Finally, some answers to Windows 7 upgrade questions

Finally, some answers to Windows 7 upgrade questions

Summary: Every day for the past few months, I have received at least one question from readers wanting to know how the Windows 7 upgrade process will work. And in every case, my answer has been consistent: I didn't know. So when I got home from the Windows 7 launch event and found four Windows 7 upgrade boxes waiting in my office, I got right to work. Here, at long last, are the answers you've been looking for.


[Update: In a previous post, I answered many upgrade question, including those dealing with upgrades from beta releases and "downgrades" from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Professional. If your question isn't answered here, be sure to read The Ultimate Windows 7 upgrade FAQ.]

Every day for the past few months, I have received at least one question from readers wanting to know how the Windows 7 upgrade process will work. And in every case, my answer was consistent. I didn't know. Paul Thurrott and I asked Microsoft repeatedly (and I mean every single damn week) for upgrade media, and the answer was always a polite no. I could have taken some educated guesses and hit the Publish button here, but that isn't what I learned in journalism school.

My compatriots in the Windows blogosphere weren't always so discriminating. I read a staggering number of rumors, many of them promulgated by people who should have known better.

So when I got home from the Windows 7 launch event and found four copies of Windows 7 upgrades waiting in my office (thanks,!), I got right to work. Here, at long last, are the answers you've been looking for.

If I buy a retail upgrade version, what's in the box?

You get two DVDs, one 32-bit, one 64-bit. You get a single product key, which you can use to install either version. If you buy the Family Pack, you also get those two DVDs and a single product key, which can be used to activate three PCs in your household.

Is the upgrade DVD bootable?

Yes. In fact, as far as I can tell it is absolutely identical to the full version.

So what's the difference between the full and upgrade versions?

It's all about the product key. When you enter the product key, the setup program checks to see whether you installed the product on a clean system that didn't previously have any version of Windows installed. If the answer is yes, it blocks you from entering that key. Here's the confusing error message you'll see:

I heard that installation of my upgrade will fail if the previous edition wasn't activated. Is that true?

Not as far as I can tell, although my testing has necessarily been limited so far. I installed Windows XP SP3 without a product key and then used a custom install of Windows 7 Home Premium over it. Everything worked. I'll check a few more scenarios later.

What happens if I try to do an install without a product key, then add the product key from my upgrade package later?

It fails. Here's the error message you see:

Does the double-install trick made famous in Windows Vista still work?

As far as I can tell, yes. The short version goes like this: Boot from the upgrade media and do an installation without entering a product key. Then use the same media to "upgrade" your brand-new installation. I'm still testing this scenario but it seems to be supported. The technique is essentially unchanged from when I wrote about it shortly after the launch of Windows Vista back in February 2007.

How about 32-bit to 64-bit upgrades?

You can't run the 64-bit installer from an existing 32-bit Windows installation (or vice-versa). Here's how you have to do it instead. Start your computer using the 64-bit installation media. When prompted, choose the Custom installation option:

You'll be warned that your current installation of Windows will be moved to Windows.old. That's fine. Continue with the installation, entering your product key when prompted. Because a previous Windows installation was on your system drive (and is now located in Windows.old), you should be able to activate.

So, does this mean I can install an upgrade version on a new PC I'm building?

From a technical point of view, yes. But from a licensing point of view, absolutely not. The discounted price for an upgrade applies because you already paid for a license on the system you're upgrading. If you are building a new PC, you need a full license from a retail or OEM package.

Are there any other workarounds?

Paul Thurrott passed along an interesting technique that involves a clean install on a bare-metal drive, followed by a registry tweak and the Software Licensing Manager program (slmgr.exe). Rather than repeat the steps here, I'll refer you to his post: Clean Install Windows 7 With Upgrade Media.

Any more questions? Leave them in the Talkback section and I'll update this post as needed.

Topics: Software, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I pity end users...

    Especially those who have no idea what 32 and 64 bit even mean. I hope
    the literature in the box makes it simple or there are going to be a lot of
    people who make the wrong choice and wonder why their software won't

    Now, Ed, if you couldn't answer the questions, what hope for most?
    A Grain of Salt
    • I doubt

      it if people don't know what they are doing, they're going to be upgrading their machine.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • In low economic times..

        people will try anything to save a few dollars. They may just opt for a
        new OS instead of a new machine.
        A Grain of Salt
        • Not really

          [i]In low economic times people will try anything to save a few dollars. They may just opt for a new OS instead of a new machine. [/i]

          No, if they're trying to "save a few dollars", they would most likely keep whatever they're currently using.
          Hallowed are the Ori
          • Especially if they have 3rd party software...

            ...That they purchased. I pay for the software I use (well, unless it's free - I just don't pirate commercial software.) Switching to a completely different OS (for example, Linux) "just because" means dumping a large investment over the years.
      • I Disagree

        Excited by the advertising and the positive word of mouth, I think if they
        see a box on the retail shelf or in Amazon, they'll buy figuring the
        instructions are to put the disk in the drive and respond to the prompts.

        I guess I'm confused about the two disks part, but people might confuse
        my question with trollery, so I'll sort it out myself.
        • But...For the most part, however,..

          [b]Excited by the advertising and the positive word of mouth, I think if they see a box on the retail shelf or in Amazon, they'll buy figuring the instructions are to put the disk in the drive and respond to the prompts. [/b]

          ...that IS all there is to it. But that doesn't mean that's all there is to it. Backing up your data should be done before you start. That might confuse some people - quite a few in fact.

          What's confusing about 2 disks? One installs the 32 bit version, the other installs 64 bit. If you've got the 32 bit installed, you can directly upgrade only to the 32 bit version. The 64 bit edition requires a clean install.
        • It is two disks because ....

          ... the 32bit and 64bit code are bigger than a dual layer DVD can hold.
          • It is two disk because ...

            ... the CPU has to be in the respective 32-bit or 64-bit mode to install the system. You cannot install 32-bit Windows while the CPU is in the 64-bit mode and vice-versa. The DVD data is approximately 2.5GB for 32-bit and 3.2GB for 64-bit. So, both would easily fit on a dual layer DVD.
          • But a dual-layer DVD...

   more costly to manufacture. When I look quickly at wholesale prices, the cost is much more than twice the cost of standard DVD media. Which means that two single-layer disks cost significantly less than one double-layer disk.
            Ed Bott
          • Actually...

   *can* install the 32bit version from a 64bit version, you just can't do it as an upgrade.

            It will have to be a custom/clean install with post install data migration.

    • Agreed, this is the one black eye for Windows 7

      If you check the current comments section on you'll notice a lot of people are frustrated at the complicated rules that allow an actual upgrade to take place.

      No in-place upgrade from XP is bad. No in-place upgrade from Vista Home Premium to Win 7 Pro or from Vista Business to Win 7 Home Premium is worse.

      In 6 months time this will pretty much be a non-issue but Microsoft could have made the transition a bit more user friendly... you know in the spirit of Windows 7!
      • I'm on the fence with this one

        I agree that an in place upgrade is not supported for XP. Sure, you have to set up your machine again, but it spares the user the possibility of unwanted software and services being carried over. And knowing Windows XP and users bad habits....

        Even the Vista upgrades are confusing at best and could have been better implemented.

        But I always clean install regardless, I know most might agree with me, but there are those who don't want to do that, and I wish Microsoft could cater to those users as well, but at best going from XP or Vista to 7 is a minor pain.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Upgrade edition

        You can go from Home Premium to Home Premium or above, what you cannot do is go from Ultimate to Home Premium.
        • Incorrect

          While the license supports it the following are not supported for in place upgrades

          WinXP -> Win7
          Vista Home Premium -> Win7 Pro
          Vista Business -> Win7 Home Premium
          Vista Ultimate -> Win7 Home Premium or Pro

          You can see the official upgrade-path chart here:

          Like I said it's not the end of the world for Windows 7 but I'm sure it will cause a bit of a publicity snafu for a month or two.
          • Sorry you are wrong

            I just upgraded my Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Ultimate, so yes you can.
        • Upgrade version problems

          I believe the post is incorrect. I bought the upgrade to Windows 7 Professional to upgrade my Vista Home Premium only to find that it is the only edition that will not install on my Vista Home Premium computer. Since i bought it at the pre-release special offer price, I now appear to be stuck with a copy of Windows 7 Professional that is useless to me. When, in utter desperation, I called for tech assistance to inquire about the fresh install option, I was told that I wouldn't be able to activate it with my product key and that it would stop working in 30 days.
          Great going Microsoft!
      • there's no easy way around it....

        Upgrading an OS is treacherous no matter which OS it is, especially going from a really old version to the brand new spanking one. Don't know how to get around that one except one prays that one has a friend or two who is computer literate. Since I have some working knowledge, clean installs of Windows 7 on my two old systems was a piece of cake. Once I got my wireless cards working, Windows 7 pretty much did the rest, it even found a 64 bit driver for my old sound card, can't beat that with a stick!
    • Tons of info on-line

      There are a few places with tons of info:

      One important thing though: run Windows Upgrade Advisor first.
      • "... run Windows Upgrade Advisor first."

        I did. It told me I'd have no problem upgrading from Vista SP2 to

        Boot Win7 disk and click to upgrade. Get [i]"Windows 7 will not permit
        you to upgrade from XP, you must perform a clean install instead.
        Press OK."[/i]


        I tried twice, even running the Windows Upgrade Advisor again, and
        got the same argument; the installer [i][b]insisted[/b][/i] that I was
        running XP!

        And that was only the beginning.