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Upgrading From Windows Vista to 7 the Hard Way

Posted on by Arnon Erba in General

(Editor’s note: Enjoy reading about how I upgraded to Windows 7 in a shockingly roundabout way a few years ago.)

After four years of running an HP-installed version of Windows Vista on my family desktop, I decided it was time to upgrade to Windows 7. Booting up was taking an incredible amount of time, and the system was using between 3 and 5 GB out of 8 GB of RAM during daily use. My original plan was a quick weekend project, but I hesitated for a while because of the fairly high purchase price of Windows, and my quick project stretched out to a few months of searching for Windows on sale. I eventually took the risk of buying a Windows 7 disc set on Craigslist for below retail price. The product key turned out to be valid, but the catch was that my Craigslist purchase was an upgrade version of Windows 7. I didn’t want to do an in-place upgrade, because the entire idea of upgrading to Windows 7 was to remove all of the junk that was slowing the system down. I could still perform a clean install with my upgrade disc, I just needed to have a fully licensed version of Windows on the same hard drive I wanted to install Windows 7 on. I already had a fully licensed version of Windows Vista, but I didn’t want to write over that installation as I wanted to keep a backup in case of disaster.

Faced with this, my project transformed. Instead of partitioning the 750 GB hard drive and installing Windows 7 alongside Windows Vista, I would buy another hard drive, burn the HP factory recovery DVDs, restore Vista to the new hard drive, and then install Windows 7 over the fresh installation of Vista. All while preserving the original Vista installation on the original hard drive. Sounds simple, right?

That, again, didn’t go as planned, and in the most unexpected way possible. The desktop refused to burn the HP recovery discs, giving me an error code which proved to be a hardware error. Was the DVD drive failing after never being used to burn a disc? Was the lens dirty? Did the HP Recovery Manager not like my TDK DVD-Rs? Or was the HP Recovery Manager simply broken? I didn’t have the time or ability to test all these possibilities, so I had to come up with a new plan. The desktop still had the HP recovery partition on the hard drive, but I didn’t want to do a factory restore and erase all the data on the original drive. I wanted Vista on the new hard drive.

I figured if I could copy the recovery partition to the new hard drive, I could factory restore Windows Vista on the new hard drive and not touch the original one. However, Google searches about successfully copying of moving the recovery partition did not look promising. I finally decided to just go ahead, try to copy the partition, and to see what happened.

Enter the Linux Live Ubuntu 12.04 bootable USB thumb drive. Having one of these around has been extremely useful for many reasons, partitioning discs with GParted included. I copied the HP recovery partition directly over to the new drive, and tried booting from the copy.

Predictably, it didn’t work. I got some sort of an “Insert Bootable Media” error, indicating the computer was trying to boot off of the empty partition on the hard drive and not the freshly copied recovery partition. Back in GParted, it turned out the empty partition was marked as the boot partition. I set the boot flag on the recovery partition, restarted the computer, and found myself looking at the HP Recovery prompt. Ecstatic yells ensued.

I waited for the recovery program to finish and then booted into the new installation of Vista. I was then reminded of something I had not thought of: the computer has an upgraded graphics card. Since the recovery program restored the graphics drivers for the original card, the system defaulted to 800 x 600 with 16 bit color. I wasted no time in starting the Windows 7 installation.

There was still more to do when the Windows 7 installation finished. It turned out that even when you choose “Custom install” with an upgrade disc, the install program still saves a large amount of data into a folder called Windows.old. This includes data such as user files, program files, and AppData folders. Since I didn’t want any of the HP-installed programs and I didn’t have any data in the installation of Vista that I had written over, the folder quickly got deleted. Also, my Craigslist Windows 7 disc set was so old it didn’t have Service Pack 1. I ended up downloading probably over a gigabyte of updates.

It was also extremely cool to see the programs installed list completely empty and to have under 10 user-initiated processes running on boot. From now on, I never want to deal with OEM bloatware again.

After all the updates were finished, I installed programs and created user accounts for everyone who uses the computer. Then, I moved over files from the original hard drive with the Vista installation to the fresh Windows 7 installation.

In all, the entire process took about five days, setbacks and all. That’s not counting the time it took me to find a Windows 7 disc set and to buy another hard drive. The step that took the most time was moving over emails from Windows Mail on Vista to Windows Live Mail on 7. A close second were the updates.

Despite the amount of time and effort it took me, it was way worth it doing the upgrade my way. I saved about $50 in parts costs alone. There are also the savings of doing all the file transfers myself versus having a computer shop do them for me. On top of that, I got to decide exactly how my computer would be set up and I know how it’s configured in case anything goes wrong. I had the entire Windows Vista system as a backup, and I got to have a clean install of Windows 7 instead of an upgrade.

Windows 8 next? Not until I get a touchscreen monitor and a trackpad.

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