Windows XP does not allow you to perform an in-place upgrade to Windows 7. In fact, if you try to perform an in-place upgrade, you'll see the following error message.
Instead, you'll need to use a built-in utility on the Windows 7 Setup DVD called Windows Easy Transfer to transfer your documents and settings from your XP-based PC to a backup location first. Then, you will perform a clean install of Windows 7 and then use Windows Easy Transfer on the new install to copy over all your settings and data. This process is called a migration.
The downsides to a migration are many but not insurmountable. If you intend to install Windows 7 on the same computer as Windows XP, essentially replacing Windows XP with Windows 7, then you will need to be very careful to backup all of your data first. You will also need to reinstall all of your applications after you finish installing Windows 7. Here is a quick rundown of the steps.
1) Backup all of your data and, preferably, the entire hard drive just in case. (Why? Many applications store data in hidden locations and you may discover after the fact that you've wiped out two years of email or whatever.) You should do this even if you are using the Windows Easy Transfer utility as outlined below.
2) If you are installing Windows 7 on the same PC as Windows XP, consider installing it on a different hard drive or partition so that you can keep your XP install in place. This way, you can dual boot between both Windows XP and 7, copy files between the two environments as needed, and fall back to XP if it doesn't work for some reason.
3) Use the Windows Easy Transfer utility (described below) to backup your XP-based documents and other data.
4) Make sure you have access to the application installers you will need.
5) Install Windows 7 over XP or in a different partition or hard drive. (Or, on a different PC all together, which is preferable.)
6) Use the Windows Easy Transfer utility (described below) to restore your XP-based documents and other data to your new Windows 7-based PC.
7) Reinstall your applications.
OK, let's get started.
Secret: Windows Easy Transfer is a way to bridge the 32-bit/64-bit divide as well. While you cannot perform an in-place upgrade between any 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows, you can use Easy Transfer to move your settings and documents from a 32-bit version of Windows to a 64-bit version (and vice versa).
Backing up your XP-based settings and data
To run Windows Easy Transfer on your XP-based PC, insert the Windows 7 Setup DVD and navigate to D:\support\migwiz (assuming D:\ is your optical drive). Then, run the migsetup.exe application. You'll step through a simple wizard that provides both automatic and manual ways to pick the data you'll back up.
Windows Easy Transfer explains what it can backup.
You can backup from PC-to-PC with an Easy Transfer cable, or use a network share or USB-based storage device.
When you run the wizard, Easy Transfer scans each user account for settings and data.
When it's done, the wizard will tell you how much space the data will consume.
You can globally accept the backup, or dive into the file system to manually choose (or un-choose) data to backup.
The resulting Easy Transfer file requires a password.
Once you've provided the information the wizard needs, your files are backed up.
Restoring your XP-based settings and data in Windows 7
Once you wiped out Windows XP by clean installing Windows 7 (a straightforward process I will soon document here on the site), you can re-apply your XP-based settings and data. (Alternatively, you can simply apply these settings to another PC running Windows 7.) To do so, run the Windows Easy Transfer wizard on the new Windows 7-based install--this time, it's available via the Start Menu--and step through it, locating your saved Easy Transfer file and re-applying the settings and data to the new system.
After locating the Easy Transfer file, you must unlock it by entering the password.
You can choose which parts of the backup to restore.
Advanced Options lets you map old user accounts and drives to different locations on the target PC if needed.
The items are then transferred over...
... resulting in a bizarre hybrid-look Windows 7.
Reinstalling your applications
Unfortunately, the migration process does not include a seamless way to reinstall your applications. So once your data has been copied over to your new Windows 7 install, you will need to manually reinstall those applications.
Afterwards, you can view the Easy Transfer Reports for information on previously installed applications that you may want to install now in Windows 7.
Obviously, Microsoft should have provided a way for its largest group of customers--Windows XP users--to upgrade more seamlessly to Windows 7. (And after all, this process was provided in Windows Vista.) On the plus side, a migration does offer a truly clean install of Windows 7, and one that can easily include all of your previous documents and other data. Better still, the migration process can be used by other users to move to Windows 7. For example, even Windows Vista users can use this process to migrate from an old Vista-based machine to a new Windows 7-based PC. And anyone hoping to make the change from a 32-bit version of Windows to a 64-bit version of Windows 7 can use the migration process described here to make it happen. Criticism is cheap. But the Windows 7 migration is a multi-faceted useful technique for getting from one version of Windows to another.
Continue to Part 3: Upgrading from Windows Vista to Windows 7...