Microsoft hype to the contrary, deciding whether to upgrade your current version of Windows to Windows XP isn't exactly a no-brainer. Certainly, XP has some neat new features and is more stable than its predecessors, but it requires you to have fairly heavy-duty system resources, and it's incompatible with some older hardware and software. And then there's the expense: the upgrade version of XP Home will cost you $237; the upgrade to XP Pro will set you back $463.
Assessing the merits of an XP upgrade involves answering several questions, not only about whether you should upgrade, but also about whether you can upgrade your existing PC. Even if you can, you must consider whether the prospective benefits are worth the potential hassle - especially if you have an older system.
The bottom line: before upgrading to XP, you must do some homework. We've assembled an overview of the decision points involved in the upgrade process. For detailed information on the new OS, see November 2001's "Maximise Windows XP" (page 60).
The top down
Benefits: Some benefits include better security options, faster performance, greater stability.
Cost: Windows XP Home Upgrade - $237, Windows XP Home - $463, Windows XP Professional Upgrade - $463, Windows XP Professional - $675.
Expertise level: Beginner.
Time required: About 1 hour.
Requirements: You can use Windows XP Home Upgrade Edition to upgrade from Windows 98, Windows 98 SE and Me, but not NT 4 and 2000. With the Professional Edition Upgrade you can upgrade from all these operating systems. If you're running Windows 95 you will have to purchase a full copy of XP, as upgrades are not supported from this operating system.
Vendor: Microsoft, www.microsoft.com.au.
A) IS YOUR PC UPGRADEABLE?
1 How old is your PC? If your computer is less than a year old, upgrading to Windows XP should be easy. Things get iffier with PCs between one and two years old. If your PC is more than two years old, you're usually better off keeping what you have or buying a new PC with XP preinstalled.
2 Are you running an old version of Windows? If you currently run Windows 95 or Windows 3.11, you're ineligible for the upgrade version of XP; instead, you'll need to buy a full installation version ($463 for the Home version; $675 for Pro).
3 Consult your PC maker. Many vendors' Web sites have a dedicated section containing XP-specific upgrade notes and advice. If there isn't one at your PC maker's site, go to the site's support section and search for your specific PC model. You may find that an XP upgrade isn't recommended. If your PC is home-built, proceed to steps four, five, and six.
4 Check your PC's hardware. Though Microsoft recommends a minimum of a 300MHz processor for Windows XP, you'll be happier with at least a 500MHz CPU. Plus, you'll need no less than 128MB of RAM (256MB is better). And figure on setting aside at least 1.5GB of free hard-disk space.
5 Run the Upgrade Advisor. For a comprehensive evaluation of your PC's XP compatibility, run Microsoft's Upgrade Advisor. It's included with all versions of XP. To check out your PC before you buy the full operating system, aim your browser at www.microsoft.com/WINDOWSXP/pro/howtobuy/upgrading/advisor.asp and download the 50MB Upgrade Advisor. You can also find the tool on the CD included with PC World's Windows XP Minibook ($14.95, https://secure.idg.com.au/xp).
B) SHOULD YOU UPGRADE?
1 Is your PC stable? If your existing Windows installation seems to work fine, your best bet is to stay with what you have. If you're plagued by random lockups or by the infamous Blue Screen of Death, it's time to seriously consider an upgrade.
2 Which applications and hardware are you using? Older applications, legacy DOS-based programs, and some hardware may not work correctly or at all in Windows XP. (See item 5 of Decision Point A).
3 Which applications are you planning to use? If you expect to take advantage of the latest applications (Microsoft Office XP, for example) or you want to get into the realms of digital media (photos, music, or video), XP is a wise choice. It has the power, stability, and tools to handle cutting-edge applications.
C) HOME VERSION OR PROFESSIONAL?
1 Which version of Windows are you running? If you currently run Windows NT or 2000, your only upgrade option is to Windows XP Professional. Only users of Windows 98, 98 SE, or Me are eligible for an upgrade to the Home version of XP.
2 Which new features do you want? You should upgrade your system to the Professional version of XP if any of the following describe your situation:
- You use Windows in an office environment.
- You want to protect sensitive data using the encrypting file system.
- You have a PC with multiple processors.
- You restrict access to your PC over a network.
- You want to access your XP system remotely from another PC.
- You administer multiple XP systems.
D) BEGIN THE UPGRADE
You've purchased XP and are ready to start installing it. Before you begin, you should perform a few crucial steps.
1 Upgrade hardware (if required). If you need to beef up your PC's RAM or install a larger hard drive, do it now. Click on the Here's How tab at www.pcworld.idg.com.au for links to PC World's columns on common upgrades.
2 Do a complete backup. Windows XP will make major changes in your PC, so a before picture is essential.
3 Get the latest drivers and updates. Though Windows XP has drivers for most popular hardware, it's a good idea to get the latest drivers for your graphics card, sound card, and other devices directly from the manufacturers' Web sites. Also check for XP-specific updates for your application software.
4 Remove incompatible software. If you decide to perform an upgrade instead of a clean install (see Decision Point E), uninstall any software that the Windows XP Upgrade Advisor tells you is in-compatible. You won't be able to remove it once you've installed XP.
E) UPGRADE OR NEW INSTALLATION?
Do you have a second hard drive or second partition in your PC? If so, you can opt to do a clean install of Windows XP, which Microsoft calls a New Installation. This creates a dual-boot system that lets you run XP or your old version of Windows at startup.
A clean install allows you to try out XP, while leaving your current OS and applications untouched. But it won't migrate your software to XP; you'll have to reinstall the programs to use them in XP.
If you opt instead for an upgrade, your applications and data will automatically migrate to XP, and you can still uninstall Windows XP later if you wish. In that case, though, you'll lose any applications (and related data) that you install after upgrading to XP.
Microsoft advises upgrading, but a clean install can save you a lot of grief, especially if you have lots of free disk space. If you don't have a second hard drive or an extra partition on your first, see page 100 of PC World's March 2002 issue for tips on adjusting your hard drive's partitions.
F) NTFS OR FAT32 FILE SYSTEM?
Choose your file system. You can opt to upgrade your existing FAT32 file system to NTFS (New Technology File System) during Windows XP setup. NTFS makes better use of disk space and is more reliable than the FAT32 system, which Windows 98, 98 SE, and Me use. Upgrading to NTFS is a good choice, but if you're dual-booting Windows XP you won't be able to access the NTFS partition from old versions of Windows.
G) FINISHING UP
If you've followed the steps above, and jumped through all the Product Activation hoops, you shouldn't have problems finishing Windows XP's setup. In the unlikely event that your PC locks up during installation, shut the machine off, wait a minute, and turn it on again. If you run into problems after installation, the Help and Support Center on your PC (at Start-Help) offers a wealth of information.