There could be no worse Windows upgrade to contemplate than a full switch from Windows XP to Windows 7. An upgrade isn't possible, of course; one must rebuild a system from scratch. The time involved in such a process is why I often recommend to clients that they time system purchases strategically so they never have to do a rebuild upgrade and instead just buy the new OS version on a new PC.
My primary system, a venerable ThinkPad T60 (about 5 years old) still has a lot of life left. I tend to buy big when I buy and install strategic hardware upgrades along the way, so I anticipate as much as two more years before I really need a new system. Continuing to use XP was an option, but not a very good one.
There were a couple of nails in XP's coffin. One was Internet Explorer 9. As a Web developer, I have no choice but to stay current with browsers. IE9 doesn't run in XP. While I had already set up a secondary system with Win7 and IE9 and also added IE9 to my wife's Vista PC, the convenience of having IE9 instantly available is compelling.
The other, more galling nail was a bit of ribbing (okay, it was actually more like a few kidney punches) from a Microsoft VP. He was so appalled that I had not already made the switch that he offered to personally buy me a copy of Win7, an offer I declined (I have plenty of licenses, but I could not have accepted anyway). I was appropriately chastened and resumed my upgrade work.
I say resumed because I originally began this transition last fall. I bought a new, larger hard drive, installed Win7 Pro, and installed some strategic ThinkVantage components from Lenovo. I then installed some major software packages like Office 2007, Visual Studio 2008, Expression 4, and more. At that point I faced some important decisions about old software (such as Visual Studio 6) and in the lull that ensued as I considered those options, I fell off the horse. One thing led to another and, well, call me lazy.
Now I have to say I'm sorry I waited so long. There are some complications but overall I've improved things by finally making Win7 my primary.
The most important thing I've noticed is an improvement in performance. It's well known that Win7 boots faster than XP and Vista and that it shuts down more quickly as well. That's handy, especially when I'm doing an upgrade like this and have to boot back and forth between old and new. The improvment I'm actually talking about is running everyday programs. Across the board, Win7 "feels" faster and smoother. Part of this is no doubt the result of having a clean system install without years of patches and fixes cluttering up things; if I had done a clean build of XP I probably would have seen some some improvement, too. But I've done that sort of rebuild before and this one is better.
Making the Transfer
Because the XP to Win7 process forces a complete rebuild, buying a new hard drive for the new system is the best choice. It leaves the old system intact and, as a side benefit, allows one to bump up the size. The XP hard drive is 200GB; I moved to 320GB for the Win7 build. The hard drive was less expensive than buying one license of Win7.
My ThinkPad T60 has a removable bay (UltraBay) that normally holds the DVD drive. I have a carrier for a hard drive, so I was able to have both the old and new drives online at the same time. The T60 easily allows booting from either drive, so I could work on either XP or Win7 at the same time. A similar arrangement is possible with an external USB or eSATA drive.
I used the Windows Easy Transfer tool to bring data from old to new. It's an impressive tool, perhaps a little too good. In my case it was easiest to have XP build a file on the new hard drive (I had it installed in the UltraBay). Once I booted from the Win7 drive, the transfer file was right there.
I was amazed at how much Easy Transfer took care of for me. Having never done this before, I made the mistake of configuring Win7 a little too much. Easy Transfer ignored what I had done (which makes sense) and I thus ended up with duplicates, such as some of my Web browser favorites.
I was a bit worried about older programs running in Windows 7. I have a lot of old stuff. There is good news and bad news.
The good news is that software has to be really old before it presents much of a problem. I was worried about Adobe Creative Suite CS2 because Adobe's site was vague about compatibility, but most of the suite's programs run fine. An exception is Illustrator; when Windows 7 runs it some features of the Aero interface are not available. To its credit, Windows 7 pops up a notification to that effect and then restores Aero after the offending program is closed.
Most of my pre-XP software also runs. A glaring exception is Visual Studio 6 and some of the programs I wrote for myself in Visual Basic 6. I probably can solve this by installing components that were part and parcel of previous editions of Windows but not installed by default in Windows 7. I'll have to do more experiments. However, rebuilding my complete environment for VB6 might be too much. An alternative is to keep that old hard disk handy and simply boot it to do the legacy work. And another alternative is just to update all that software to .NET and use a more contemporary version of Visual Studio. (I'll probably get some more Microsoft jabs for my recalcitrance about .NET.)
One of the oldest programs I still run is the MS-DOS version of Air Traffic Controller. The code was last compiled in 1983 by a C compiler I no longer have. ATC runs perfectly. (Running any 28-year old software on that Mac?)
Only one thing truly tripped me up.
I use Photoshop Elements (PSE) for the majority of my image editing work. One reason I like it is the built-in organizer. That organizer maintains its data in a catalog file and both the organizer and the file are extremely smart. One powerful feature is the ability to deal with offline data - you can put images on a CD, remove the main files from your hard drive, and have PSE prompt you for the CD when you attempt to edit or view those images.
What I didn't know was that the smartness extends to the catalog backup feature. My mistake was having both hard disks accessible at the same time and the result was that the catalog ended up thinking that all the images were on the D: drive rather than on the C: drive (which is actually where they all were after I just copied the "Photos" folder from old to new).
Either I'm too smart for PSE or it's too smart for me. This will settle after some time, but it's been an annoyance.
That's about it, though. Hard to complain very loudly.
I've been using Windows XP for over 8 years. It was a tremendous advance in 2002 when it first appeared and I, like many others, rushed to embrace it. In my entire computing career I've never used one version of an operating system for such a long time. Of course, that record is partially the result of avoiding Vista and then being lazy about migrating to 7.
Windows 7 is better than XP, hands down. I'm happy.