You had good reason to stick with XP and skip the Vista experience entirely. But now that the folks at Microsoft have created a new operating system that's worth moving to, they haven't made the upgrade easy, because you have to perform a clean install of the OS. Here are the issues you need to be aware of, and how to handle them. Then read the main article, "How to Upgrade to Windows 7" for more information on the process.
Hardware: Your hardware may not be up to the task of running Windows 7--and even if it is, your drivers won't work. Unfortunately, a simple upgrade install is out of the question, too; Microsoft requires that you XP users do a clean install.
It's a good idea for anyone contemplating the upgrade to run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor first; for XP users, this step is absolutely vital.
Upgrading your motherboard's firmware also becomes more important; check your system manufacturer's Web site to see if an upgrade is available.
Windows 7 can't use XP drivers: Check the Windows 7 Compatibility Center, which was still in its "coming soon" phase at the time of this writing. In the meantime, the Vista version of the Compatibility Center--look for a link on the page--can help, since Vista drivers work in XP, but the fit isn't perfect. Some Vista drivers download as .exe files that run exclusively in Vista.
Not all XP applications work in Vista, or in Windows 7, either. Again, the Compatibility Centers can tell you what works, what doesn't, and where you can download the necessary patches.
Windows XP Mode: Windows 7's XP Mode could be the solution to your application compatibility problems. This mode runs XP in a virtual machine inside 7, although the user interface is more integrated than in most virtual machines. For instance, XP and 7 applications appear together on the same desktop.
But XP Mode may not work on your PC. It requires a CPU with virtualization capabilities. Browse to the Microsoft's page of instructions on how to find out whether your CPU has this feature and, if it does, how to turn it on. XP Mode doesn't ship with Windows 7, but it's available as a free download. It also comes with a full version of XP.
One XP-to-7 issue is just something to be aware of: These two versions of Windows store your data files in different locations. The XP folder C:\ Documents and Settings is now C:\Users. Application Data is now the abbreviated AppData. Local Settings\Application Data is now AppData\Local. And your Music, Pictures, and Videos folders now sit beside My Documents rather than inside it.
The Windows 7 installation program moves all of your old folders to a folder called C:\Windows.old. You may need to remember, as you try to get your new program installations together with your old data, that the Outlook.pst file that is now in C:\Windows.old\Documents and Settings\yourlogon\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook belongs in the new location C:\Users\yourlogon\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook.
For more of PCW's Windows 7 coverage, read our in-depth Windows 7 review, and read how we tested Windows 7. And for ongoing information about Windows 7, sign up for PC World's Windows News and Tips newsletter.