If you’re planning to update your system as soon as Windows 10 launches next Wednesday, you’ve got some work to do. It doesn’t matter if you intend to do an upgrade instead of a clean install—you’ll still want to ensure a smooth transition. We’ve outlined the steps you should take to make it a painless switch.
In order to know how to properly prepare, you should weigh the following:
- What operating system do you use now?
- Which data do you want to preserve?
- Are you currently plagued by bugs and errors?
The first thing to consider is your operating system version—only Windows 7, 8, and 8.1 users can do an in-place upgrade, which means you don’t have to migrate your data and reinstall all your programs. Sorry, Vista users (and the XP faithfull!), you must do a clean install; skip on down to the next step to get on with your prep.
If you are running Windows 7 or 8/8.1, next determine how willing you are to put up with extended downtime. People who use their computer for business or have limited free time might not want their machine to be unusable for more than an hour, which makes upgrading the better approach relative to a clean install.
However, the caveat is that if your system is unstable and experiencing major slowdowns or crashes, it’s better to wipe everything and start all over again when moving to a new operating system. (Why take your problems with you?) Your current installation of Windows serves as a foundation for the next when you upgrade, and there’s already potential to run into driver incompatibilities and other minor hang-ups even with a clean install of a newly launched OS. It can be worth slight pain now to avoid even greater pain down the road.
If You’re Upgrading:
- Clean out temporary files and other junk using the Disk Cleanup tool. This is a good habit to have that can improve stability and overall performance.
- Install all available Windows Updates (especially if you don’t automatically fetch them already). Updates can be anything from compatibility to security patches, but stability patches are important during upgrades.
- Perform a virus sweep with your software of choice. Each new version of Windows has better security than the last, but it still pays to clear out the stowaways.
- Run the Disk Defragmentation (Windows Vista, Windows 7) or Disk Optimization (Windows 8/8.1) tool. For Windows Vista and Windows 7 in particular, this will tidy up how data is stored on your main drive, and thus speed up the process for finding things again when they are needed. Windows 8 and 8.1 are better about cleaning up after themselves, but it still helps to optimize the drive for stability and performance.
- Update all hardware drivers to their latest versions. (Yes, even audio drivers.) The newest versions of your hardware drivers are more likely to be compatible with the latest Windows. If you carry over ancient drivers, you’re likely to encounter compatibility or stability issues, and may find that your system will revert to an inferior universal driver for that piece of hardware.
Incidentally, if you’re planning on doing an upgrade, it’s not a bad idea to also follow the steps below for clean install preparation—if anything goes bad during or after the upgrade, it could save you some hassle.
If You’re Doing a Clean Install
- Take inventory of the applications and peripherals you use, as well as the hardware components you’ve installed. Once you know what you’re running (be it software or hardware), go hunt for the installation and driver discs that came with what you bought, and gather them up in one place.
- Download copies of installation files or driver files for items that didn’t come with a disc (or have a disc you can’t find). This should include any free programs you use. Also, if you’re up to it, take a moment to search for newer versions of installation and driver files you do have on disc, just so you have the most recent versions of everything you’ll need.
- Make sure you have all the product key information for applications you’ve purchased or that came with your system. If you can’t find your product key paperwork, look up the info within the program and write it down. In the event that you can’t find an installation disc, having your key on hand will be useful if you manage to obtain the setup file later on.
You should back up your system regardless if you’re doing an upgrade or a clean install. (And while we’re on the topic, you should be doing regular backups as it is.) Yes, with a successful upgrade all user accounts and files in user-specific folders, like Documents and Pictures, should safely migrate across versions, and Windows settings like saved Wi-Fi connections and password will also make the jump in addition to all of your software and apps. But what happens if something goes wrong with your upgrade? Better safe than sorry.
There are two types of backups you can do—you can create a complete system image, which will save an exact copy of the drive you back up as a single file, and you can also back up individual files and folders. If you’re doing an upgrade to Windows 10, creating a system image of your primary drive and saving it to another storage option (be it a different internal or external drive, a network-attached storage unit, a cloud service like Dropbox, or a cloud backup service like CrashPlan or Carbonite) should be enough to cover your bases. You’ll have the option to revert your system back to what it was, if needed. If you’re doing a clean install, you should back up individual files and folders at minimum, since you’ll need to restore those once you get Windows 10 running—but it doesn’t hurt to have a system image on hand, in case you discover you forgot to back up a particular folder or file. You can then mount the image as a drive and extract what you need.
To create a system image, you can use Windows Vista, 7, and 8/8.1’s built-in tools. In Windows Vista, head to the Backup and Restore Center within the Control Panel; in Windows 7, you’ll run also Backup and Restore from within the Control Panel. For Windows 8/8.1, search for File History. Remaining Windows XP holdouts will need to use third-party software if you want to create a proper system image.
To back up individual files and folders, Windows Vista and 7’s Backup and Restore tools will let you preserve anything on your system. For 8/8.1, File History only copies from select locations, so you either have to move other folders and files to a place like your desktop or opt for third-party software when doing a backup. XP users can use the Backup Utility (but we recommend using third-party software). And for all operating systems, you can instead opt to do the manual process of combing through directories and copying what you want over to backup storage—but that’s a lot more painful.
As for how to figure out what you want to back up, think carefully about what kind of data you’ll want a copy of. Besides the obvious types of files, like text documents, spreadsheets, photos, videos, and music, there are also databases (be they for something like Microsoft Access or your e-mail program) and even settings you might want to carry over. Don’t forget to back up little things like your bookmarks in your usual browser, too, if you don’t use something like Firefox or Chrome’s cloud sync feature.
If that sounds overwhelming, this is where having taken inventory of the applications on your system will help. Based on how you use each program, you’ll be able to figure out what type of files you should look for so you can make copies of them. For example, if you use Adobe Illustrator, you’ll want to back up all of your .ai files; if you use iTunes, you’ll want to make a copy of your music files, library settings, and any local backups of your iPhone; if you use a local mail program, you’ll want to make sure you save a copy of all the e-mail you’ve downloaded to your system.
Note: This is not the default location for Steam. Look for it in the Program Files or Program Files (x86) folder if you didn’t change any settings during installation.
(Incidentally, if you use Steam, you’ll want to preserve your game files and game saves—particularly the latter, since not all games utilize cloud-saves. You can do this easily by simply copying and pasting your Steam folder to a backup drive, or instructing a backup utility to copy that entire folder; when you’re ready to restore it, copy it back to your system and reinstall Steam to that same folder and you won’t have to redownload your games.)
If you don’t know where to find the correct directories, try typing in the name of your application plus the phrase “directory path” or “directory location” and your specific operating system into Google to figure out where to look. (Ex: “microsoft word directory path windows 7” or “adobe photoshop directory location windows 7”) Depending on your Windows settings, it may be in a folder that’s hidden from view, so doing a quick web search can save you time and frustration.
This one’s a relatively small step, but take it from someone who’s had to suffer the hard way—don’t forget to deauthorize access for any application that limits the number of computers that can use the program at one time, such as older versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite. Sometimes you can call in to customer service to resolve these issues, but a couple minutes’ work can save you a lot of headache in the long run if you want to make full use of a software license between multiple computers.
If you’ve run through all these steps, you should be all set to go—all you need is to get your hands on a Windows 10 disc or USB drive. Don’t forget to make a recovery drive once you’ve got your new system up and going! You should preserve your fresh start in case you ever need to repair your Windows 10 installation down the road.