Upgrade or Clean Install?

There’s probably a special place in Hell for even pondering this (Ed: Level 7 of Robot Hell, in fact), but after experimenting with Windows 7’s upgrade install feature, we’re going to seriously discuss it for a moment.

There’s no prior version of Windows we would ever seriously recommend an upgrade install for. Upgrade installs have historically offered very spotty results, in cases leaving systems or applications in malfunctioning states. The best path always has and always will continue to be a complete reinstall, so that old programs and old Windows components don’t interfere with the newest version of Windows.

But with Windows 7, we’re willing to reconsider. When it comes to the transition from Vista to Windows 7, there have been very few significant changes to the underpinnings of Windows. Certainly compared to moving from XP to Vista, there are no major changes in any aspect of the driver stack or the audio stack, nor has security, the bootloader, or any number of other subsystems been overhauled. Jokes about Windows 7 being Vista SP3 aside, the lack of significant architectural changes between the operating systems means that it’s a favorable environment for an upgrade install, one more favorable than for any other consumer version of Windows.

Good idea? Bad Idea?

In our own testing, we have taken two boxes from Vista to 7 using the upgrade install feature; one of these systems even did the Vista->7 RC1->7 RTM shuffle thanks to some INI hacking. Both of these systems have turned out fine, suffering no ill effects compared to any of the systems we have done clean installs on. And while the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, we’ve seen similar reports elsewhere in places such as our forums that corroborate this.

To be clear, a clean install is always going to be the safer option. It forgoes any risk of old Windows components contaminating the new install, and hence for anyone that absolutely needs it to go right the first time, it’s still the way to go. But an upgrade install, when it works, is certainly more convenient than restoring a bunch of data and reinstalling every single program. Based on our experience, on a properly functioning machine this is something we would recommend trying so long as you have a good backup and the guts to give it a shot.

There are two things that need to be kept in mind when it comes to doing an upgrade install however. The first is that the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor contains a list of programs that it will want uninstalled before performing an upgrade. Programs that install system components such as VMWare or iTunes are chief among these, as those components won’t properly survive the upgrade; so some program reinstallation may still be required depending on what software you have. The second thing is that the upgrade process involves scanning, categorizing, and saving a lot of data, which means it can take a while. On one computer this took a hefty 5 hours, and on another lightly-used computer this was barely an hour. The key factor here is how much user data and how many programs are installed – the more stuff you have, the longer it will take. On a heavily used computer, this is something you may want to let run overnight or at some other point where you wouldn’t normally be using your computer.

Finally, there is no XP to 7 upgrade option, which given the issues in performing this action with Vista, doesn’t surprise us in the slightest. For XP users, there only option is a clean install, which in this case involves the Windows 7 installer backing up the old installation and laying down a fresh Windows 7 install.

Laptop Performance Conclusion


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  • gutterslob - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    Anandtech really needs someone that's better experienced at Linux.

    Now, I'm neither a Wintard or Freetard, but there's no balance whatsoever everytime I see them bring Ubuntu into the comparisons. I often wonder whether they broke their Linux install with the numbers they obtain.

    I don't have Win7 yet, but there's no way Ubuntu 9.04 boots that slow. I've seen it boot faster on 3 yr old laptops. I've not tried Ubuntu 9.10 yet (I'm mainly a Debian user), but from al the tests I've seen, it should blow away Win7,Vista,XP in the boot speed department.

    I agree that laptop battery life on Linux isn't as good as Windows out of the box, but a install a couple of apps (available on most distro repositories) and most people can get equal or better life on Linux. My Asus eeePC can run 8+hrs with on Arch Linux after minimal tweaking (I never got that much from XP even when the battery was brand new).

    I seriously hope AnandTech finds someone who knows Linux better (at least someone with comparable levels of knowledge that AnandTech seems to have with Windows). I've met highschool students with better Linux Know-how than this place... which is a shame, really, because other than that, I think very highly of AnandTech.

    Just my 2 cents

  • Voo - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    "I agree that laptop battery life on Linux isn't as good as Windows out of the box, but a install a couple of apps (available on most distro repositories)"
    Well the vast majority of home users don't know which apps that would be and won't find out about them

    And ArchLinux is a really sleek distribution, last time I checked the GUI wasn't even part of the standard installation. The same goes for self compiled kernels and similar things - certainly possibly but irrelevant for 99.99% of the users.

    It's the out of the box performance that's interesting for the majority (after all they didn't do anything for Windows as well), the users who enjoy playing with their PC usually already use Linux and know the advantages.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    FWIW, I worked with a "Linux Guru" -- a Senior Linux guy at a big OEM heavily involved with the ArchLinux community -- and we worked to run some additional tests on the NV52. So far, we didn't manage anything significantly better, but you can probably blame ATI's drivers as much as anything. We'll be working to expand Linux coverage (with him doing more of the work) in the future.

    Honestly, though, after spending the better part of two weeks going through numerous settings and trying to tweak ArchLinux to get significantly better battery life... well, I'm just not seeing it. I'm sure it's possible to do with the right hardware (i.e. NOT ATI!), but Linux is hardly a panacea. If you want good mobility, it's going to be tons easier for 99.999% of users to skip Linux (or get a netbook with Linux pre-installed).
  • JimmiG - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    "The concern we have is that all of these auto-elevating programs are an obvious target for a local privilege escalation attack to accomplish something similar, if not the same. Imagine finding a way to make the Display control panel execute a 3rd party application with admin privileges, for example."

    Well, the same could be done in Vista... The control panel applets aren't auto-elevated, but anyone who plans on doing anything useful with them is going to elevate them anyway. So UAC in Win7 should be as effective in Win7 as it was in Vista, granting administrative privileges only to applications that really need it.

    Also, the fact that UAC is less annoying is going to be a huge security improvement on its own since fewer users are likely to turn it off. Many users are good enough with computers to figure out how to turn off UAC, but don't know enough to realize that they compromise security by doing this. They think it's condescending, always questioning the user. In fact, the prompts are there to prevent malicious software from gaining sufficient privileges to compromise the computer system, not to prevent the user from performing the tasks he/she wants. That's why Server 2008, as well as OSX and almost every Linux distribution has a similar feature.
  • anandtech02148 - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    Of all things, multiplayer pc gaming is not mention in windows 7 (10,000 beta testers they say), and apparently Punkbuster is the defacto use for pc multiplayers and the majority of the developers.
    Consumers will like windows 7, the level of shine and sleek looking is pretty close to MacOs even themes,background on win7 is enjoyable compare to the years of dull blue windows.
    but what the crap, how long will i have to wait for a patch for this punkbuster.
  • haplo602 - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    it seems to me that if Linux did what MS does with marketing, we'd have a new major Linux version every year :-) (under Linux I mean a distro like Suse or Ubuntu).

    too much hype about too little a change. basicaly they are milking $$$ out of people for performance that should have been in Vista and naming it Windows 7 ... yeah ... More like Vista SP1 that this should have been.

    anyway I don't see a reason to upgrade from XP (moving to Linux completely on my next new HW build anyway).

    Also, to the folks complaining about missing codecs, mail client and whatnot. MS is essentialy stupid. If they followed the Linux distro model, they could just sell the core OS to OEMs and let them create distributions with any applications the OEMs like. This way they get around the anti-trust issues and also get rid of supporting the distributions. but guess they are too stupid to do that.
  • Chlorus - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    "Also, to the folks complaining about missing codecs, mail client and whatnot. MS is essentialy stupid."

    Yeah, because the distro vendors make so much money! Oh wait...
  • alpine18 - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    In 1995 I remember talking to an older guy that worked at Radio Shack about Windows. He said he'd never upgrade from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 because he said the memory usage was wasteful, and because even the OK buttons took up 16K of memory each.
    Over the years have I often wondered if he is still running Windows 3.1.

  • xrror - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    Problem is, he was right...

    It's wasn't so great to watch your decked out 4mb 386 that worked well in win3.11 choke horribly just trying to load the win95 taskbar.

    Then again, it didn't really help that Microsoft was saying win95 worked fine with 4mb ram. Note fine doesn't imply being able to use more than one application at once.

    heh, no the real question is if he is still running win3.1 exclusively
  • mejobloggs - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    I have Vista... And from what I can see in this article, there is no point in upgrading to Win 7

    I'd upgrade for $20 or so, but anything more seems a waste of money

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