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Should You Upgrade to Windows 7?

Kevin Lo

This article – the first in a two-part guide to Windows 7 – was originally published in October 2009 and was updated in 2011 by Ariel Gilbert-Knight. Here, we’ll help you decide whether Windows 7 is right for your organization. For tips on acquiring and upgrading to Windows 7, see part two, Upgrading to Windows 7: Steps and Checklist.

Upgrading to Windows 7, the latest operating system from Microsoft, offers a number of benefits. If you've stayed with Windows XP due to worries about Vista, you'll be glad to hear that Windows 7 has been very positively received. And if you're already using Vista, Windows 7's look and feel is similar to Vista's, so your users will already be comfortable with Windows 7’s interface.

It’s important to consider whether upgrading to Windows 7 makes sense for your organization and, if so, how you will go about implementing it. To help you decide whether Windows is a good fit for your organization, we’ve come up with four questions for you to consider.


1. Does Your Hardware Support Windows 7?

First, you should confirm that your computers can support Windows 7. Windows 7’s requirements are the same as Vista's, meaning that a computer that can run Vista will be able to run Windows 7.

Windows 7 is available in a 32-bit and a 64-bit version. These versions have different requirements:

  • 1 GHz or faster processor (both versions)
  • 1 GB (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit) RAM
  • 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit) minimum free hard disk space

To check your computer's specifications, go to My Computer on your desktop or on the Start menu, and right-click Properties. You can also use Microsoft’s downloadable Windows Upgrade Advisor to see if your computer meets the minimum specifications.


Here, for example, the Upgrade Advisor notes that the computer would require a custom installation and does meet the basic requirement of 1 GB for the 32-bit version, but it lacks sufficient free disk space.

If your hardware does not meet basic requirements for Windows 7, but you are planning to upgrade components to meet them, you are better off upgrading components like video card and memory on your existing operating system before upgrading. This way, you'll be sure your new components work before beginning the upgrade process. After confirming the new hardware works, you can then run the Upgrade Advisor to confirm the new hardware meets Windows 7's requirements.


2. Will Your Programs Run on Windows 7?

You should also find out if your programs are compatible with Windows 7.

First, determine what software you have. If your organization’s computers aren’t standardized (in other words, if not every computer in your office runs the same programs), you may need to survey your users or use a free program like Spiceworks IT Desktop to determine what programs are running on your machines.

Next, check if your software is compatible with Windows 7. The Windows Upgrade Advisor can help identify potential issues. You should also plan to check your vendors' websites to make sure your programs run on Windows 7. You should not have many problems with software from major vendors like Symantec, Adobe, and Intuit, but it is wise to check first.

If you discover that you have programs that run on XP only, you can still run them after upgrading. Windows 7 (Professional version and higher) includes a specialized "XP Mode" that lets you launch and use your XP applications directly from Windows 7, just as if they are Windows 7 programs. If your favorite donor-management program isn’t yet compatible with Windows 7, for example, using Windows 7's XP mode means it will still run on your upgraded machine.

Note that for programs that affect basic system functionality, like remote login managers or software that restores system states, you should take extra precautions in testing and verifying compatibility.


3. Would Your Organization Benefit from Windows 7’s New Features?

Windows 7 has a number of widely praised user interface enhancements, including better search functionality and more intuitive navigation. More importantly, it also includes many “under the hood” improvements:

  • Improved program compatibility
  • More flexible security options
  • Simplified networking: A new feature called HomeGroup and other networking improvements allow you to easily share files and peripherals over a network, even if you don't have a server
  • Backup and restore features that are an improvement over Vista's and vastly improved over XP's
  • Easier IT support and troubleshooting with the Problem Steps Recorder, which records the actions a user takes when encountering a problem, allowing IT to easily see and understand how a problem occurred

Before deciding to upgrade, think about whether these features will benefit your organization.


4. Would an In-Place Upgrade or a Custom Install Make More Sense for Your Organization?

Once you decide to make the leap to Windows 7, you have two options for implementing it: an in-place upgrade or a custom install. Note that an in-place upgrade is only available for current Vista users; XP users will need to perform a custom install.

In an in-place upgrade, your system settings, as well as your installed applications and user settings, are preserved. This requires minimal reconfiguration, and you won’t need to reinstall your programs after you've upgraded. The in-place upgrade process from Vista to Windows 7 is similar to upgrading from XP to Vista. To begin upgrading, you would simply insert and run the Windows 7 install DVD.

A custom install, in contrast, is what's known as a "clean" install. This means your programs, files, and settings are not preserved. You will need to back up your files and programs before upgrading and then reinstall them afterwards. If you are upgrading from XP, or if you are moving from a 32-bit to 64-bit system, you will need to do a custom install.

The following chart compares the pros and cons:

In-Place Upgrade

- Programs don’t need to be reinstalled.

- Potentially less time consuming.

If original system was not clean or maintained, these problems may carry over to the upgraded system.

Custom InstallNew operating system is likely to be faster and more responsive.

- Time-consuming to reinstall.

- Must reinstall all applications. (And therefore you will need to have the original, working startup disks for these.)

If you are deciding between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 and you have to do a custom install anyway, it is strongly advised that you choose the 64-bit version. A 32-bit operating system is limited to about 3 GB of RAM. If you have (or expect to have) more than 3 GB of RAM, you want the 64-bit version. The 64-bit version is also more "future-proof," in that it will be able accommodate more complex 64-bit applications in the future. For more information on 32-bit vs. 64-bit versions, read TechSoup's article Do I Need the 32-Bit or the 64-Bit Version? and Microsoft's FAQ.



If you decide that Windows 7's new features aren’t relevant to your organization at the moment, if your users aren’t ready for it, or if you haven’t budgeted for the new hardware or software, Extended Support for Windows XP does not retire until 2014, and Vista’s three years after that.

Ready to upgrade? In the second part of this series on Windows 7, Upgrading to Windows 7: Steps and Checklist, we offer tips for acquiring and upgrading to the new operating system.

Image: Computer with tools, Shutterstock