Windows Update: The XP dilemma

It’s been quite some time since we discussed the Windows upgrade saga here and we’re long overdue for an update.

You’ll recall that I strongly advised against purchasing Windows Vista or upgrading existing Windows XP installations to Vista. I think it’s fair to say that the general consensus in the technical community backs me up on this. Vista has garnered a reputation as a lemon of an operating system. (It’s not the complete disaster that Windows Me was, but I really don’t want to reflect back on that painful chapter in my life.)

So where are we today? Windows 7 is well-established in the market, with Windows 8 already appearing on the horizon. And Windows 7 is the real deal. It’s a solid OS. That’s a good thing, because if you’re buying a new PC, it’s all you can get.

If you have a PC running Vista, you should absolutely upgrade to Windows 7. Lots of improvements, and the interface changes are relatively minor and easy to adapt to. You can buy the Windows 7 Home Premium upgrade for just over $100.

But what if you are among the one-third of all computer users still running Windows XP? Well, I’m in the same boat. My primary PC still runs XP, and quite frankly, I’m afraid to attempt the upgrade.

The major issue is that while Microsoft allowed you to perform an in-place upgrade from XP to Vista, there is no such installation option for moving from XP to Windows 7. You must wipe out and reload your system from scratch. I have never done that on my own PC. Allow me to quote myself from a previous post:

It’s become a matter of pride that my current software installation has been upgraded from DOS 5 to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 to Windows 98 to Windows Me to Windows XP Professional, and I have never once reloaded from scratch. I just upgrade the hardware and migrate my disk image over.

Pride aside, I don’t think I could do a full reinstall even if I wanted to. I have a ton of programs on my PC, some of which have been there for many many years, and I’m sure there are several whose installation disks have gone missing. Trying to reconstruct my setup from a fresh Windows install would be a major undertaking, and I’d be dead in the water the whole time.

So now I’ve hit a wall. I thought by now Microsoft would relent and provide a direct upgrade path from XP to Windows 7, but they are holding fast. It’s probably a way to punish everyone who had the audacity to not purchase Vista.

One option that I am seriously considering is to perform a two-step upgrade, from XP to Vista and then to Windows 7. I’m reluctant for two reasons. The first is that I don’t know how much Vista will screw things up, even if it’s only installed briefly. And second, it’s going to take a lot of time.

Upgrade time is a big concern for me, both personally and professionally. I recently performed a Vista to Windows 7 upgrade for a client, and it took more than five hours to complete, not including the time I spent with my client afterward tweaking settings and making sure she could find all the options she needed to use frequently. I wound up discounting my hourly rate and throwing in a few free hours just to keep the project affordable.

I don’t like to charge clients for the idle time I spend waiting for installs and downloads to finish. Of course, this varies from client to client based on the speed of their Internet connection and the horsepower of the PC. I want to give my clients a fair shake – and I suppose that’s a big reason why I get a lot of repeat business (vigorously patting self on back).

So I haven’t attempted an XP to Windows 7 upgrade yet. I just don’t see how it would be cost-effective if you factor in the time required to reload all the client’s applications and data. Geek Squad charges a flat rate ($230) for in-home OS upgrades, not including the cost of the software. I’m certain that’s just a straight reload without application installation and customization.  Nobody wants to spend more on an upgrade than it would cost to get a whole new PC.

That’s where things stand at the moment. I don’t have a good answer for myself or my clients who are still running XP, except to hold tight. In the next few months, we’ll be learning a lot more about Windows 8. It’s too soon to know if there will be a direct upgrade path for XP users, or if it will even be worthwhile. Much of the effort in Windows 8 development seems to be related to the new Metro interface for tablets and touch screens, and we don’t know much yet about what Windows 8 will provide for the traditional desktop/laptop user. So stay tuned. We’ll figure this out sooner or later.

UPDATE (with forehead slap): I just received a reply e-mail from one of my clients. “So what’s the problem if we actually keep XP and don’t want to upgrade?” A good question that I clearly should have anticipated.

Right now, there is no problem staying with XP. Microsoft states that they will continue to support Windows XP SP3 until April 8, 2014. As the installed base of XP users gradually declines, however, we may begin to see a shift away from XP support by hardware and software vendors. That will obviously be an issue if and when it happens. But for now, there is safety in numbers. It wouldn’t be economically prudent for vendors to move away from XP support at this time.

Of course, there are folks (like me) who would like to upgrade not just because we have to, but because there are some legitimately cool features in Windows 7 that we’d like to have. It’s also a more secure platform than Windows XP. So there are benefits to upgrading, if your hardware can support it. We’ll just keep watching.

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