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Windows 7 Upgrade 'Hacks' Not Legal, Microsoft Suggests

Microsoft has been trying to clarify details on upgrading to Windows 7 for individual users, but it's been a bumpy ride at best.

The main problem has been straightening out the differences between what is technically possible and what is allowed by Microsoft's licensing. Both points appear to be confusing for users. In addition, there's a cost-motivation factor. Microsoft sells Windows 7 upgrade media at a lower cost than the full editions of the operating system. "Hacks" have appeared on the Web suggesting a way for users to do clean installations of Windows 7 using the lower priced upgrade media.

The published hacks elicited responses from Eric Ligman, a global partner experience lead at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group. Ligman admitted that the hacks were technically possible, but emphasized that they violated Microsoft's licensing restrictions.

"Over the past several days there have been various posts…[showing] that a Windows 7 Upgrade disc can perform a 'clean' installation of Windows 7 on a blank drive from a technical perspective," Ligman wrote last week in a Microsoft small-to-medium business blog. "Of course, from the posts I saw, they often forgot to mention a very basic, yet very important piece of information….'Technically possible' does not always mean legal."

Individuals need to have a licensed copy of Window XP or Windows Vista to use the upgrade media. They can even migrate to higher editions of Windows 7. For instance, Vista Home Basic users can upgrade to the Windows 7 Ultimate edition, according to this Microsoft forum post.

Users of older Windows OSes, such as Windows 2000, have to buy the full version of Windows 7 and can't upgrade.

Another snag for those wanting to upgrade their PCs is that the Windows 7 upgrade is tied to use on specific hardware. The upgrade copy of Windows 7 is only licensed to run on the same PC that ran XP or Vista, as installed by the original equipment manufacturer.

Users can tell if they have a full licensed copy of Windows from an OEM via a Microsoft "certificate of authenticity label." The label will either be attached to the computer or will appear on the installer packaging from the PC manufacturer.

So, the word "upgrade" essentially has two meanings when it comes to Windows 7. First, it refers to what's allowed by the license. Second, it refers to the technical ability to move from the older Windows OS to Windows 7 without having to migrate settings, options and data. The alternative to an upgrade is a "clean install." Those moving from x86 to x64 hardware face a clean install, which requires backing up information before installing the new OS.

Documentation on how to do clean installs with Windows 7 is described in a Microsoft TechNet article here.

Home users doing clean installs to Windows 7 can use a cable device and Windows Easy Transfer software to facilitate migrating files and settings from an old computer to a new one. The Windows Easy Transfer software is available for both 32-bit and 64-bit machines.

From a technical standpoint, Microsoft only supports upgrades from Vista to Windows 7. Upgrades from XP to Windows 7 are not supported. Instead, XP users need to perform a "custom installation" of Windows 7. A custom installation is essentially a clean install that requires backing up settings and options and then restoring them after installing Windows 7.

When XP users run the custom installation option in the Windows 7 setup program, it offers two choices. Either the user wipes the hard disk, destroying data and settings, or they can install Windows 7 using the existing XP-partitioned drive on the PC.

This latter custom install approach was recommended by Microsoft employee Keith Combs in a blog post. However, users have to have enough disk space to carry it out. Using the existing partitioned drive doesn't wipe out the user data, but instead stores the data in a directory called "windows.old." After the installation, users can move the data over to Windows 7 folders from the windows.old directory, according to Combs.

Microsoft provides step-by-step instructions for upgrading from XP to Windows 7 here. Steps for upgrading from Vista to Windows 7 are described here. A FAQ on 32-bit vs. 64-bit systems is available at this link.

Microsoft provides some upgrade tools at its Windows 7 Compatibility Center, where software and hardware compatibility with Windows 7 can be checked. The Center also offers a download of the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, which will scan hardware to see if the PC is ready for Windows 7. It also checks for software compatibility prior to a Windows 7 upgrade.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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