Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

What's the difference between an upgrade and an upgrade?


I recently read that when released Windows 7 will be offered by Microsoft as
an upgrade to Windows XP users, but that they won’t be able to actually upgrade
their systems. I don’t get it how can you not upgrade with an upgrade?

Put another way, when is an upgrade not an upgrade?

In reality, we’re talking two different things here, and the same word is
being used for both: upgrade.

Let’s review what that term means, and then exactly how that maps to exactly
what Microsoft may or may not do for Windows XP users.


Caveat: as I write this Windows 7 is not scheduled to be released for several months. Anything, and everything could change. I’m focusing on general terms and concepts here, that I expect will apply, but the details won’t be clear until Windows 7 is actually available.

Upgrade Definition #1: what you buy.

Microsoft typically discounts prices for new versions of Windows if you have a previous version. I’ve seen this called a “license upgrade”. Aside from some setup-time checks we’ll talk about in a moment, it’s the exact same software, just at a discounted price.

“… it’s the exact same software, just at a discounted price.”

This isn’t at all uncommon in the software world: many tools, utilities and software packages offer a similar discount when you upgrade from version to version.

Windows actually provides different media:

  • New Machine – you’ll see phrases like “for installation on a new computer” on the box. You can install this on any computer that meets the hardware requirements.

  • Upgrade – this version requires that there be a pre-existing version of Windows.

In the latter case the setup program may actually check for an old copy of Windows on the disk, or may ask you to provide the original media (CD or DVD) of an old copy of Windows to prove that you did indeed have one.

Other than that, as long as we’re talking about the same edition of Windows (Home, Premium, Ultimate, etc.), this setup check is the only difference between the New Machine and Upgrade versions of the product.

Upgrade Definition #2: what you do.

If you have a new machine with an empty/blank hard disk setting up Windows is, by definition, a “clean” install, from scratch, that much is clear.

If you have Windows installed on your machine already, you have a choice to make that I’ll boil down to this:

  • Clean install: this typically involves reformatting/erasing everything on the hard disk and installing Windows from scratch. (There are scenarios where installing into a new, empty partition, or installing into a new installation folder on an existing partition also qualify as a “clean” install, but the effect is the same: all previous options, settings and installed software must be reset and reinstalled into this new, clean installation.)

  • Upgrade install: in this case the new version of Windows installs itself “on top of”, or “in place of” the previously existing version of Windows. The setup program and Windows itself then attempt to preserve or migrate all installed programs settings and behaviour to the best of it’s ability. In an ideal world you would upgrade Windows only, and then carry on using all your software exactly as you did prior to the upgrade.

It’s important to realize that all this applies regardless of which version you purchased by the first definition of “upgrade” – all you did there was get the exact same software at a discounted price. You can perform an upgrade having purchased the “New Machine” version, and you can perform a clean install (after verifying that a prior version exists) if you got the “Upgrade” package.

Here’s where we delve into a little opinion. Upgrades between major versions of Windows can be dicey. While in theory the installation and upgrade process should be seamless and “just work”, it’s not quite that guaranteed. That’s why, for example, I never recommend this type of upgrade process for moving from XP to Vista – the result is often an unstable Vista. However, performing a clean install of Vista on that same machine often results in working OS.

Windows XP to Windows 7?

Apparently Microsoft agrees. Smile

If what you’re reporting holds through to Windows 7 release, here’s what it means:

  • Windows XP owners would be eligible to purchase an upgrade version of Windows 7. (Remember, all this does is get you the exact same product at a discounted price.)

  • Windows XP owners would only be able to use that upgrade version to perform an clean install of Windows 7. After checking your eligibility (confirming that you do indeed have Windows XP), the setup program will probably then reformat your hard disk and install Windows 7 from scratch. An upgrade install just won’t be an option.

Apparently Microsoft doesn’t want to deal with the complexity of trying to migrate a Windows XP installation to a Windows 7 installation.

And I can’t really blame them.

At least they seem to plan on giving you the upgrade price.

Naturally, it’s actually more complicated.

I’ve tried to focus on the basic concepts here, because Microsoft slices and dices Windows versions any number of ways. Some that come to mind include:

  • Product versions: Home, Professional, Ultimate, what-have-you. These all define the feature set included in the box, nothing more.

  • Language versions: English, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and more. These define the language, of course, but may also in some cases affect the feature set as well.

  • OEM versions: In addition to the generic “Retail” package, we have Dell, HP, Lenovo, and many more. Large “Original Equipment Manufacturers”, or OEM’s, often take Windows and further customize the product to their particular hardware for a more seamless experience for their customers.

And of course add in “New Machine” and “License Upgrade” versions.

Now consider all the possible combinations. “Home, Upgrade, English, Dell” – “Ultimate, New Machine, Korean, HP” – and many more. Each of those is typically a separate product and requires a separate installation media.

That’s a lot of combinations.

Not to mention whatever I left out.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

7 comments on “What's the difference between an upgrade and an upgrade?”

  1. To much info for his brain I’ll bet. A bit too long winded in the answer Sir. Just do the win 7 install you can get your programs back from your backup….you did do a win7 rc backup?????

  2. Appreicate the depth and generality to try to understand MS-speak.

    If there’s way to do a Win7 backup before installing Win7, I’d like to know more. My normal concern of restoring from a backup in-between upgrades to a newer OS would be remapping/restructuring of the Registry in the new version that might cause the restored programs to not get hooked into it correctly. — Sounds like a new topic . :-)

  3. I ordered the $50 special early bird upgrade version of W7 Home Premium. On my system, I have currently Vista Home Premium – an HP OEM version that came with the box. I like to install W7 on a second Sata in my system (which is actually a 60GB OCZ SSD) because for the time being (in Oct.09) I would like to keep my Vista as the main OS. The installation I would do by physically disconnecting the Vista HDD so that W7 will only see the SSD. Later I will switch the 2 operating systems with the BIOS boot sequence. That worked well with W7 Beta.
    I wonder how the verification process will work since I only have the recovery DVDs that I burnt from the recovery partition.

  4. With the experience I have with win 7 RC version is that if you have Win XP on an older computer that you may run into problems with drivers that are not compatible with Vista for graphic boards and printers and you will end up with a new computer, and it is not the program alone that you have to upgrade.

  5. Very timely discusion (for instance in view of MS’ just-issued MSDN offer of half-price early upgrades.) Can’t quarrel re inherent complexities of somehow offering seamless upgrades for XP users. You do touch on the inevitable driver compatibility problems, however: To me, and probably most XP users, the major hit in going to 7 would be loss of most (all?) of my app suite (including Office suite.) I’ll probably sit tight in XP as long as I can (with MS doubtless allowing it to become increasingly uncomfortable to do so.)

    You won’t lose your app suite. You’ll simply have to reinstall it.

    – Leo

  6. I’ve been running Windows 7 Ultimate, Eval. Copy, Build 7100 for about 2 months now. I “upgraded” from XP Pro after doing a backup. I wound up pretty much re-installing all my old programs any way because of registry/compatability problems. MS has a download on the W7 Site, that when run, will alow you to see if you computer will support W7. I have a HP with Pentium-4 that’s 4 years old.
    I have a fairly new GForce graphics card & 3.5 gigs of ram though. When Installed, W7 will do a Driver Check,& update all drivers that require it.
    That feature, as well as many others in the trouble shooting dept. are pretty cool. I never had the Vista OS, so to go from XP to W7 is quite a change, but I’m very impressed. Thanks for letting me ramble. Hector

  7. What comes to mind for me about Upgrade or Full install: Okay, they’re both the same, but the Upgrade checks for an existing version of Windows and then I can select a Full install. All well and fine. Now, two years later, I’ve got lots of problems and a complete reinstall is really the easiest fix. My old version no longer exists, whether it was XP or Vista. Does Win7 count as an existing version for the upgrade version of Win7 to work? Or would I have to buy another Full install copy?


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.