Install Windows 7 RC, Keep Windows XP

Microsoft has shipped the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version of Windows 7 and since last Friday (August 6th) computer makers, TechNet subscribers and other Microsoft partners are now able to get it.

However the full consumer version still won’t be on store shelves until October 22nd.

Since a lot of computer power-users and IT professionals skipped Windows Vista to avoid its numerous issues, it’s understandable that they want an upgrade NOW, without the wait until this fall to begin trying out the new features in Windows 7.

Besides, thanks to an overwhelming response to the Windows 7 Beta release earlier this year, Microsoft has been fairly generous with the release candidate version.

That means that a savvy computer user could install Windows 7 RC for free and run with it almost until the first service pack comes out.

And, as every administrator with more than a week of experience knows, it’s considered wise not to install a new Microsoft operating system until SP1 anyway.

The big drawback to this strategy is that there may very well be some drivers, systems, applications, or utilities that do not run properly under Windows 7 RC. Although Microsoft has pledged to continue updating the RC version until the full version of Windows 7 ships, it is still possible that one or two things won’t be fully patched before the updates stop coming.

So, what does a savvy Windows computer user do?

Dual Booting Windows 7 with Windows XP

Install Windows 7 RC, Keep Windows XPMost power-users have long ago come to terms with any shortcomings in Windows XP.

In many cases, work-arounds, patches, and utilities have long ago been installed allowing for fast XP performance with minimal annoyances. That makes it hard to give Windows XP just to take a chance on Windows 7 RC, no matter how well it has been received thus far.

Many computer pros and enthusiasts are looking for the same thing — how to install Windows 7 Release Candidate on top of Windows XP.

Running both XP and Windows 7 is possible.

Setting up a dual-boot on your existing Windows XP computer system provides the best of both worlds, allowing full-time access to Windows 7 when wanted and also a way to boot back into Windows XP whenever it is faster, easier, more efficient, or flat out the only way for something to work.


How to setup a dual-boot system with XP and Windows 7

To setup a dual-boot system on top of an existing Windows XP install takes a little finesse, but with a little bit of planning there is no reason anyone with moderate to advanced computer skills can’t install and run both Windows 7 and Windows XP on their computer at the same time.


  Step 1: Backup

To make a dual-boot computer we’ll be messing around with boot sectors, partitions, and all manner of things that if gone wrong will make the computer unusable without some herculean measures. Better to have a solid backup that can just be laid back down as an electronic "do over" instead.

There is no need for a "real" system backup. Since we’ll be using the same hardware and just be looking to put back what we had before trying the dual-boot, a disk image is the best bet.

Grab a copy of your favorite disk imaging utility and rip a full image of your drive. Then, make sure you have a bootable USB key or CD-ROM to use to restore that image if need be.

Don’t assume, test it. Does it boot? Does Ghost or Drive Copy or whatever run from the media?

Be very, very sure before moving on.

I’d also grab a copy of Ultimate Boot CD and test that it boots too if I were you. There is no reason you should need it, but computers have a funny way of doing things they shouldn’t. Before I start messing with disks, I make sure I have a copy laying around. It’s free and if you don’t need it today, you probably will later, so keep it handy.


  Step 2: Making Room

Windows 7 is not small, and every installation copies all install files regardless of what options you select under Microsoft’s new paradigm in which a user can upgrade at any time without needing any physical installation media.

Microsoft says you’ll need 16 GB of space for the 32-bit version and 20 GB of space for the 64-bit version. Let’s face it, Microsoft isn’t known for erring on the "too big" side of the equation, so assume you’ll need even more for decent performance.

In other words, this is going to take a big hard drive and it might take some deleting and uninstalling to get enough room.


  Step 3: Making the Windows 7 Partition

Dual-booting means that Windows 7 and Windows XP will each have to have their own partitions. If you have a 500 GB hard drive split into two equal partitions, then lucky you. If not, then here comes the part where you want to keep that backup handy.

Making a second partition isn’t like dusting crops, boy. You could corrupt a boot-sector or fry your data and that would end your dual-boot system real quick wouldn’t it.*

Actually, making a second partition is easy. The tricky part is making the first partition smaller so that there is room for the second partition. Assuming that there is only one partition, chances are it takes up the whole disk. To create a second partition, we have to shrink that first one.

There are several utilities that do such a thing, but the most commonly talked about among sys admins not using the company bank account to buy new software packages are GParted and EaseUs Partition Manager which are both free. I find EaseUs Partition Manager easier to use, but it is only free for 32-bit systems.

Boot into whichever utility you decide to use and choose to resize the current partition. Remember, you are resizing the Windows XP partition, not creating the Windows 7 partition, so don’t type in how many GB you want the Windows 7 partition to be. Rather, type in how big you want the Windows XP partition to be.

Take the total size of the hard drive and subtract 20 GB. That is the largest size you can leave your Windows XP partition at and still have a shot of running Windows 7 RC decently. If you have the free disk space, allocate more to Windows 7 than the minimum. On a 700 GB drive, I gave Windows 7 200 GB to roam around in.

Once the original partition has been resized, create a new partition in the now unallocated space. Either of the above utilities can create the partition, so just take care of it while you are there. It needs to be a Primary partition; don’t worry about there being two "primary" partitions. The terminology is just out of date.


  Step 4: Installing Windows 7 RC

Obviously, you’ll need to have downloaded the Windows 7 RC and burned it to a DVD. You’ll also need your license key. If you lost it or didn’t get one, don’t worry, you can go back and get another one. (If you aren’t familiar with ISO files and burning them to DVDs, here’s a great tutorial on how to do that from Daniel Petri: How can I write (burn) ISO files to CD or DVD?)

Boot from the Windows 7 installation disc to start setup.

Here is the thing you have to get right to avoid using that backup image we made earlier. CHOOSE CUSTOM (ADVANCED) when it asks what type of installation you want. The reason is that you can only choose the partition to use from the Custom install. Otherwise, it’s going to write over the top of your XP OS and then, no dual-boot for you!

If you have the skills to run partitioning utilities, then I’m sure you can take the install from here.

When you are done installing Windows 7, your computer will now show you a DOS-type menu where you choose which operating system you want to run each time.

You can’t switch back and forth without rebooting, but if you want to try and tear a whole in the fabric of space and time, try booting into Windows 7 and then using Windows XP mode to go mess with your Windows XP dual boot systems registry and configuration files :)

(Just kidding. You’ll probably need that Ultimate Boot CD if you start doing that.)

* Editor: We apologize for the cheesy Star Wars alliteration. The author is still pouting that his wife wouldn’t allow him to give his new son the middle name "Solo".