How to back up and upgrade to Windows 7 from XP and Vista

22nd Oct 2009 | 09:00

How to back up and upgrade to Windows 7 from XP and Vista

Step by step guide to your Windows 7 upgrade

Before you install Windows 7

The release of the highly anticipated follow up to Vista, Windows 7, is here. Over the coming weeks and months, thousands of systems will be upgraded.

While many people will kill two birds with one stone by taking the opportunity to buy a new computer with Windows 7 preinstalled, a large proportion of computer users will go down the upgrade route.

Depending on whether Windows XP or Vista is the base operating system, the upgrade process will be vastly different.

Only Vista users will be able to perform a standard upgrade installation. If you have XP installed, you're going to have to perform a clean install, even if you've bought the upgrade edition of Windows 7.

This means that files and system settings will have to be backed up and restored if the transition to Windows 7 is to be as painless as possible. We're going to take a look at this process over the coming pages.

Prepare to back up

Backing up data is never fun, so it's one of those tasks that most computer users tend to avoid. While backups prove very useful in the event of a hard drive failure or other computing disaster, they're also invaluable when the time comes to reinstall or upgrade Windows.

Manually backing up files and folders is simple enough – the process can involve little more than copying the relevant files to a separate hard drive.

Upgrade advisor

Program and Windows settings are a different matter, and this is where a specially designed tool can be helpful. The Windows Easy Transfer wizard is a great tool for anyone upgrading from XP to Windows 7 as it takes the hard work out of safeguarding data and also backs up other data such as email accounts and system settings.

The Windows Easy Transfer wizard can be found on the Windows 7 installation DVD. It simplifies the process of backing up documents and settings, which can then be restored once a clean installation has been performed.

Unlike an in-place upgrade, going down this route will mean that any software that is already in place will not be retained, so each program will have to be reinstalled afterwards. While a migration is the only real option available to users of Windows XP, it may also appeal to anyone upgrading from Vista.

This is because it results in a cleaner system that's not bogged down with remnants of the previous operating system.

Windows Easy Transfer also comes in handy if you're making the move from a 32-to a 64-bit OS, because this also requires a clean install.

Install Easy Transfer

The transfer tool is located in the Support folder of the Windows 7 disc in a subfolder called Migwiz.

Double-click the executable named 'migwiz.exe' to start the program and click 'Next' to skip the intro screen. Several options for how to transfer data will be presented, including using an Easy Transfer cable or making use of network or removable storage.

Easy transfer wizard

In the majority of cases, opting to back up files to an external hard drive will be the easiest option, but the ability to back up to another computer over an existing network may also be useful.

After you've indicated that you're currently working with your old computer, the wizard will perform a scan for items that can be transferred and should be backed up. The results screen will show a list of user accounts that have been detected complete with the amount of data each contains.

While it's possible to trust that the wizard has managed to correctly identify everything you would like to back up, it is a good idea to double-check by clicking the 'Customize' link that appears beneath each entry on the results page.

From the submenu that appears, tickboxes can be used to select the type of data that should be backed up, while by clicking the 'Advanced' link you can select individual folders to add to the transfer set. Having made the required selections, click 'Save' followed by 'Next'.

Backup protection

As a security measure, Windows Easy Transfer allows data to be password-protected, but this is optional. Click 'Save', choose where the backup should be created, enter a suitable name and click the 'Save' button.

While the data saving process is taking place, it's important that Windows is left to its own devices in case an operation makes use of files that are being backed up.

When the wizard has done its work, the folders and settings will have been saved in a '.mig' file in your chosen location. It's a compressed file, so space requirements can be dramatically reduced.

With this step of the migration process complete, spend a little time ensuring that the discs and set-up files for applications that will be installed post-installation are available along with any necessary serial numbers.

It is also worth individually backing up settings for any third-party programs that cannot be included in the migration wizard's backup – such as browser configuration and plug-ins, FTP client settings, feed readers and anything else that would be time-consuming to reinstate manually.

Installing Windows 7

Installing Windows 7

With this done, the installation of Windows 7 can begin. This can be started from within Windows itself or by booting from the set-up disc. The set-up routine will spend a little time extracting files from the disc and copying temporary files into place.

Provided an internet connection is available, select the option to obtain the latest Windows updates during installation and any available files will be downloaded.

When the screen prompting you to choose between upgrading Windows or performing a clean install is displayed, it's important to select the 'Custom (advanced)' option, or the preceding steps will have to be repeated once Windows XP is detected as the base OS.

The installation process is fairly self-explanatory; there are few options that need to be configured and any restarts that are needed will take place without you being prompted to do them. When Windows 7 has been installed, the files and settings that were backed up earlier can be restored using the Windows Easy Transfer wizard.

This time around, there is no need to run the program from the installation disc and a link is now available in the Start menu.

Launch the tool by clicking 'Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | Windows Easy Transfer', click 'Next' and then click the option that relates to the back-up method you used earlier on. Indicate that you're using your new computer and then click 'Yes' to confirm that a backup has already been created.

Browse to the '.mig' file which makes up the backup, enter the password if need be and then click 'Next' to continue.

View your migration reports

It's now possible to choose precisely what data and settings should be migrated in much the same way as the selection was made when creating the migration backup.

In all likelihood, the default options should suit most people. Additional migration settings can be configured by clicking the 'Advanced Options' link that appears in the bottom right-hand corner of the Windows Easy Transfer window.

The Advanced Options window is split into two tabs, the first of which relates to user account settings. Any user accounts that have been created during the Windows 7 installation will be listed, and dropdown menus to the right can be used to associate an older user account in the migration backup with one of the new ones.

Moving to the Map

Drives tab provides another handy option – as you'd expect, the mapping of drives. While this isn't really relevant when a computer is being upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7, if Windows Easy Transfer is being used to transfer settings from an old computer running Windows XP to a new one running Windows 7, data that was stored on a drive which had been assigned a particular letter on the old machine can be mapped to a new letter on the new machine.

Click the 'Save' button after making any changes to the default settings and then click 'Transfer'. Unless a very large amount of data is involved, the transfer process should be completed fairly quickly.

When it comes to transferring old user account information, you will be asked to provide the password that has been used to log into that account as an extra security measure. All that is left to do is click the button labelled 'Confirm my account information and update content protection'.

This ensures that the correct ownership status is applied to your files and folders according to the user account they relate to.

Windows Easy Transfer is not capable of transferring programs that were installed under the old version of Windows, but once the transfer of supported data is complete a report screen is displayed that provides a selection of helpful information.

It may well be that this report is not needed immediately. Luckily, it can be accessed at any time by clicking the 'Windows Easy Transfer Reports' link in the Start menu.

The Transfer Report tab displays basic information about what has been transferred, listing the individual user accounts as well as the documents and program settings involved. For help with software management, move to the Program Report tab.

The first section of the tab details programs that were included with Windows XP but are no longer included with Windows 7. While links are not provided to suitable alternatives, this list provides details of software you may wish to track down yourself.

Beneath this is a list of programs that were installed in Windows XP but haven't been transferred. Again, this is a very useful list of apps that you are likely to want to install again, and this time links are provided to the manufacturers' websites, so you can quickly download any replacements that you need.

XP to Windows 7 upgrade tips

User State Migration

Making use of Windows Easy Transfer is a quick and simple way to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, but it does require a degree of forethought and preparation. However, there is another route open to those migrating from XP.

This method takes advantage of the fact that when a clean installation of Windows 7 is performed over the top of Windows XP, the older operating system is retained in a folder called Windows.old. This folder contains all of the user accounts that have been created along with the documents associated with each of the accounts.

The files found here can be manually copied or moved to the new folders for individual users in Windows 7. This can be something of a time-consuming process, though, and program settings cannot be transferred using this method.

A far better option is to make use of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (or Windows AIK), which can be downloaded from here.

Windows 7 aik

This is a fairly hefty download weighing in at 1.7GB, but the Windows AIK includes a useful utility called the User State Migration tool which can be used to migrate Windows XP settings and files to Windows 7 post-installation without the need for any preparatory work.

The download is an ISO file which will need to be burned to DVD and then installed. After installation, the User State Migration tool can be found in 'C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\USMT'. There are 32-and 64-bit versions, so ensure that you use the correct one.

While making use of the User State Migration tool does not require advance preparation in the form of creating a backup, it is a command-line scripting tool, so a little time will need to be spent creating a suitable script to migrate files and settings across.

This fact alone should make it clear that the tool has been designed with corporate environments in mind, where hundreds of machines may be upgraded using the same script, but there is no reason for it not to be used at home as well.

There is simply not room in this feature to cover the creation of scripts and the terminology and parameters that can be used, but supporting documentation can be found on Microsoft Technet. Pay a visit to here for advice on how to go about creating a suitable script and how to use the program.

A couple of helpful introductory videos can also be found here and here.

Dual-boot Windows 7 with XP and Vista

Another option for XP and Vista users alike is to set up a dual-boot system that will provide you with the choice of Windows 7 or its predecessor at startup.

This is a great option for anyone who feels they still need access to an older version of Windows, or for those who aren't quite ready to commit to a full installation.

It's also useful for anyone who wants to try out Windows 7 on a couple of machines for a while. Following the installation of Windows there is a 30-day grace period before activation is required, but this can be easily – and legally – extended to four months using a simple procedure.

Towards the end of the first 30-day grace period, click the Start button followed by 'All Programs' and then 'Accessories'. Right-click the Command Prompt entry and select 'Run As Administrator' before providing the necessary password when prompted.

Command promt

At the Command Prompt type slmgr -rearm and press [Enter] before restarting Windows. This will reset the activation countdown. You can repeat the process three times, resulting in a 120-day period before activation is required.

Windows 7 is the operating system that many people have been waiting for for quite some time, and it's viewed by many as the operating system that Vista should have been.

Whether you are making the move from Windows XP or Vista, there are a range of new tools to try out as well as a new look to experience and new ways of working with files and Windows itself.

Few people look forward to the actual process of upgrading Windows – the end result may be desirable, but the process itself is generally less enjoyable – but by turning to dedicated migration tools, the process can be made as quick and painless as possible.


First published in PC Plus Issue 288

Liked this? Then check out our bumper list of Windows 7 tips, tricks and secrets

Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at

Follow TechRadar on Twitter

tutorial Windows 7
Share this Article

Most Popular

Edition: UK
TopView classic version