A comparison of Windows 7 migration tools

The results are in. Our expert tested five Windows 7 migration tools from a variety of vendors. Check out the findings.

This is the second part in a series on migration tools for Windows 7. Check out part one here.

Several migration tools can help you migrate to Windows 7. Our expert and his team explored the following six products:

Single-PC tools
If you have fewer than 10 desktops to upgrade, then you should consider using a single-PC tool.

PCmover

Laplink PCmover is the more reliable product of the two single-PC tools on this list. This tool makes the in-place migration to Windows 7 permanent, which means you can't access the original Windows XP environment once you finish upgrading to the new operating system. 

Short on time?

See our slideshow for a snapshot of the pros and cons of these tools.

In general, PCmover received high marks from those who have used it for many different installations. The tool has no trouble moving the majority of applications and user and app settings, and the migration process usually takes less than an hour, depending on the size of your hard drive and the amount of data to migrate.

But there are of course some caveats.

PCmover doesn't preserve your startup applications because most of these apps do not work with Windows 7. Furthermore, apps that use some form of digital rights management, like music players, have to be reauthorized under Windows 7.

In addition to in-place migration, with PCmover you can migrate across your LAN -- via a Universal Serial Bus or Laplink Ethernet cable -- or from an external hard drive.

There are four versions of PCmover offering features such as compatibility with Windows 95, multiple license discounts, and the ability to select the apps or folders you want to migrate.

Zinstall

Zinstall has a rather elegant migration method. This single-PC tool takes your original XP desktop and converts it into a virtual image that runs underneath Windows 7. Zinstall allows an in-place installation or migration from another hard drive. The advantage of this is that you always have access to your XP desktop, and you can add and subtract apps to it just like any other virtual machine (VM) image under VMware or a similar product. The migration takes about an hour to complete with this tool.

However, in my tests, I had trouble getting a stable machine once the tool finished doing its business -- and my disk wouldn't boot up. Therefore, I don't recommend Zinstall.

Automated deployment tools
Businesses with more than 10 PCs should use automated deployment tools in their migration.

Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK)

Microsoft has several migration tools, including the User State Migration Tool, Volume Activation Management Tool and Windows Deployment Services. WAIK is the latest successor to these products, and it includes updates that work with Windows 7.

Like the other Microsoft tools, WAIK is free. If this is your first time using any of these Microsoft products, be prepared to spend a lot of time reading the help files and doing some tasks manually. If you've used earlier automated installation tools from the company, WAIK will be very familiar and worth the savings in time and money.

Go behind the scenes

Learn how these six migration tools work in part one of this series.

After downloading and installing WAIK, import the Windows Image File (WIM) that comes on the standard Windows 7 operating system DVD. You can customize the image for the components you want installed. With the exception of antivirus software, you can add all the applications you want. (Antivirus software needs to be added after installation.) Furthermore, if you want to use Windows' volume-license keys instead of manually entering individual activation keys, use the Volume Activation Management Tool. Finally, to actually deploy the images on your PCs, you need Sysprep.

WAIK has a lot of power, but getting these separate tools to work together -- particularly if this is your first time with any of them -- takes work. I recommend doing some of the automation -- like the basic Windows 7 deployment -- and then manually customizing the machines with the operating system licensing and applications.

Kbox

The Dell KACE Kbox is an actual rack-mounted appliance that creates the master image. It is the only hardware device in this comparison; the others are software utilities that can run on standard Windows PCs (including older versions like XP).

Kbox can provide a centralized repository to store images, although you could probably accomplish the same thing with the other products and a large enough file server.

To use Kbox, upload the Windows installation DVD to it, set up a scripted installation for each app you want migrated, and add the user data you want to move. The process completely erases each desktop's hard drive and lays down the new bits. Before you migrate, turn off desktop firewalls, uncheck simple file sharing, and disconnect shared mapped drives.

Since it's hardware-based, Kbox carries a higher price tag than the other products on this list. An unlimited license is about $39,000, which could be cost-effective at the thousand-desktop level and above.

Viewfinity User Migration

To function, Viewfinity User Migration requires several prerequisites, including .Net Framework 3.5 and WAIK.

Not just for migration

KACE and Viewfinity have companion products that can do more than migration, such as PC inventory and auditing.

The tool uses Active Directory to keep track of user profiles, and it can be set to migrate user settings at the next login or at a particular time of day. When a user logs into an XP desktop, it collects this information. However, Viewfinity doesn't migrate apps.

Since Viewfinity is free for the time being, it's worth trying if you're frustrated with WAIK and want something easier to use but don't want to invest the cash in Kbox or SmartDeploy.

SmartDeploy

Prowess SmartDeploy is specialized for Windows 7 deployment, which makes it easier to learn than the other three automated tools on this list.

SmartDeploy has its own elegance: Under VMware, you create a Virtual Machine Disk (VMDK) file of your Windows 7 master image. The tool then converts the file into the Windows Imaging Format (WIM) used to boot up a new PC.

The VMDK master image has limitations. It needs to be as clean of a copy as the ultimate OS plus apps, so if VMware tools (or the equivalent) aren't installed, the PC hasn't joined a domain, there are no image snapshots, and the disk image isn't split among multiple files.

SmartDeploy has three different pieces of software -- one (the Media Wizard) to create the image, another one to customize it to particular hardware configurations and one to perform the actual deployment.

Although SmartDeploy is less expensive than the Kbox, its licensing process will drive you batty. However, for those familiar with VMware, this approach has a lot of appeal. But if you haven't used any virtualization products, then this isn't the place to start.

There are a plethora of choices for migrating to Windows 7. Depending on your circumstances -- and how much time you want to invest in learning how a tool words -- these products can save you a lot of time and effort when upgrading from Windows XP.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  David Strom is a freelance writer and professional speaker based in St. Louis. former editor in chief of TomsHardware.com, Network Computing magazine and DigitalLanding.com. Read more from Strom at Strominator.com.

This was first published in May 2010

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