I was done this system had more than 48 GB of free disk space.

Restoring the data files took another 10 minutes or so. And then it was time for the programs. As it turned out, Lisa really only used a few of the programs on that enormous list that had previously been installed. I was able to download and install Firefox, Thunderbird (her preferred e-mail program), Adobe’s Flash and Reader utilities, and the Windows Live suite. She has the original program disks for Office 2003, Adobe InDesign CS3, and Dreamweaver, all of which can be installed in an hour or so.

Windows Update found virtually every driver for this machine, including one for the Intel 915GM. I had to download and install two updates from Sony (under the Windows Vista category) to enable the flash memory card slot and the Firmware Extension Parser, labeled as unknown devices here.

All told, this strategy took about four hours. It helped that I had an external hard drive at hand (everyone should have one) and that I knew how to search Sony’s website for the necessary drivers.

I made one other small change as well. I used a spare 2 GB Sony Memory Stick and dedicated it to ReadyBoost. That’s a feature that was disappointing in Vista but has been tweaked in Windows 7 and now delivers the performance improvements it promised. After all was said and done, this system was able to start up and get to a workable desktop, with a working internet connection and a web browser fully loaded, in under two minutes flat (35 seconds of that, by the way, is the Sony hardware starting up). In this case, the upgrade literally cut in half the startup time required by the original XP installation. In operation, the Windows 7 install felt snappier than the XP installation in every program I tried.

And now for the third option, Laplink’s PCmover software.

 

Next: PCmover tries to do what Microsoft won't -->

<-- Previous page

PCmover tries to do what Microsoft won’t

Laplink Software is one of the true greybeards of the PC industry. I can remember using the Laplink program (the company’s name at that time was Traveling Software) on MS-DOS-based PCs back in the 1980s.

The PCmover program has been around for a few years, but it needed a major rewrite for Windows 7. I tested a pre-release version of the software that had some rough edges, many of which should be smoothed out by the time it’s ready for release.

PCmover is designed to do everything that Windows Easy Transfer does, with one crucial addition: it migrates programs as well. (Note: It doesn’t do a thing with device drivers.) Although it works on systems running Vista, it’s especially welcome on XP machines, which don’t offer a direct upgrade path. Using a network, a transfer cable, or an external storage device, you can migrate your files, programs, and settings from an old PC to a new one. For this revision, the program adds a Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant mode.

In broad strokes, the process works like this:

  • After installing PCmover, you run the Upgrade Assistant on the PC running Windows XP. It scans your system and makes an inventory of every installed program it can recognize, along with settings and data files. This inventory is stored as a small file. You can customize which programs and settings are available for migration.

  • Next, you perform a custom install of Windows 7 on the PC. That keeps all your old program files and data in the Windows.old folder.
  • After you restart the new Windows 7 installation, you install and run PCmover again, once again choosing the Upgrade Assistant option. Using the upgrade file, it pulls the data and program files from Windows.old and adds the associated registry settings for each migrated program.
  • When you’re all done, you do a little bit of housekeeping to decide which applications start automatically, and you check to make sure everything migrated properly.

Sounds great in theory. So how did it do in practice? Not perfect, but not bad.

Office 2003, Firefox, and Thunderbird migrated perfectly. The ancient photo-editing program Picture Publisher 10 worked, surprisingly, although it threw up a UAC prompt with every start.

A few truly odd errors appeared when I tried to run Windows Live programs, complaining that “The ordinal 62 could not be located” in a particular DLL. A Laplink spokesperson assures me that that bug has been swatted and that it will not appear in the final shipping product. I fixed them by going to the Windows Live website and reinstalling the Live Essentials programs.

I wasn’t so lucky trying to run InDesign 3, where a problem associated with Adobe’s activation code caused the program to fail catastrophically. According to Laplink, Lisa will need to reinstall this program.

I also got bizarre errors when I tried to run the OEM Roxio media software that was originally installed with this system. Overall, I would say 80% or more of the migrated software worked, and the PCmover utility probably cut an hour or two off the total upgrade time. Don't expect perfection from this software. You'll probably have to reinstall some software and do some modest tweaking. You'll still have to deal with driver issues for any devices that aren't detected by Windows 7. You might also have to deal with some activation and licensing hassles. But you will save time.

From a usability standpoint, the PCmover software has one glaring flaw. On an initial setup screen, it commands you to run the software on your new PC first. If you’re doing an in-place upgrade, that’s just wrong, a fact that a Laplink spokesperson readily agreed was a flaw. They suggest instead that you follow the detailed instructions on their website, which are accessible via a link in the program itself.

One aspect of the PCmover setup program that irritated me tremendously and deserves to be called out is its offer to install the Ask browser toolbar and change your home page and default search provider. In the PCmover install, the latter two options are selected by default (as shown below), and the option to install the toolbar is presented as a license agreement, which many people will consent to automatically. In a program whose purpose is to preserve your settings and software, that’s an unwelcome option.

For this edition, Laplink has dramatically dropped its pricing. The company says it’ll be shipping a Windows 7-only version of the PCmover software on October 1, at a suggested retail price of $29.95 (that’s $20 less than the current Home edition). Between October 1 and October 22, it will be available for $15 directly from the Laplink website. At that price, I would heartily recommend this software for anyone who has a relatively new PC (2007 or later) running XP. It’s especially useful if you’re planning to move from XP Pro to Windows 7 Home Premium, or from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Pro.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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252 comments
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  • If you take the Microsoft guidelines seriously

    (which I never do, because they seem to be written by someone who is into flagellation) many Windows XP machines should be able to be upgraded successfully - or else you, and others on this site have been leading us all astray for quite some time.

    We have been regaled with tales of how much faster Windows 7 is than Windows XP, so, with the addition, or possession, of a supported video card, Seven should work well.

    I have 3 Barton powered (Athlon XP 3000 or 3200) Asus A7N8X-E Deluxe systems, all with fast SATA drives, and 2GB of DDR-400, so, with the addition of a supported video card, I will be upgrading them.

    If it is less usable than Windows XP, I'll be letting you know.


    Thanks for the tip about PCMover - I've never used it, but it sounds like a good way to spend a few bucks.

    p.s. I also have an Intel D845GVFN system with 2 GB of DDR-400, and using a Promise SATA card and 2 1TB Spinpoint F1 drives, but this has only built in graphics, and since it only has PCI slots, I will be keeping Windows XP on this one - unless you can recommend a wicked fast PCI card to bring this one into shape.
    chrome_slinky@...
    • 50

      I almost forgot, Happy 50th Ed.
      kenbergins
    • I guess mentionning the PentiumIII/800 powered HP OmniBook 6000...

      ... with 384MB of RAM I set up Ubuntu 8.04 on for my cousin might be out of place, since 8.04 is actually from 2008. On the other hand, other than the inability to play certain video streams she is still pleased with it. She has even gone out and bought a t-shirt with a penguin on it.
      914four
      • Fair enough

        I listened to what a friend had to say about what they wanted to do with a computer and told them to buy the cheapest thing Dell or HP made because it would work fine.

        She bought a refurbished machine for $130.00 that meets her needs. A net book has all the power I need most as in 99% of the time. I did stick two gig of ram in mine. I may install unbuntu for netbooks on it and duel boot that way I have an armored version to run. Not many people are actually trying to take out Linux machines.
        deowll
        • I think you mean....

          DUAL BOOT


          Unless you expect the two OS to be in that much conflict.

          >>> and DUEL boot that way <<<<
          PHOTON_690
      • Yes, you have a point

        I have to say, even as a Windows enthusiast, I'm impressed at how well Ubuntu scales down to older hardware, and I'll admit that for many users--and many uses--it's perfectly appropriate.

        Personally, I do like newer, fresher technology, and I'm prepared to pay for it. And I honestly believe that Windows and MS Office provide the best "user experience" available right now.

        I'm also trying to learn programming, and I find Visual Studio to still be the easiest programming environment to use (and, yes, I've used several variations on Eclipse--it's not quite there yet).

        Open Source has had an impact on Microsoft. It makes it's OSes and tools available pretty cheaply (or free) to almost anyone who wants them. MS makes products that work with open source products now (IIS can serve PHP pretty much out of the box now, with full MS support, and of course Office uses standards-compatible XML document formats now), so this movement has had a positive impact.

        We all benefit.
        Thunderbuck
    • Here's a half decent PCI graphics card for you:

      HIS H435H512PP Radeon HD 4350 512MB 64-bit DDR2 PCI Low Profile Ready Video Card

      http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814161283

      The rest of your machine should be more than capable of running Win7 beautifully.
      de-void-21165590650301806002836337787023
  • Darn right Ed ...

    PCmover Pro is what, $60 as a download, and it tries to push a toolbar on you. Darn right that deserves a call out.
    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • RE: Can you upgrade an old XP PC to Windows 7? Should you?

    Great article Ed. I tried something similar, but with an even older laptop; A 2002 vintage Toshiba Satelite S-121.. Read my story at; http://abokevin.com/?p=483 . It turned out to be usable, although barely - but hey - it is a 7 year old computer...
    AboKevin
    • Yo! Kevin!..

      You might get more performance if you got rid of that RAM/CPU sucking Trend Micro! At least the 2007 version was horrible!

      Even Norton has dropped system hogging processes with its new NIS 2010. I've been using NIS 2009 on clients computers that insist on using Norton, and getting good performance, and believe it or not, actually keeping the major malware off the machine too!

      I know - surprise - surprise!

      I don't work for any man or company, I just hate malware to pieces!
      JCitizen
    • I think you have a ram issue.

      If there is some way you could add more this machine might look a lot more useful. I suppose you do know the hardware limits and this can't be done?
      deowll
    • Even older laptop

      Dell C600 PIII@700mhz (bat)/1.0mhz(dc), 512 ram, 60gb hdd (upgraded when it crashed two(2) years ago), 16mb ati video, Broadcom b/g wireless card (internal).

      Windows 7 ultimate (RC 7100) runs great without any system errors, hangups, or slowdowns. I find this machine a little snappier than when I had XP pro installed. I have ordered a Win7 HP upgrade for $49 and coupled with Open office I expect to continue to use this machine for at least a few more years productively.

      The only downside is that you only get the Windows basic theme as the graphics card can't render the Areo interface (You can use True Transparency to get a simulated Areo style) but other than that this system works rock solid.

      Battery life is better than I would have guessed:

      1.0 ghz I get:
      1 bat: 2-3 hrs. 2 bat: 5-6 hrs.

      700mhz i get:
      1 bt: 3-4 hrs. 2 bat: 6-8 hrs.

      This is definitely a worthwhile upgrade and life extension for an OLD laptop. I would have installed Ubuntu (Outstanding OS overall) but the broadcom card will not work with WPA2 under Linux and it will under Win7.
      bobtran
    • peripherals and Windows 7question

      Does the windows 7 acknowledge Fanthum 1TB green drive and My book 250G, they are both external hard drives ? I have had these products both for awhile and was wondering if they will work if I do the upgrade. When I bought them they of course only said they would work with xp, vista etc. you get the idea. I know the vista argues with some peripherals.
      Windycitydreams
  • Gee

    You're as predictable as the weather.

    In this case, the fact that the machine starts up two minutes faster than before and runs every program at least as well as before might leads some people to a conclusion.
    Ed Bott
    • Gee Ed....

      Did you try a complete, clean and new install of XP on this "old XP PC' too?

      If you did, you never mentioned that. I am willing to bet serious money that a clean install of XP (including removing all the Sony crapware) would have also resulted in better performance in both boot times and application performance.

      I did try this when my HP XP Media Center PC (1.8 GHz - 1GB RAM) hard drive crashed. I didn't have restore disks and the restore partition has hosed too. Windows 7 RFC moved in quite nicely. Then I found that my DVD backups would not play on Windows 7 Ultimate RFC. My favorite DVD player software wouldn't work either. The optical digital line out to the 7.1 channel amp wouldn't work either and Firefox was very slow. While I know that this was not a commercial release, it was enough to let me know that there was absolutely no need to move that old PC to Windows 7.

      Indeed, I still can find no compelling reason to switch and certainly no reason to pay for an upgrade to do it.

      When the restore disks arrived, I immediately restored the HP Pavilion back to XP Media Center and lived happily ever after.
      jacarter3
      • different strokes for different folks

        I am running the RC on a 5 year old Dell laptop. Even after installing all my previous programs, 7 runs much faster and more stable than the original XP media center. Needless to say, I've pre-ordered my 7 upgrade and plan to do a clean install.
        nothingness
      • Why reinstall XP?

        If you're going to do the work of a scratch reinstall, why use an 8-year old, obsolete OS if you don't have to? I could see reinstalling XP if the cost of upgrade software was an issue, but if not, why not have the current, supported, more secure OS?

        Ed - thanks for a very valuable post. I've been debating upgrading my 2005-era Vaio laptop or replacing it, and I think you just convinced me to give Win7 a shot.
        1DaveN
        • Obsolete?

          Only a sales weenie would consider something that still works "obsolete".
          If XP could not connect to a network, read/write hard drives, support anything but an old CGA and floppy .... THEN I would consider it obsolete!
          kd5auq
          • Message has been deleted.

            faxmonkey
          • Message has been deleted.

            teuchter