Windows 7 is the best operating system offering from Microsoft (MSFT) in many years, so when it hits the market on Oct. 22, folks who bought PCs anytime in the past three years or so should be prime candidates for an upgrade. But a lot of them are likely to find the upgrade process surprisingly frustrating.
If you are running Windows XP or any flavor of Vista, which is to say virtually any PC, you qualify for Microsoft's discounted upgrade pricing. The cost varies with the operating system you're coming from and the version of Win7 you're moving to, but the most common jump, from Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Home Premium, will set you back $120.
The trouble starts with the installation. Microsoft calls the sort of setup most people will want an "in-place upgrade." You put in the installation DVD, enter an authentication code from the package, and after 45 minutes or so, your Win7 system is ready to go with your programs, settings, and data as they were. I have gone through this drill on several systems, and it is generally painless.
Installation Snags But many people won't be able to use this method. It's available only if you are already using Vista. And you must have 16 to 20 gigabytes of free disk space, which may be a challenge, especially on ultralight systems with solid-state drives. I could not upgrade a Lenovo (LNVGY) ThinkPad with a 64 GB SSD drive because I couldn't free up enough space. What's more, if you have a 32-bit version of Vista—almost certainly the case if your system is more than about nine months old—you'll be stuck with a 32-bit version of Win7. More on the significance of that in a moment.
If you can't do an in-place upgrade, you'll be forced into a "custom install," a far more difficult process. Your data will be left intact, but plan on spending hours reinstalling all of your applications, meaning you'll have to dig out the original software disks, the Web addresses of download sites, and all your installation keys.
Microsoft says it isn't offering an easy in-place upgrade from Windows XP systems because the bulk of such computers are too old and underpowered to run Win7. It can't prevent unsuitable upgrades, but it wants to discourage them. Microsoft also realizes some users will face hardware and software incompatibilities with Win7, which it would like to avoid. (There were such problems going from XP to Vista.) The odd thing is, Microsoft offers free software that tells you if your machine will run into incompatibilities—say, whether it will work with your old printer. Why doesn't the company just let customers use this tool rather than throwing up roadblocks?
What's Microsoft Thinking? Now let's go back to 32-bit vs. 64-bit, a reference to the amount of data and instructions the processor can gobble at one bite. Almost all new PCs sold in the past three years have fast, 64-bit hardware. When Vista first came out in 2007, some programs and a lot of accessories, such as printers and scanners, couldn't work with the 64-bit version, so the 32-bit Vista was almost universally installed. Most of those problems have been resolved, and since last fall manufacturers have been installing 64-bit Vista by default on most systems. But any machine more than about nine months old probably came with 32-bit Vista or XP, which means it's subject to the same limits as older PCs. The most important limit: 32-bit systems can't take advantage of more than 3 gigabytes of memory even if, as is often the case, more physical memory is installed.
Normally, adding memory is the cheapest way to boost performance, especially if you run lots of programs simultaneously or keep a lot of browser windows open. Now, many users with state-of-the-art hardware face a cruel choice between accepting the constraints of 32-bit Win7 or reinstalling all of their applications.
It's not at all clear why Microsoft made its upgrade options so restrictive. In effect, it is telling its customers to move to Windows 7 only when they buy a new computer. The company has no financial motivation for doing this, since it makes more money selling $120 retail copies to upgraders than it gets from manufacturers licensing Windows on new systems. And even computer makers who should be pleased with customers being given an incentive to buy new equipment are less than thrilled: They know that complaints about the difficulty of upgrading PCs sold last year are more likely to land on their doorsteps than on Microsoft's.
I'm baffled that Microsoft gave us no better alternatives. Fortunately, there is a third-party solution: Laplink Software's PCmover is designed to ease the pain. I will review it when it's available, and I hope it does the job. Windows 7 offers some real improvements, which I'll describe in a future column. It would be a pity if Microsoft's retrograde upgrade and self-defeating support place Win7 beyond the easy reach of most users.
Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkBiting Into 64 Bits
Although the ability to use large amounts of memory is the main reason to go for 64-bit Windows, there are a number of other considerations in choosing which versions of the software you want to run. Microsoft (MSFT) provides answers to many issues in "32- and 64-bit Windows: Frequently Asked Questions." Although this online guide focuses on Vista, the information is equally applicable to Windows 7.For more information on Microsoft's new operating system, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/windows-7/reference/.