Windows XP Installation and Upgrade Overview

Part One of the Windows XP Installation Super Guide How you view the move to Windows XP will depend largely on your background...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

13 Min Read
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Part One of the Windows XP Installation Super Guide

How you view the move to Windows XP will depend largely on your background. If you're a Windows 98, 98 SE, or Windows Millennium Edition (Me) user, Windows XP is a massive upgrade that shouldn't be undertaken lightly. To users of Windows 2000 Professional and, to a slightly lesser extent, Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, however, migrating to Windows XP should be painless, with a few exceptions. But regardless of which Windows version you're using now, how you make the move to XP is an important choice.

In this showcase, we'll examine the issues you will face when installing or upgrading to Windows XP and take a look at the various ways in which this can be achieved. After surveying your options, you can check out my many Step-by-Step guides to installing and upgrading to Windows XP.  These will be made available in the coming days, in rapid succession.

Crucial differences between Windows 9x and Windows XP
Most people moving to Windows XP are coming from Windows 9x (Windows 95, 98, 98 SE and Millennium Edition), not Windows NT/2000. For these people, Windows XP will be both a godsend and a major problem, at least at first. The issue is one most Windows users have never had to consider: The underlying Windows XP platform is based on the Windows NT/2000 product line, and not the DOS-based Windows 9x product line. So even though they look and act similar, Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000/XP are really quite different under the hood. But Microsoft knew that the two product lines would merge at some point, so the company has been working for years to ensure that the eventual migration would be as seamless as possible. How seamless it is for you will depend on the age your system and the hardware components you're using.

It all started with Windows 95, which was the first mainstream Windows product to use platform technology and programming interfaces from Windows NT. And a year later, with the release of Windows NT 4.0, Microsoft also started incorporating various Windows 9x technologies in its NT products for the first time. Since then, the Windows NT and 9x lines have been converging, sometimes slowly. Windows 2000 added support for 9x features like Plug and Play (PnP), new hardware support, hardware-accelerated DirectX and the like. And Windows Millennium Edition (Me, the last version of Windows 9x) incorporated certain Windows 2000 stability and reliability features.

So if you've got a modern PC running Windows Me or Windows 2000, you're probably all set to upgrade or clean install Windows XP (And even Microsoft says that any PC manufactured after January 2000 should be a no-brainer). If you're using an older PC running Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0--say, a Pentium, Pentium Pro or Pentium II--it might be time to think about a new system (see system requirements below). Windows 98 users--who make up the largest group of potential upgraders--are all over the map. Some 98 users will still be using Pentium-class processors with 64 MB of RAM or less, while others have Pentium 4 systems with much more memory. Your ability to make the move to Windows XP will depend on what hardware and software you use.

Hardware and software compatibility
Hardware and software compatibility was a huge problem with Windows NT 4.0, and a major reason why this OS was shunned in non-corporate settings. In Windows 2000, the situation improved dramatically (over NT 4.0) but not enough for most home users. And though things have improved since that product's February 2000 release, most of the PCs sold in the past year are running Windows Me, not Windows 2000. This is because Windows Me didn't sacrifice hardware and software compatibility for stability and reliability. So with Windows XP, Microsoft had to make some dramatic changes.

And they did. Windows XP offers excellent compatibility using a variety of methods, which I've outlined in my showcases, Windows XP Hardware and Software Compatibility and What to expect from Windows XP. But it's not perfect: In an August 2001 briefing with the company, I was told that Windows XP is compatible with over 90 percent of the Windows 2000/NT and Windows 9x applications distributed in North America in the past three years. The company will also be improving Windows XP via Windows Update on a regular basis with compatibility updates, as it does for Windows 2000 now. And of course all new Windows applications shipping forward will be Windows XP compatible.

Regarding hardware, Windows XP shows similar improvements over Windows 2000. Microsoft told me that the final shipping version of XP supports over 12,000 devices, with in-box drivers covering the top 1000 best-selling hardware components. More than 3000 devices already have the new "Designed for Windows XP Logo," as well, which ensures a higher level of stability and reliability. And if you run into a hardware device that isn't supported out of the box by XP, a Windows 2000 driver will almost always work. Some real world experience here: I've tested the shipping version of Windows XP (Pro and Home) on over half a dozen systems, and with dozens of third-party hardware add-ons. I can only point to a single stock hardware device (that is, it shipped with the system), on a single machine, that wasn't properly detected and installed by XP (the sound driver for a Dell Latitude L400 laptop). And I have seen XP fail to work with only a handful of third party devices, including a Sandisk CompactFlash reader (blocked by XP because of instability reasons) and Dazzle's video acquisition hardware (Dazzle working on an update for both the driver and their MovieStar software).

Your hardware compatibility mileage will vary according to the age and types of hardware you use. Modern hardware (made in the past two years) will generally work. But Microsoft says that it currently has low driver coverage for particular types of hardware--including scanners, Web cameras, multi-function printers and other devices, video capture cards (like the Dazzle), and CD writers. The company told me that these issues will be addressed by regular compatibility updates. This was the case with Windows 2000 as well.

Still, the compatibility problem could be a stumbling block for many people. To overcome this problem, Microsoft is making available a free tool called the Upgrade Advisor that you can use to determine which, if any, of your software and hardware components will be an issue. See the section titled Where to go from here, below for more information.

Windows XP System requirements and my recommendations
First, you must ensure that your system is even capable of running Windows XP. Microsoft has set the minimum requirements very low, but don't be fooled: The company's minimums are a joke, and not to be taken seriously. The following chart compares Microsoft's minimum requirements with their recommendations and my own, more realistic, recommendations.


 Microsoft minimum

 Microsoft recommends

 Paul's recommendation


 233 MHz

 300 MHz

 500+ MHz Pentium III+


 64 MB

 128 MB

 256 MB

If you're wondering about the RAM figure, consider these two facts: First, RAM is cheap. You can buy a 256 MB DIMM for less than $50 these days, so there's little reason not to have a lot of RAM. Secondly, unlike Windows 9x, Windows XP can--and will--take advantage of all the RAM you can throw at it, up to 4 GB in Home and Pro. Max out the RAM; it's more important than the processor in most cases.

Other system requirements include 1.5 GB of available hard drive space, a Super-VGA (800 x 600) or higher resolution monitor and video card, a CD-ROM or DVD-drive, and a keyboard and mouse. Optional components include a networking adapter and/or modem, and a sound card and speakers. I don't have any particular issue with these requirements.

Windows XP cost and versions
Windows XP ships in a variety of configurations, including Home Edition, Home Edition Upgrade, Professional Edition, Professional Edition Upgrade, Professional Edition Step-Up, and 64-bit Edition. The following table compares these releases:

 Windows XP version


 Who it's for

 Home Edition (Full)


Typical computer users.

 Home Edition Upgrade


Typical computer users that want to upgrade from Windows 98/SE.

 Professional Edition (Full)


Business users and power users.

 Professional Edition Upgrade


Business users and power users that wish to upgrade an existing Windows NT/2000 system.

 Professional Edition Step-Up


Users that got Home Edition with a new PC and want to upgrade to Professional Edition.

 64-bit Edition


High-end technical workstation users only. Ships with Itanium hw.

I've written a dedicated showcase to help you better understand the differences between Home Edition and Professional; this showcase also includes information on which versions of Windows can upgrade to which versions of Windows XP. Windows XP 64-bit Edition only ships with new Intel Itanium-based hardware, which is expensive and for special uses only; therefore, we will not discuss this edition further here, though it does roughly simulate the feature-set in Pro.

The Pro Step-Up is new, and Microsoft only revealed this product after XP was released to manufacturing. This is essentially the same as the Pro Upgrade, though it is designed solely to upgrade XP Home Edition. The cost is $125, a $75 savings over the normal Pro Upgrade product. Microsoft tells me it introduced the Step-Up because most PC makers were bundling Home Edition to save costs.

One of the biggest questions I've received about the Upgrade versions of XP is whether they can be used to perform a clean install, where the hard drive of an existing PC is wiped out, and XP is installed from scratch. Yes, you can do this. However, at some point during Setup, XP will ask you to insert a qualifying media to ensure that you qualify to use the upgrade in this manner. This must be a retail Windows 98, 98 SE, Millennium Edition (Me), NT 4.0, or 2000 CD-ROM, Upgrade or Full version. It cannot be a rescue CD that you got from a PC maker. As long as you have this, you can perform a full install with an Upgrade version. And if you do qualify for the upgrade, but want to do this, be sure to save $100 and get the Upgrade, rather than Full version. And don't toss out that old Windows CD-ROM; you never know when you might need it.

So how can you can get Windows XP? Let's take a look.

Surveying the ways you can get Windows XP
There are a variety of ways to acquire Windows XP. Here they are, listed in order of popularity (where the first one is the most common scenario, and the last is the least common):

  1. Get Windows XP with a new PC. Over 90 percent of Windows users get Windows with a new PC. This is the least painful way to do so, and in the case of XP, the best way, since you can be sure that a new PC has been extensively tested to ensure that its hardware and software components work flawlessly with the new OS. Since this method of obtaining Windows requires no real work on the part of the user, we won't be focusing on it here in the Installation Super Guide.

  2. Upgrade an existing system from Windows 9x/Me to Windows XP Home Edition or Professional. About 90 percent of the people who buy Windows XP at retail will upgrade an existing Windows 9x/Me system to the new OS. We'll look at this scenario in Upgrading to Windows XP from Windows 9x/Me. If you are performing this sort of upgrade, please read the section about the Upgrade Advisor tool first.

  3. Upgrade an existing system from Windows 2000/NT to Windows XP Professional. A smaller group of people will upgrade their existing Windows 2000 Professional or Windows NT 4.0 Workstation systems to Windows XP. We will examine this scenario in Upgrading to Windows XP from Windows NT 4.0/2000. This should be a simple and relatively pain-free upgrade for most people. If you are performing this sort of upgrade, please read the section about the Upgrade Advisor tool first.

  4. Clean installation of Windows XP on an existing PC. The smallest group of Windows XP users will buy a Full or Upgrade version of the product, wipe out their hard drive, and install XP from scratch. Frankly, this style of install is my preferred method, since upgrades--especially those from Windows 9x/Me--tend to carry along a lot of unnecessary baggage from the past. I hope to convince you that this is the way to go in my Windows XP Clean Install (Interactive Setup) showcase. But be sure to read the sections about the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard and Upgrade Advisor first.

In addition to these common scenarios, some people will want to dual-boot Windows XP with their previous OS. Windows XP supports this and even supplies a boot menu so that you can choose which OS to use when the system boots up. I cover this capability in my Dual-booting with Windows XP showcase.

Finally, some people might be interested in automating the Windows XP installation. This capability is used primarily in corporate situations, where Windows has to be rolled out on a number of desktops quickly and efficiently. But it will also be of interest to power users who, for one reason or another, are forced to install Windows numerous times on the same PC. An automated install lets you build an answer file ahead of time that Setup uses to install Windows XP; that way, you won't have to answer any prompts during installation. We will look at this powerful option in my Windows XP Automated Install (coming soon!) showcase.

Where to go from here...
Before installing or upgrading to Windows XP, however, you might want to take a look at two important tools which will play a large part in determining how your experience migrating to XP goes. The first is the Upgrade Advisor tool, which is a free download from the Microsoft Web site. This tool runs in your current version of Windows (Windows 95 or newer) and tells you whether you can expect to experience any hardware or software incompatibility issues when you upgrade. The second tool is the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard, available on the XP Home and Pro CD-ROMs. This tool also runs in your existing OS (Windows NT 4.0 and 98 or newer), and lets you backup your crucial data and system settings so that you can clean install XP or transfer all of your configuration information to a new XP-based PC. Then you can run the wizard on XP, and restore all of your data and system settings.

OK, let's install XP. Next up is the Upgrade Advisor...

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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