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What should you do before installing Windows 7?

So you’ve decided to take the Windows 7 plunge, having heard all the paeans to Redmond’s latest operating system. For many users, setting it up will be a simple case of popping in the installation disc and following the prompts. But there are a few steps you should take and decisions you need to make before and during the process.

How to install Windows 7

Check Your Machine’s Specs

The first thing to do is check whether your desktop or laptop PC is capable of running Windows 7. If it’s already running Vista with acceptable performance, then the answer is yes. Officially, you need at least a 1-GHz CPU and 1GB RAM, but testers of the OS have successfully got it running on machines as out of date as a 266-MHz Pentium II with 96MB of RAM. Go ahead and try that kind of thing if you want, just don’t use your license key on that type of machine. It may run, but you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for it, and it won’t display the glassy new Aero interface and enhancements.

If you’re unsure whether your current system can run Windows 7, download and run Microsoft’s Upgrade Advisor to assess your hardware’s capabilities. When I ran it on an aging XP laptop, it told me I needed to back up my files and perform a Custom installation (see below), that my hard disk didn’t have enough free space (you need 16GB), and that the laptop wouldn’t run Aero Desktop. The good news, however, was that my 1.6-GHz CPU and 1.5GB RAM were sufficient. The advisor actually checks a lot more than the basic system requirements, and it lists every piece of hardware and software you have installed at the bottom of its report.

Choose an Edition

There are lots of different editions of Windows 7, but only three you can buy: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. For most people, Home Premium will make the most sense. If your company decides to upgrade, Professional supports domain joining, network backup, and XP emulation. Ultimate includes everything in both other versions, and adds BitLocker encryption.

The key thing to consider here is that you have to do a clean installation—without the ability to carry your apps along—if you move from one level of Vista to another level of Windows 7, say from Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Professional. The exception is Windows 7 Ultimate, which will let you perform an in-place upgrade from any level of Vista—as long as you don’t change whether you’re using the 32- or 64-bit version.

Don’t forget to look into special pricing offers, such as those for students and family packs. And if you’re installing on a machine you’ve freshly built, you can pay less for OEM versions that don’t include all the packaging and support. The Student upgrade license is just $29.99, and PC part suppliers offer the OEM versions at steep discounts as well.

Choose 64-bit or 32-bit

Any computer manufactured in the last few years will probably have a 64-bit capable CPU. The rule of thumb is that if you have, or intend to install, more than 3GB of memory on your PC, you want 64-bit Windows.

And don’t worry about your old 32-bit programs—compatibility features inside Windows allow most of these to run in the 64-bit OS, the exceptions generally being antivirus software and hardware drivers. One significant holdback, however, is Adobe’s Flash: If you run the 64-bit version of Internet Explorer that comes with Windows 7, you won’t be able to view Web sites that use Flash. But there’s an easy fix: Run 32-bit IE for those sites until Adobe gets with the program.

Both 32- and 64-bit installation discs come in the Windows 7 box, so you only have to specify which you want if you’re downloading the code. In short, my recommendation is that if your system can run 64-bit software, go for it: You’ll be using your CPU and memory more efficiently, and you’ll be future-proofed for upcoming 64-bit apps.

Back Up Your Data

Now that you’ve chosen the version and acquired your copy of Windows 7, what should you do? OS installation gets at some pretty close-to-the-metal system components, so if the power should go out, you could end up losing a lot of stuff. You can use the built-in Windows Backup program to create DVDs of your files, but our backup analyst, Ed Mendelson, recommends getting a third-party backup application.

Choose Upgrade or Custom

If you’re upgrading from any previous version of Windows, you’ll have this all-important choice, although the Upgrade option will only be available if you’re moving from Vista. If your victim machine has never had Windows installed on it before, you won’t have either choice—just go ahead and choose Install.

Choosing Custom gives you a lot of options not available from Upgrade, like formatting and partitioning your hard disk. This type of “clean” install is actually recommended if you can live with having to reinstall your apps—your system will run without any of the gunk it’s accumulated over the course of program installations and other system changes. One final note about this choice: You must start up from the installer disc; you cannot run the installer from within Windows for this type of installation to work.

Run Windows Easy Transfer

Do this if you’re not choosing the Upgrade option. This will copy and later restore documents, media such as digital photos and videos, and settings, but not programs. Because of this, a better choice is to buy a copy of Laplink’s PCmover, which moves your files and settings and also transfers apps.

Update, Run, and Disable Your Antivirus Software

Microsoft’s official site recommends this, but I didn’t touch my antivirus software and didn’t have a problem when I did the upgrade. Our security analyst, Neil Rubenking, thinks this may be excessively cautious but that it doesn’t hurt to stay on the safe side. After all, you don’t want to carry over any contaminations to the new system.

Make Sure You’re Connected to the Internet

At one point, the installation process will attempt to retrieve any updates from Microsoft’s servers—it’s a good idea to let it do this. Either a wired or wireless connection is fine.

Get Going

After you’re all backed up, it’s time to start with the installation. If you’re doing an Upgrade from Vista, you insert the disc while the PC is running. But if you’re doing a Custom install, restart the system with the disc in the drive. Make sure you’ve chosen the correct 32- or 64-bit disc and power up the system. You may need to hit a function key and then hit any key in order to boot from the DVD drive. On some machines, like netbooks, if you’re installing from an external drive you may have to run Settings to get the computer to boot from it.

Tip: If you’re installing to an older machine, make sure all USB devices are disconnected. You may even need to disconnect internal USB connections. There have been reports of stalled installations when USB devices are connected.

Next, you’ll see a “Windows is loading files…” message and a progress bar, followed by a “Starting Windows” splash screen. After this, you’ll be able to choose your language, time, keyboard, and currency formats (the correct choices for the U.S. are the defaults).

Hit Next and you’ll see the big Install Now button, but, before you hit a couple of useful links located below: “What to know before installing Windows” and “Repair your computer.” The first addresses the topics of Upgrade and Custom options. The second offers advanced tools to address problems with booting your PC and lets you recover using a backup you’ve previously created.

Click the Install Now button. There’s still time to back out, because on the next screen you have to accept the license agreement by checking a box. It’s after this that you get the choice between an Upgrade and a Custom (advanced) installation (see above for help with this). For an Upgrade installation, the process then begins. The Upgrade installation usually takes a bit longer than a Custom (or “Clean”) installation: between 45 minutes and an hour, in my experience. A clean installation should take half an hour or less, depending on your system speed.

If you choose Custom, there’s a little more to do. Your next screen will show you a list of the disk partitions on your hard drive, and you’ll need to select one on which to install Windows 7. If you’re lucky, the partitions will be titled with understandable text, but even failing that, your best choice is the one the installer preselects, which is the partition on which your previous OS was installed. This will have the type System shown in a column to the right, and all will show how much disk space has been allotted to them.

If you want to create another partition—for example, to multiboot different operating systems—click Advanced. This will add choices to delete, format, and create new partitions. If you really want to blow away your existing OS, choose Format. If you don’t do this, the installer will actually make a copy of the files from your previous OS in a folder called Windows.old. Finally, the Advanced options let you load a driver for an external drive and extend a partition. (This last will only be usable if you have unallocated disk space—i.e., storage space that’s not part of an existing partition—which will only be the case if you’ve added a new hard drive or done some partitioning yourself.)

Assuming you’re choosing the same partition your previous Windows version used, you’ll get a warning that your files will be moved to a Windows.old folder. If you’ve done this more than once, the folder will be named “windows.old.001,” and so on.

Now comes the waiting. The Windows 7 installer copies its files to your disk, expands them (the longest step in this process), installs features, installs updates, and bang, you’re there. If something goes awry—say, the external disk drive you’re using gets disconnected—you can abort the installation and everything it’s done to your system will be undone.

After Running Setup

Once the setup has run its course, you’ll be asked to type in a username (20 characters maximum) and computer name (15 characters maximum). Then you’re asked for a password, password confirmation, and password hint. (You can bypass this last step if you’re not worried about others getting into your PC.) After this, you’re supposed to enter your product key, but since you have a 30-day trial, you don’t need to right away. The same page by default sets the system to automatically activate Windows, but you may want to uncheck this if you’re just trying out the OS. After 30 days, you’ll see messages and warnings that you need to Activate, so it’s not like you can forget about it.

Then you choose Security settings. The large choice at the top for Default Settings makes a lot of sense—it turns on automatic updates and checks online to resolve problems. The other two choices, “Install important updates only” and “Ask me later,” leave you a bit less protected. After this, you’ll be prompted for your Time Zone and be given a chance to check the date and time. Windows gets this over the Internet, so you shouldn’t have to set it manually.

Now comes the Welcome screen and the “Windows is preparing your Desktop” Message. And that’s it—you’re running Windows 7! You’ll likely see updates in available in Windows Update, which will probably require a restart.

If you did a Custom installation upgrade, install any apps and restore the files you backed up. If you’ve switched from the 32-bit edition to the 64-bit one, you can still install your 32-bit apps, but you may have to update your antivirus program and some hardware drivers to the 64-bit versions.

You may want to consider downloading the free Windows Live Essentials package, which includes Windows Live Messenger for instant messaging, Photo Gallery for photo editing and organizing, the Mail client, Movie Maker for easy video editing, and more. And you’ll probably want to customize your system. Regardless, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the new taskbar, Aero enhancements, and more!

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