Windows 7 setup secrets

For the past week or so I’ve been installing and upgrading the Windows 7 RC code on a wide variety of systems, documenting the process as I go. In this post, I share seven of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, including a few setup secrets that even some Windows experts don’t know about.

As of May 5, the general public is finally allowed to download the official Windows 7 Release Candidate. It’s been up on BitTorrent networks since mid-April, and developers with MSDN or TechNet subscriptions have had access to it since April. But those groups constitute a tiny fraction of the people who are seeing the Windows 7 release candidate for the first time with its public release. (You can find downloads and installation instructions at Microsoft's website.)

For the benefit of the early adopters and those who patiently wait, I’ve been gathering information on the right and wrong ways to set up Windows 7. For the past week or so I’ve been installing and upgrading the RC code on a wide variety of systems—notebooks and desktops, with and without touch and tablet capabilities, with and without TV tuners and Blu-ray drives, as clean installs and upgrades, in x86 and x64 flavors, documenting the process.

In this post, I want to share seven of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, including a few setup secrets that even some Windows experts don’t know about.

Secret #1: Choose the right Setup option

Secret #2: Start with a clean disk

Secret #3: Back up your old drivers first

Secret #4: Do a nondestructive clean install

Secret #5: You need less disk space than you think

Secret #6: Unblock the upgrade path for Windows 7 beta

Secret #7: Unlock those extra editions

Choose the right Setup option -->

Secret #1: Choose the right Setup option

You’ve downloaded the ISO image from Microsoft’s site and burned it to DVD. Now what? At this point, you have two choices as to how to run Setup from the newly created media. The capabilities and behavior of Windows Setup are different depending on which one you choose.

If the system on which you plan to install Windows 7 is already running Windows XP, Vista, or en earlier version of Windows 7, you can start the setup program from within Windows. Or, you can boot the system from the installation media (which might involve going into the system setup screen and changing the order of boot devices). Either way, you'll see a dialog bhox like this one:

So what’s the difference?

If you run Setup from within Windows:

  • You can upgrade Windows Vista or Windows 7 Build 7077 or later.
  • You cannot run x64 Setup on a system running an x86 build of Windows, or vice-versa.
  • You cannot upgrade Windows XP or any pre-7077 build of Windows 7 (unless you use the workaround I describe later in this post).
  • You can install Windows 7 on the same volume as an existing Windows version. (I describe the best way to accomplish this in #4.)
  • You cannot make any changes to the layout of a disk; you must use existing partitions, and Setup will not recognize unallocated space.

If you boot from the Windows 7 DVD:

  • You cannot upgrade an existing Windows version. Your only option is a custom install.
  • You can delete existing partitions, create new partitions, extend an existing disk partition to unallocated space, or designate a block of unallocated space as the setup location.
  • You can install Windows 7 on the same volume as an existing Windows version.

In addition, there’s a subtle but significant difference between the initial screens, depending on how you start Setup. If you launch Setup from within Windows, you have the option to run a compatibility check on your existing system. The online compatibility check is not online yet, but should be available soon in beta format.

Clean disks and backed-up drivers -->

Secret #2: Start with a clean disk

If you’re planning to upgrade an existing installation of Windows Vista or an earlier build of Windows 7, you must run Setup from your current version of Windows. However, if you’re planning to do a clean install, I recommend that you back up first, then boot from the Windows 7 DVD and wipe out any existing partitions so there’s nothing left but unallocated space. The reason? On a bare hard drive, Setup creates a 100MB boot partition for holding boot files and preparing the system for BitLocker drive encryption. That will save you some time and configuration hassles if you plan to test BitLocker later.

Note that the following steps assume you have backed up any data you need on the drive you’re about to use. All data will be wiped out, so be sure you have saved any important data before you start this. Also, you should not use this technique if your hard disk contains recovery or diagnostic partitions that you might want to use later.

To completely wipe out a disk and prepare it for a clean install, follow these steps:

1. Boot from the Windows DVD and follow the prompts to choose a Custom (advanced) installation, then click Next to get to this screen (the arrangement of disks will be different on your PC, but the principles are the same):

2. Click Drive Options (Advanced) to display all available disk management tools, as shown below.

3. Select a partition from the list, then click Delete. Confirm that you want to delete the selected volume.

4. Repeat for any additional volumes until nothing is left but unallocated space.

You can now complete Setup using all unallocated space on the drive.

Secret #3: Back up your old drivers first.

In my tests so far, Windows 7 has done a remarkably thorough job of finding drivers, even for old and offbeat hardware. But it’s not perfect. Some devices come up blank, and others are replaced with a generic driver that lacks some of the features of a custom driver supplied by your OEM.

If you previously had Windows Vista or an older release of Windows 7 on the system where you’re installing, you don’t need a special program to back up drivers from the old system. Windows Vista and 7 save local copies of all drivers that you install in a folder called FileRepository, which is a subfolder of the logically named DriverStore folder. The full path, shown here, is C:\Windows\System32\DriverStore\FileRepository.

On a clean Windows 7 x86 installation, the FileRepository folder contains more than 900 MB of files. That number can bump up over 1 GB fairly easily if you add a few new devices or update existing drivers over time. At that size, you won’t be able to burn everything onto a CD, but it will certainly fit on a writable DVD or on a 2GB flash drive. After you finish the clean installation of Windows 7, you can install or update any drivers using Device Manager; just point the driver installer to the location where you saved your stash of old drivers.

Clean installs and disk space -->

Secret #4: Do a nondestructive clean install

I wrote about this technique more than two years ago, shortly after Windows Vista came out (see “Vista Hands On #2: A no-fuss, nondestructive clean install”). The same technique works in Windows 7.

When you instruct the Windows Setup program to do a custom install on a partition where Windows is already installed, it moves the old Windows, Program Files, and Users folders (or Documents and Settings, in the case of XP) to a folder named Windows.old. Your new installation creates a brand-new set of top-level folders on the current system drive: Windows (for system files), Program Files (for application files), and Users (for data associated with each user account on the system).

The advantage of this technique is most apparent on a system that has a single disk with a single partition and plenty of free disk space. You can get the advantages of a clean install without the risk of losing any data. Performing a non-destructive clean install gives you the fresh start you're looking for, with your old data files safely ensconced in the Windows.old folder along with drivers, program files, and any program settings that are contained in files rather than the registry. You can no longer start up your old Windows installation, but you can copy any of the saved files from that folder to your new user profile whenever you're ready.

To perform a nondestructive clean install, you can start Windows Setup from within Windows or boot from the Windows 7 DVD. Click through the Setup steps, choosing the Custom (Advanced) option, and then, in the list of available disk partitions, choose the one containing your current Windows installation. For most people, this will be drive C.

Click OK when you see the warning dialog box shown here:

Finish setup. Because you're not doing an upgrade, the rest of the installation should proceed very quickly. When you start Windows 7 for the first time, you'll see that all your data and program files from the previous installation are in the Windows.old folder. If you have any old data files to retrieve, you'll find them in the Users folder (Windows Vista) or Documents and Settings (Windows XP), under your old user account name.

Secret #5: You need less disk space than you think

By modern standards, you don’t need a lot of disk space to install Windows 7. Microsoft’s published minimum hardware recommendations for the RC call for “16 GB of available disk space.” That is not, however, a hard-and-fast requirement. I installed Windows 7 Ultimate on a virtual machine with a 10 GB drive (9.9 GB formatted). When the installation was finished, I still had 3.95 GB of free disk space. That’s good news if your main drive is a smallish (16 GB or 32 GB) solid state drive.

On several recent clean installs here, I’ve observed that a full installation of Windows 7 Ultimate x86 uses anywhere from 6 to 9 GB of space. This is a clean install of Windows 7 Ultimate in a virtual machine using the new Windows Virtual PC code, for example:

Obviously, that amount will go up when you install additional programs or create data files, but it's an impressively small starting poiint. So, how big should the Windows 7 system partition be? The question is especially relevant if you’re setting up a dual boot system or partitioning a disk to move your data files to a separate drive.

In my experience, 15GB is a minimum size for the main Windows volume, but that will get tight sooner rather than later. If you can spare the disk space, I recommend setting aside at least 30GB.

Unblock upgrades and other editions -->

Secret #6: Unblock the upgrade path for your Windows 7 beta

Microsoft really, really, really doesn’t want you to install the Windows 7 Release Candidate code over an existing installation of the Windows 7 beta (or over any interim builds, for that matter). The result is a beta-over-beta installation that could exhibit odd behaviors that a customer installing the final version of Windows 7 would never confront. Not only that, but any feedback you send in via the automated tools built into Windows 7 is mostly useless for identifying problems in the final build.

So, as a result, the RC blocks upgrades over any build earlier than 7077. If you’ve been running the original beta (Build 7000) and you try to upgrade, you’ll see an error message.

But if you insist on doing the upgrade anyway, there’s a workaround. Start by copying the entire contents of the Windows 7 DVD to a local folder (use a bootable USB drive, or create a folder in the root of the drive you’re planning to upgrade, and then run Setup from that location).

In the folder you just created, open the Sources subfolder and then open the file Cversion.ini in a text editor like Notepad.

Change the MinClient value (highlighted in yellow above) to 7000 and save the file in the same location with the same name.

You can now run Setup without being bothered by the version check.

Secret #7: Unlock extra editions

The ISO image available for download from MSDN, TechNet, and Microsoft’s public download site contains Windows 7 Ultimate edition only. If you’re evaluating the operating system to see how it fits in your home or office, you might want to try another, less expensive edition to see whether its mix of features is acceptable.

To unlock those other editions, you need to follow the same procedure as in the previous item, copying the files from the Windows 7 DVD to a local folder. Open the Sources folder, find the file Ei.cfg, and delete it.

You can now run Setup from the folder you just modified. Be sure not to enter a product key when prompted (your beta product key is good only for Ultimate edition) and choose the edition you want to install when prompted.


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