Monday, July 12, 2010

Don't replace that computer, upgrade to Windows 7 instead

I started using windows 7 as part of my Media PC project. I really liked the fact that Windows 7 Home Premium includes Windows Media Center.  With WMC, just add a Digital Tuner and you've got yourself a fully functional DVR.  WMC even includes free TV guide information (that you'd have to pay extra for even if you used free software DVR packages).

However, after using Windows 7 for a while, I really got used to some of the nice features.  I got to thinking how nice it would be to have Windows 7 on my laptop or my other home computers (all previously running Windows XP).  Since my computers are far from new, I figured that they didn't have the hardware requirements needed.

Surprisingly, the minimum requirements for Windows 7 are pretty modest (see here).  Basically, if your processor speed is 1GHz or better and you have 1GB of RAM you might be able to upgrade.  All of my computers meet this requirement, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Of course, I could get Windows 7 if I bought a new computer, but I hate throwing away or recycling what I know are perfectly good computers.

To install Windows 7, you can use either the OEM version (for new computers) or the upgrade version (if your computer previously ran XP or Vista).  Either version will run you about $100 from Amazon.

After upgrading to Windows 7, my old laptop (which I was ready to replace), now feels like a brand new computer!  It is snappier and boots faster too.  Even better, I no longer feel that I have to hang my head in shame when I see an Apple or new Dell.

Reasons why I like Windows 7 (over XP)

Why even mess with a perfectly good computer that is running Windows XP or Vista?  Well, if you use your computer a lot like me, you might appreciate some of the improvements.  Here are some that I noticed so far:
  • Feels much more stable than XP - I haven't had any crashes or hangs.
  • Aero - This is Windows 7's (and Vista's) fancy new UI.  I really like how they used some of the graphics capability to provide visually pleasing (but not overdone) effects.  The windows have a glass border with shadows.  Opening and closing windows have nice effects.  I also like the ability to "half-size" windows by dragging them left or right off screen.
  • All New Task bar - This is unique to Windows 7.  The task bar at the bottom now has many of the features of modern "dock" applications.  I like the fact that I can preview my minimized applications just by mousing over them.  I also pin my favorite applications (like firefox), for quick launches.
  • In general, Windows 7 has a far more polished interface.  It is easy to find things and I love the ability to search for commands in the help windows.
  • Windows 7 Gadgets - I was a big fan of Yahoo' widgets.  While there are thousands of widgets, I simply liked the ability to have a decent looking clock, calendar and weather widget.  With Window's built in Gadgets, I don't need Yahoo's widgets anymore.  I have nothing against Yahoo, but their software always seemed a bit bloated to me and sucked up a lot of cpu. 
  • Fast booter time.   Even after loading all of my software, Windows 7 seems to load way faster than XP ever did.
  • Built-in software firewall.  I used to be a big fan of ZoneAlarm, but after it started causing me more problems I was ready for a replacement.  I've read that Windows 7 has a vastly improved firewall so I'm happy to get rid of Zonealarm and those endlessly annoying pop-ups.
  • Built-in backup/restore software that works really well.  It is really easy to create system images of all of your systems using one external disk.  See my post here.
Browse Microsoft's list of features here.  Also, check out other users' top Windows 7 features under resource links below...

Windows 7 Annoyances

Well, all is not perfect of course.  Here are some of the things that I don't like about Windows 7 (pretty minor so far):
  • The task manager requires you to click a button to see all processes.  I wish I could enable this by default.
  • No more icon indicator for shared folders.  Windows XP showed a "hand" for folders that are shared.  Windows 7 seems to only indicate share properties if you mouse over the folder.  Why did they get rid of this!
  • So, far I don't quite get the "HomeGroup" sharing.  In a home environment, I don't want passwords or complicated network sharing.  I can still do simple file sharing in Windows 7, but I find the whole HomeGroup concept unnecessary (for me).  I'm still playing with this, so I'll report back if I change my mind.
Upgrading my Dell Inspiron 6400 (E1505) laptop

Okay, how hard was the actual process to upgrade an older computer to Windows 7?  First of all my Dell laptop is over 4 (almost 5) years old and was running Windows XP.  Nevertheless, it easily meets the minimum requirements per Microsoft's website above.

Also, Microsoft provides an upgrade adviser for those of you who want more assurance.  Just download it to get a report on what you may have to change.  Below is the report run on my laptop.  No errors for me!  Note:  I actually cheated...  This was run after I installed Win 7, but it is nice to know that there aren't any problems!  Sometimes it is easier to just try it!

Installing Windows 7 itself was a piece of cake.  My personal strategy is to use separate partitions for the OS and my data.  So, I installed Windows 7 on the main partition (it leaves the extra partition alone as long as you are careful).  Of course, you will want to backup everything first regardless (preferably to an external drive).

After installing all of the recommended Windows 7 updates, my laptop came up with just about everything working great.  Nevertheless (especially with laptops), it is worth going through the hardware devices to make sure you have the best drivers possible.  In my case I did find some better (more functional) drivers:
  • Sound card driver
  • Modem driver
  • Touchpad driver
  • Card Reader driver
  • Dell Quickset software (for hotkeys)
You can usually find hardware drivers at your laptop manufacturer's website (Dell in my case).  Otherwise, you may try the chip / device manufacturer.  If you don't find Windows 7 versions of the drivers you need, I read that Vista drivers work too.  In my case, Vista drivers worked fine.

In experimenting with the battery life on my laptop, I did find an optimization that I recommend.  If you open "Power Options", I recommend changing the "On battery" settings to "Balanced".  For my ATI Radeon x1200 graphics card, this helped make the UI much more responsive when on battery power:

Similarly, I found that I had to disable "Transition Effects" in WMC.  I guess my ATI graphics card isn't quite up to snuff in some regards.  However, this is a minor sacrifice and I don't lose any functionality.

You will definitely want to personalize your desktop.  Start by selecting one of the Aero themes (I like Landscapes or United States).  Also try to add some simple gadgets if you find them useful.

All-in-all, I would say it was a pretty simple upgrade process and definitely worth the effort.

Upgrading my desktop

I have an older Dell Vostro 400 that I use as my desktop computer.  It is newer than my laptop, but still going on about 3 years old (and ran Windows XP).  Like my laptop, it easily meets the system requirements for Windows 7.

Windows 7 installed quickly and it didn't have any problems finding all of the device drivers.  A quick check of the device manager showed that the audio driver could be updated.  After installing the latest Realtek driver, that problem was fixed.  Otherwise, I had no issues and windows 7 works great.

Some observations:
  • My desktop had a significant amount of data that I had to backup prior to installing Win 7.  During the restore, I was amazed to see that Win 7 was able to copy huge numbers of files disk-to-disk at nearly 90+ MB/sec.  This is remarkable because that is just about the raw speed of the disk doing sequential i/o.  The fact that Win 7 can copy files at this speed is impressive.  Note that my files are large and I try to use the maximum NTFS block size (64K), so that probably helped.  Nevertheless, it seemed much faster than XP would have copied it.
Another example: Dell XPS laptop (Windows Vista)

A friend of mine has a much newer laptop and I've been talking with him about upgrading to Windows 7.  There was no question that his laptop could run Windows 7 (it was already running Vista and is only about 1 year old).  The question for him was really if it was worth it.

While Vista is cosmetically very similar to Windows 7, I've heard Microsoft has done quite a bit internally to make it faster, less resource hungry, and more stable.  Windows 7 also has the nice new task bar that I really like.  Here are his observations after upgrading:
  • Performance wise it feels a little faster 
  • Went from a performance rating of 5.1 in Vista to a 5.7 in Win 7
  • This has probably been the easiest OS upgrade that I have ever done 
  • I loaded Call of Duty 4 and I was able to play in higher resolutions and with higher settings than I was able to play in Vista. Probably a combination of Windows 7 and improved/newer video card drivers.  
  • Whoa! I just noticed a message in the Action Center, new to Windows 7 I think, and it suggested I download and install the missing drivers for the memory card reader. I clicked on the message and it displayed a link to download the driver from the Dell website. Pretty cool.
Other, much older systems I've also upgraded

Asus P4P800, Nvidia FX 5200, 75GB ATA Hard Disk with 1GB RAM:

This upgrade to Windows 7 worked great.  Installation took a while.  Not sure what the delay/hanging was all about, but it eventually finished.  I was able run run Windows Aero with full effects.  I did have to manually install the realtek vista driver to get sound to work.  No problems so far (once all updates were installed).

Asus A8V Deluxe (w/ AMD dual core cpu), Nvidia ti4200, 300GB ATA Hard Disk with 3GB Ram:

This upgrade should have been easier, but I actually ran into some problems and learned a few things.  Windows works best with video cards that support DirectX 9.0 (the ti4200 is only 8.1).   I got it to work using older Nvidia drivers installed manually.  Windows works okay, but one game causes it to crash (we can live with that limitation).  I also learned that SATA drivers are hard / impossible to find for this motherboard (or for P4P800 as well).  Good thing that I was using an ATA disk.

Toshiba Tecra M2 laptop, Nvidia FX Go5200 with 512K RAM:

This is another pretty old system (7 years?).   I got a working graphics driver from   I had a little bit of trouble getting the touchpad driver right (I couldn't figure out if it was made by Synaptics or Alps).  I finally got the Alps driver working.   So far it is working ok and even supports Aero.   However, I failed to get the SD card driver to work, the display brightness is stuck on high, and sleep doesn't work (Hibernate is fine).  However, it is still quite usable and I even got the function hotkeys to work (with Toshiba's latest "Value Added Package".

Getting older computers to work on Windows 7 is a challenge as you have to hunt for drivers that work.   However, it is amazing the variety of relatively ancient hardware that you can get working.


Upgrading from XP to Windows 7 is a no-brainer.  Windows 7 is so much nicer and really does make your computer feel like it has a whole new lease on life.   Skip the new computer and you may just find that you can get a few more years out of your computer!

Helpful Resources

Finally, a big thank you to the guys at Seven Forums (a great resource!).  They solved a weird Windows 7 desktop problem that I had.

I should also mention The Green Button.  A forum for Windows Media Center issues.

Lots of people have published their favorite features in Windows 7:

Also, here is a more complete Windows 7 feature comparison table.  Personally, I find that Home Premium has everything that I need.

1 comment:

  1. If you have a student attending college, you can get Windows 7 PROFESSIONAL VERSION (with three licenses) for approx $100. This is NOT to be confused with the student/teacher one, or the TRIAL version. This is the full blown professional version with outlook, access,etc. I just asked at the on campus bookstore, and they went in the back room and brought it out. :) Installed it on three computers for a total of $100 plus tax.


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