By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2009-08-17 Print this article Print

Microsoft provides two avenues to get to Windows 7: a custom installation and an upgrade installation.  Most computers will need a custom installation, however because the opportunities for in-place upgrades will be few and far between. 

 For example, users moving to Windows 7 from Windows XP must go with a custom installation, as there is no direct upgrade option under any circumstances. Users moving from 32-bit Vista to 64-bit Windows 7 (or vice versa, if you have need to go that way) must also do a custom installation.

Only users moving from Vista to Windows 7 within the same architecture (32 bit to 32 bit or 64 bit to 64 bit) have the option to perform an in-place upgrade, and, even then, there are limits.  This is because you cannot downshift across versions: If you currently have Vista Ultimate, you cannot upgrade to Win 7 Home Premium or Professional.  You can go up--say, from Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Ultimate--though. Also of note, you cannot move from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Enterprise. (Check out Walt Mossberg's useful upgrade chart here.)

To perform custom installations, users will need to collect and reinstall all applications as part of the process. At the very least, I would advise that users put a Windows 7- or Windows Vista-compatible driver for the computer's network adapter on a USB stick before beginning a custom install. Windows 7 will, however, keep all your data intact-- the custom installation process collects the old operating system C: drive and saves it on the upgraded system in a folder called Windows.old. 

In addition, Microsoft provides a link to the beta of Windows Upgrade Advisor, a program that scans the current system for incompatible programs and drivers. At the very least, users should expect their current anti-malware suites to have issues in Windows 7, so I would advise removing the application before upgrade--even if the Advisor reports the program only as a potential problem.

I tested both the 32-bit and 64-bit iterations of Windows 7 Ultimate against their Vista SP2 Ultimate counterparts on a pair of machines.

The first machine represents a common recent-model laptop similar to those used in businesses both large and small today: a Dell XPS M1330 with 3GB of RAM, a 2.6GHz Core2Duo T9500 processor, a 160GB hard drive and an NVidia M8400 Graphics chip.  The other system I used represents a much higher-end desktop: a home-built 3.0GHz quad-core Phenom II 945 with 4GB of 1066 DDR3 RAM, a 1TB hard disk and an ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 video card. 

At least from an optical media source, Windows 7 streamlined the clean install process over that provided by Windows Vista. I measured this process from first boot from the DVD to when a user could log in and interact with the client hardware system. On the Dell laptop, 32-bit Windows 7 installation took 21 minutes, compared with 32 minutes for Vista SP2; 64-bit Windows 7 took 28 minutes to install compared with 30 minutes for Vista x64.

On the desktop, installation proved fast in all instances, with Windows 7 again providing the best times. Windows 7 scored 15 minutes for 32-bit Windows 7 installation and 18 minutes for 64-bit Windows 7 installation. Vista 32 bit and 64 bit installation timed at 18 and 19 minutes, respectively.

These times reflect clean installs, but I found times for custom installs over old operating systems to be in the same ball park. On the other hand, an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 from Vista will take much more time--my two trials have taken between 45 minutes and an hour each.

It appears that some of the disparity between Windows 7 and Vista SP2 here is due to a bit of a cheat on Windows 7's part when it comes to evaluating system performance during installation. Vista takes several minutes to run a comprehensive system performance evaluation, while Windows 7 may look only at the video subsystem performance. To wit, Windows 7 won't have a Windows Experience Index score to present to users, whereas Vista will try to accumulate the score during the installation.  

Andrew cut his teeth as a systems administrator at the University of California, learning the ins and outs of server migration, Windows desktop management, Unix and Novell administration. After a tour of duty as a team leader for PC Magazine's Labs, Andrew turned to system integration - providing network, server, and desktop consulting services for small businesses throughout the Bay Area. With eWEEK Labs since 2003, Andrew concentrates on wireless networking technologies while moonlighting with Microsoft Windows, mobile devices and management, and unified communications. He produces product reviews, technology analysis and opinion pieces for, eWEEK magazine, and the Labs' Release Notes blog. Follow Andrew on Twitter at andrewrgarcia, or reach him by email at

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