Microsoft deliberately made it impossible to perform an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 on a Windows XP system.
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With Windows 7 now available for pre-order (and selling like hotcakes), it's fast poised to become the next big emblematic version of Windows -- what for a long time XP was to Windows as a whole. But people currently running XP who want 7 need to be mindful of a potential complication: While Windows supported direct upgrades from XP to Vista, they're not supporting a direct upgrade path from XP to 7.
What's this mean for potential upgraders? It means you can't take a current Windows XP computer, throw in the Windows 7 installation DVD, and upgrade your running XP installation to 7 with programs and data intact.
This whole situation and the processes that go with it have set more than a few heads spinning, mine included. It seems unfair to deny XP users -- the biggest market segment of Windows users -- the power to upgrade directly to 7. But as we'll see in this article, the obstacles are more a question of which steps to take and in what order.
What You Can't Do, And Why
Because this whole issue inspires such confusion, the details are worth repeating in the plainest possible language. You cannot:
1. Take an existing Windows XP installation,
2. Run the Windows 7 installer, and
3. Upgrade that running copy of XP to 7 with its installed programs and data intact.
What You Can Do
What you can do is one of these three things:
1. Install a copy of Windows 7 on the same computer, in parallel with your existing XP install,
2. Install a copy of Windows 7 on the same computer and Replace your existing XP install entirely, or
3. Obtain an entirely new computer with 7 installed, and Migrate your existing XP data and application settings to it.
The first and third options are non-destructive: they leave your existing XP installation intact in one form or another and allow you to copy what's most important over to the target install. The second option is the least useful, and so will be covered only peripherally here.