If you’ve already got Windows Vista on your PC then upgrading to Windows 7 is a simple matter. The Windows 7 installer program provides an ‘upgrade’ option that allows you to quickly install Windows 7 on top of Vista, leaving all your other programs and files untouched.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option if you’re in the majority of people who are still running Windows XP. You can only install Windows 7 by doing a ‘custom’ install, which is a euphemism for ‘backup all your important files onto an external hard disk and then wipe your hard disk clean so that you can install Windows 7 from scratch’.

You then have to reinstall all your applications and files before you can get back to work again – not to mention possibly having to locate an assortment of new drivers for your graphics card and other hardware components.

Of course, reinstalling all those applications, files and drivers can take a fair amount of time, so we were interested to hear about Zinstall XP 7, a utility that aims to ease the task of migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7.

Unfortunately, Zinstall doesn’t directly allow you to upgrade your existing Windows XP installation and replace it with Windows 7 while leaving all your programs and files in place (Zinstall does need to be clearer about that on its website). In fact, Zinstall is really a virtualisation package that builds a Windows XP machine within your new edition of Windows 7 – complete with all your old files, folders and programs.

You still have to use the ‘custom’ option in the Windows 7 installer program to create a clean Windows 7 installation. However, during this process, Microsoft’s installer program shunts all your old Windows XP files into a folder called ‘Windows.old’ to keep them out of the way. After installing Windows 7 you can then install Zinstall XP7 and it will use the contents of that Windows.old folder to create a kind of virtual machine that duplicates your original Windows XP installation.

Zinstall refers to each operating system as a ‘desktop’, and you can switch between the Windows XP and Windows 7 desktops simply by clicking on the Zinstall icon in the Taskbar in either Windows 7 or XP environments.

The program does work well – after installing Windows 7 on our laptop, Zinstall XP7 required just a single mouse click to start running, and then took about 20 minutes to set up our original Windows XP installation as a new virtual ‘desktop’. Rather than as a windowed mode, your original XP installation appears in a fullscreen layout. You can run your old programs in this virtual machine, with the exception of 3D games. And once setup, a shared folder allows you to easily transfer files between the real and virtual machines.

Of course, certain versions of Windows 7 (specifically Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate) offer a similar option for XP users in the form of an ‘XP Mode’; but Zinstall’s virtualisation technology provides additional features. One of these is the ability to run on older PCs that don’t have hardware virtualisation support (typically, Intel’s VT-x extension) built into their CPU.

OUR VERDICT

Business users that want to upgrade to Windows 7 while still using legacy applications from Windows XP may well find that Zinstall is an effective (albeit rather expensive) solution. However, people who just want to ditch XP altogether and upgrade their PC to Windows 7 will at some point still have to bite the bullet, and transfer all their programs and files the old-fashioned way.