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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  • Genx87 - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    It is Vista with a facelift. If you already have Vista i agree with you. I only have Win7 thanks to my Technet account. Doubt i would pay for the upgrade from Vista.

    But I still think Win7 is a very kickass OS. I have been impressed. Except for the dumbing down of UAC.
  • bigpow - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    If you're just going over the features, and installation of Win7 - why call it performance guide?

    "Intro to Win7" would be more appropriate.

    We expect to see performance related GUIDES, when we saw that title.
    Not just some boring and obvious old-recycled presentations the whole internet has already gone through.

    So boring!
  • computerfarmer - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    Windows 7 was released and the people with AMD systems running RAID setups were in shock, no RAID drivers for windows 7. This is an issue. Today there has been RAID drives posted at the AMD site, with the posting date back dated to the 22nd.

    I had tried for hours try to get this new OS installed on the 23rd, but none of the available drivers were accepted by Win7. There for I could not install with a RAID setup. After Googling for a bit I realized I was not the only one, this was a far bigger problem.

    My initial excitement of enjoying the weekend with the new OS did not take place. It is now monday and I am wondering when I will take another stab at another install attempt.

    The link I have found for the AMD RAID driver is

    Why was this issue not covered by any review sit?
  • Genx87 - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    This is an AMD issue, not a Win7 issue????
    How is it Microsofts fault AMD dropped the ball with their RAID driver support?
  • DominionSeraph - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    "Why was this issue not covered by any review sit?"

    Because it's not a Windows 7 issue.
  • computerfarmer - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    I believe you are half right.

    If a business runs a raid setup and most do, they can not use this.

    If individuals run raid, they can not use this.

    If millions of businesses and individuals can not use this. Then what good is an operating system that so many can not use. This is not good business.

    The RC version worked with the existing drivers and the RTM version came with out warning that the rules had changed for this OS. The OS has changed, therefor this is an OS issue.
  • Genx87 - Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - link

    How many businesses do you know run RAID on their desktops? I'd like to know myself because in the thousands of workstations I have built over the past years only a handful ever used any form of RAID. And those were RAID 1 and I am convinced the engineers who ordered them only did it to say they have RAID.

  • DominionSeraph - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    "Certainly someone is going to bite my head off for this, but I don’t think Microsoft should have made such a fundamental change to UAC. More casual users may not have been fond of how Vista or UAC Level 3 handle security, but it was a more secure choice than Level 2."

    What are you doing complaining about security while running as admin?

    UAC is about social engineering. That it acts like a security feature is because if you want to engineer towards the security model with limited accounts, you have to make the administrator account act like one.

    The standard access tokens and UAC nags used by the administrator account are not a part of the tiered model's administrator level -- they're there to mimic the experience of a standard user account so programmers will actually program for standard user account access. (and so users will get used to the prompts for elevation that come with operating as a standard user.)

    To obsess over a reduction in limited user -type security in the administrator account is to miss the point that that's not even aligned with Microsoft's security philosophy. Their model (along with everbody else) has been tiered privileges, not somehow patching all possible vulnerabilities out of root.

    Vista's default UAC was pretty much universally reviled. People wanted fewer nags, meaning less limited-access -like behavior. But you can't have auto-elevation without a reduction in security.
    Could Microsoft do a better job securing the hole they opened to god-mode from the administrator account? Yes. Would the amount of effort be insane, judged in light of the fact that an administrator account is supposed to be god mode? Yes.
    Should Microsoft rewrite the Win7 kernel so that these apps run in protected space that restricts them to pre-authorized actions and disallows daughter processes just so the lazy and power-mad among us can dismiss the logical security scheme and continue to run as Administrators 24/7? There's always going to be system vulnerability from the administrator account -- that's kinda its purpose. Instead of trying to secure the unsecurable, Microsoft is trying to get people to embrace a better model.

    And at least they took out the obvious stupidity, like MSPaint auto-elevating. (You can delete anything [like C:\WINDOWS] from its file manager when elevated.)

    And, for the record, I'm one of those lazy and power-mad who run as Admin 24/7. But I'm also on a non-critical machine.
  • DominionSeraph - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/2009.0...">http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/maga.../2009.07... Reply
  • ElectricBlue7331 - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    What's the big deal about out of the box codec support? Is it really that difficult to get a different media player and/or codec pack? Reply

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