Best way to Upgrade old XP PC to Windows 7; Keep Data?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader Bill C. writes:

" Dear Dennis,

I run Windows 7 64 bit on my computer and my wife has an old Windows XP 32-bit PC (Dell Inspiron E521). She's a real stickler about [keeping her PC exactly the way it is, so she can still access all her files and programs, but I know it's time for an upgrade and I'd like to upgrade it to Windows 7 64 bit for her] ... I already have on hand all the items I thought I'd need: Windows 7 upgrade CD, more RAM for her PC, two new 1 TB hard drives, a video card, etc. What I'd like to be able to do is make a disk image clone of her old XP hard drive, then remove her XP drive for safekeeping, then perform the Windows 7 upgrade on the cloned disk. If anything goes wrong, I can put her old drive back in and return her PC to the same state it was in before.

Is there any way to accomplish this using my own PC, while she stayed up and running on her system, untouched? That would be great, but I'm guessing because of the hardware differences between our systems, it might not work ... I would be interested in knowing any suggestions you might have for handling this problem? "

My Response:

It is possible to perform an upgrade (for the most part) without any interruption. However, please note that Windows XP to Windows 7 'migration' in which you keep programs and data is not supported by Microsoft. In other words, you will have to do a clean install of the operating system.

Converting the old XP Machine to a Virtual Machine

The first thing I would do is attempt to convert your wife's Windows XP system into a virtual machine. Converting the Windows XP machine into virtual machine is called 'p2v' -- otherwise known as a 'physical machine to a virtual machine' conversion. Once the system has been virtualized, you can run the old Windows XP system inside of your Windows 7 system. Think of it as a 'live' backup. I suggest going this route only if your system is (a) 64 bit, (b) has at least a quad core processor, and (c) has 8 GB of RAM; otherwise, it will be terribly slow to operate the virtual machine.

Upgrading Windows XP to Windows 7: Step-by-step

In detail, here are the steps I would take to achieve what you are asking:

1. Perform the p2v conversion, and then test the virtual machine on your system. The p2v process can run by remote (or locally on her own system) without any down time or interruption. VMWare standalone converter can do this for you and it's free.

2. Make a disk clone of the XP system and place it on a second hard drive using Acronis True Image or Macrium Reflect (free). I also suggest making a full disk image backup (archive) of the old XP system as well for safekeeping, in case the virtual machine stops working for some reason. You can store the archive on your own system, or on an external hard drive if you want. You can also compress the archive and mount the image files at any time in the future to access individual files if you need to.

3. When the disk clone is complete, power down the old XP system. Take out the original Windows XP hard drive and insert either a blank hard drive or the cloned hard drive in its place. A blank drive will work even when using 'upgrade' media.

4. Power on the system and insert the Windows 7 CD; press the space bar to begin the install procedure. Remember that you will have to reinstall any programs and user data, etc, after the upgrade.

5. You can access the old Windows XP files using the virtual machine you created either via network connection / mapping network drives, or by Microsoft Remote desktop. If the virtual machine didn't convert properly and doesn't work, you can also access the old XP system files from the disk image backup or from the original hard drive.

Additional Support: From Dennis

If you need help with the p2v conversion, disk image backup, moving files back onto the system after the upgrade -- or anything else, for that matter -- I would be more than happy to assist you with remote desktop support. Simply contact me using the contact form and we'll set up a time to meet and discuss your options.

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About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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Phil's picture

I'm surprised that your recommended solution is to keep using XP in a virtual machine - unless you also set that virtual machine to have no access to the internet, which you don't point out. Microsoft's cessation of Windows Update support with anti-malware patches for XP is why most of us finally migrated from XP.

My approach was to use Laplink's migration program to move from XP Pro to Win 7 Pro, moving applications as well as data. It's not foolproof, since 16 bit applications (like WordPerfect for DOS) won't run under Win 7 except in a DOS-box emulator program and some application publishers block Laplink-style migration and require a reinstall, but those are rare.

More common is the need to search for newer versions of a few utilities, but once that's been done, you're up and running.

By the way, such a migration works better to 32-bit Win 7 than to 64, as some 32-bit Windows programs survive the migration to 32-bit Win 7 but not to 64. I did this migration first to 32 and then from that to 64. A number of applications that sucessfully made the trip to 32-bit Win 7 died on the trip from there to 64-bit Win 7. Counterintuitive - but that was my experience.

Considering that 32-bit applications run slower under 64-bit Windows 7 than under 32 bit Windows 7, few old XP machines can hold more than 4GB of RAM - the main advantage of 64-bit Windows - and very few 64-bit Windows applications even exist, it's better to migrate an old XP machine to 32-bit Win 7 than to 64.

Dennis Faas's picture

The suggestion to use XP as a virtual machine is only meant as a stepping stone towards full migration once all data is moved over to the new system. Once the migration is complete, there would be presumably no reason to continue using the virtual machine.