Upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7.

Windows 7 is here, and it is a wonderful upgrade from Windows XP. I have not used Vista all that much, so I can’t say whether or not it’s worth the upgrade from Vista. However, for most people still running Windows XP, if your computer has 2GB of RAM or more, there is no reason you should wait to upgrade your personal computer. This article is designed to guide you through the initial preparation for your upgrade, including manual backups of your files. If you want to do it the Microsoft way using Windows Easy Transfer, you can follow their guide here.

32-bit or 64-bit

Um, 64-bit.

Really, I can’t see a reason to stick with 32-bit unless you have specific devices or software programs that absolutely must have a 32-bit environment due to no 64-bit drivers or no 64-bit version of your software (most 32-bit programs will run in a 64-bit environment).

Upgrade vs. Full Install

Windows XP can not be upgraded in place to Windows 7. You will need to backup your files to a separate hard drive, partition, or external media such as DVD+R discs and then start from scratch. All of your programs will need to be reinstalled, and your personal settings and files will need to be restored from your backup.

The easiest way to backup files is to connect an external hard drive to your computer, create a backup folder on it, and drag-and-drop your files into this folder. If you have a second internal hard drive or separate partition, you can use it as well.

Tip: Instead of dragging and dropping all of your files into a single backup folder, create sub-folders and give them the name of the location that they are backed up from. For example, create a “My Documents” sub-folder and drop the contents of your current My Documents folder into that. This will make restoring your files much easier.

Note: If you have a second hard drive or partition, check to make sure that it is not a recovery partition; many retail computers now come with a separate hard drive partition that contains an image of the computer’s factory default configuration. If you need to completely reformat your computer, a recovery partition will restore your computer’s primary hard drive to the day it came from the store. A recovery partition should not be used to backup your files.

What Files to Backup

You do not need to backup files on your computer if you don’t have any documents, email, music, photos, saved games, etc. that you want to keep.  However, most people do have files that they want to keep. So, how do you know which files you should keep?

Documents, Photos, Music

At a minimum, you will want to backup your My Pictures and My Music folders in your My Documents folder. You will probably also want to backup any documents or individual files in your My Documents folder – most programs like Microsoft Office save your documents in the My Documents folder by default.

My Documents
Your My Documents folder contains Music, Pictures, Videos, and more.

Be sure to browse all of the other folders in the My Documents folder and backup everything you want to keep. Many software programs create folders in your My Documents folder (I had a NeroVision folder, a Sansa Media Converter folder, an AdobeStock Photos folder and a few more that I did not create). These often have saved game files, configuration files, and sometimes even documents and templates created by the program. If you are not using these programs or you do not want to keep the data in them, feel free to omit them from your backup.


Although generally considered a bad practice, many users keep dozens of files on the desktop. Look at any files on your desktop and backup the ones you want to keep.

Note: Don’t bother backing up shortcuts; they probably won’t work once you install Windows 7 anyway.

Documents and Settings

The Documents and Settings folder contains most of your user-specific data, including your My Documents folder by default (if you’ve changed the location of your My Documents folder to another hard drive, you will still have a My Documents folder in Documents and Settings, but it will be mostly empty).

You’ll see a folder for each user on the computer along with an All Users folder. If multiple user accounts are on your computer, each user folder will contain that user’s Desktop files, My Documents (by default), Favorites from Internet Explorer, Application Data, and more. Go ahead and backup all of the user-specific folders as well as the All Users folder. You may not need all of these files, but they should not take up too much space in most cases.

Documents and Settings
The Documents and Settings folder contains folders for each user along with an All Users folder.

Note: The Application Data folder for each user is hidden by default, but it contains some of the most valuable files for your programs, including saved games for many popular PC games. If you want to view this folder, you’ll need to go to Tools>Folder Options, then in the View tab, select “Show hidden files and folders” and click OK.

Tools Menu
To view hidden folders, first open the Tools menu and select "Folder Options"
Folder Options
In the Folder Options, go to the View tab, select "Show hidden files and folders" and click OK
Application Data
You should now be able to see the Application Data folder as well as several other hidden folders

Program Files

Some of your programs, particularly games, may keep files in their folder within the Program Files folder. There is no easy way to determine what should be backed up, so go through each of the folders and see if there are any important files. Most, if not all, of these files will not need to be backed up.

Hint: Folders within the Program Files folder are often named after the software title or the title of the publisher for the software. For example, the PC game Doom3 is in a folder called DOOM 3, and the DOOM 3>base>savegames sub-folder contains your saved game files for Doom3. Many files for games purchased on Steam are kept in the Steam folder in Program Files.

Saved Games

As stated above, saved game files can be found in the Application Data folder, the Program Files folder, and the My Documents folder. There is no standard place for saved game files, so you’ll need to hunt around for the ones you want to keep. One way to find saved game files is to search online for “[name of game] saved game location” and see if someone else has already researched where the files are located. Another great way to find them is to use the Search feature in Windows XP. To search for saved games in your Program Files folder, right-click on the Program Files folder, select “Search…”, and type “save” in the search box. This should give you all files and folders with “save” in the name. You can do the same for the Application Data folder and the My Documents folder.

Program Files Search
To search for saved games in your Program Files folder, right-click on the Program Files folder, select "Search...", and type "save" in the search box

Installing Windows 7

Now that you’ve backed up your files, it’s time to install Windows 7. If you have an active internet connection, this is pretty easy. If not, it’s still probably going to be pretty easy. Make sure you download Windows 7 drivers for your devices if you can before installing. Windows 7 will recognize and install most hardware without a problem, especially if it has an internet connection, but there may be some things that it does not recognize right away.

Assuming you have the drivers you need and a live internet connection, follow these instructions to install Windows 7 or just wing it (choose Custom installation). The installation practically runs itself, and it’s fast. You will be up and running in about 20 minutes if your hardware is recognized and everything goes smoothly.


So, to prepare for an upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, you’ll want to backup the following:

  • My Documents folder (My Pictures, My Music, My Videos, etc.)
  • Documents and Settings folder (individual user folders, All Users folder)
  • Saved games and other files in the Program Files folder

In my next post I’ll discuss how to quickly install some essential programs (Firefox, 7-zip, Skype, etc.) and restore your files to the appropriate locations in your new Windows 7 installation. Stay tuned!

Series: Upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7