Upgrade type: Custom

Given the popularity of netbooks, this should be a common scenario: You've got a Windows XP-based netbook and you want to upgrade to Windows 7. You certainly do qualify for the Upgrade media--any computer with a valid XP or Vista license does, remember--but there are issues. More specifically:

Platform. Netbooks run on the Intel Atom platform, which works only with 32-bit versions of Windows, so x64 is out.

Optical drive. Virtually no netbooks come with an optical drive, so using traditional DVD-based install media is impossible, or at least difficult.

Migration. Windows XP-to-7 migrations are ponderous and time consuming, even in the best of circumstances.


Now, if you're lucky enough to have an external DVD drive you can attach to your netbook, you can use that in tandem with traditional (DVD-based) Windows 7 Setup media to perform a migration from XP to Windows 7. But since most people will not have such a drive, there are some extra steps. Fortunately, Microsoft and some enterprising third parties provide free tools to make it easier. Here's what you will need to make it work:

USB memory key. You will need a USB memory key with 4 GB or more of storage space. (You might also use other USB-based storage devices, such as hard drives or even MP3 players, but I have not tested these types of devices.)

USB-based hard drive (or other comparable storage device). Because you're performing a migration, you will (optionally) need to use Windows Easy Transfer to backup your documents, settings, and other data files. This is typically done with USB-based storage, but you can also use a network file share if you have one.

A 32-bit Windows 7 Upgrade DVD (or ISO file). You need to purchase any Windows 7 Upgrade version in traditional retail form (i.e. you received Setup DVDs in a box) or, more ideally, in downloadable ISO form from the online Microsoft Store.

Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool. This handy and free tool will take a Windows 7 Setup ISO file and copy its contents to a bootable USB storage device. (It will also copy it to a bootable DVD.)

ImgBurn. This handy and free tool will take a Windows 7 Setup DVD and convert it into an ISO file that we can use with the Windows 7 USB/Download Tool. If you purchased Windows 7 Upgrade media in ISO form from the online Microsoft Store, you will not need ImgBurn.

Note: Virtually all netbooks ship with just 1 GB of RAM in order to qualify for lowball Microsoft pricing on Windows XP Home or, now, Windows 7 Starter. While this is enough RAM to run Windows 7, you're better off with more. And since the Atom platform supports up to 2 GB of RAM, your netbook probably does as well, and you should try to upgrade. I recommend and use Crucial, which provides a nice online tool for finding exactly the RAM you need for your specific PC.

Step-by-step guide

Here's how to make it work.

1. Convert your Setup DVD to an ISO

If you only have DVD-based install media, you must first convert this disc to an ISO file. (Remember that you must use the 32-bit version.) Insert the Setup DVD, close the Auto Run window, and then run ImgBurn. In the main ImgBurn window, choose create image file from disc. (Optionally change the destination location to your desktop or somewhere obvious.) Click the graphical Create Image button in the bottom left to create the image. ImgBurn will create two files, the ISO you need and a separate unnecessary file that ImgBurn could use later.

Upgrade a Netbook from Windows XP to Windows 7
ImgBurn can, among other things, convert a Windows 7 Setup DVD into a standard ISO file.

2. Copy the ISO to a USB key

Launch the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool (as it's identified in Start Menu Search) and insert the USB storage device you want to use. In Step 1 of the application wizard, choose the ISO file you created in the first step of these directions (or the ISO file you downloaded from Microsoft) and click Next. In Step 2, choose USB device. In Step 3, choose the appropriate USB media from the drop-down list and then click Begin copying. The tool will (slowly) create a bootable USB-based install media. (Note that you must first copy any data off of the USB device as it will need to format and overwrite it.)

Upgrade a Netbook from Windows XP to Windows 7
Microsoft's free Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool can change a USB key into a bootable Windows 7 install media source.

3. Backup your existing data with Windows Easy Transfer

If you want to back up your existing documents and settings, the next step is to run Windows Easy Transfer. On the netbook, boot into the current Windows XP-based environment and insert the USB key into a spare USB port. Navigate to the \support\migwiz folder (typically D:\support\migwiz) and run migwiz.exe, which is the executable file for the Windows Easy Transfer utility. Use this utility to backup your personal data. (I provide more information about this process in Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7.

A couple of points, however: You will need a storage location big enough to hold all your data; this was about 129 GB on my son's netbook. Also, note that the bigger the data set, the more time this process will take. When the backup is complete, remove the backup storage device, but leave the USB key with the Windows 7 install set plugged into the netbook.

Upgrade a Netbook from Windows XP to Windows 7
It can take awhile, depending on how much data you have, but Windows Easy Transfer is a relatively painless way to move important documents and settings between old and new Windows installs.

4. Clean install and activate Windows 7

Next, you need to reboot the netbook and boot off of the USB key. (How you do this will vary from machine to machine--for example, on my son's netbook, you hit the F12 key to pick the boot media--but you should see a message on the initial BIOS screen telling you how to make it work; otherwise, check your netbook's documentation.) Run Setup normally, choosing the Custom install type (not Upgrade). Be sure to try and enter your new Windows 7 product key during Setup as well, if that option is offered. You may also get a choice to use the existing disk (in which case a windows.old folder structure will be created), but I did not, so I just formatted the disk and installed.

After Setup is complete and you've booted into your new Windows 7 desktop, activate immediately by typing activate in Start Menu Search and running the utility. It should work fine.

Upgrade a Netbook from Windows XP to Windows 7
Success! Windows 7 on an optical-drive-less netbook, installed using Upgrade media.

5. Restore your data and reinstall your applications

Once Windows is activated, you're all set (at least with the scary part). Now you can install updates and then use Windows Easy Transfer (which is included in Windows 7 and can easily be found via Start Menu Search) to restore your documents, data, and settings. Then, you need to reinstall your applications. Fortunately, Windows Easy Transfer does supply a pretty decent report about which applications were installed, so at least in the case of Internet-downloaded applications, you should be up and running pretty quickly.

Did you upgrade a netbook to Windows 7? Let me know how it went!

Continue to Scenario 4: Upgrade from the Windows 7 RC to the Final Version