House Call 2013 — Part 2: Prepping for an upgrade

Fred Langa

In this second part of my House Call visit with Windows Secrets reader Pam Newberry, we clean up a cranky Vista notebook and upgrade it to Windows 8.

The cleanup process included updating software, checking drivers, and removing unnecessary files from the hard drive before installing Windows 8.

This visit was part of the ongoing Windows Secrets House Call project, in which I visit a reader’s home or business and attempt to diagnose and cure their PC problems. As detailed in last week’s Top Story, “House Call 2013 — Part 1: Sanitizing a drive,” I also helped Pam prepare a defunct Toshiba notebook for donation to a local tech school. The story provides an illustrated guide to powering, accessing, and wiping the Toshiba’s drive by using an inexpensive hard-drive connector kit. The House Call took place in January at Pam’s Sarasota, Florida, home.

The House Call project’s goal is to take PC troubleshooting out of the “lab” and find which analysis and maintenance techniques work best on real-world PCs. What we discover is shared with all Windows Secrets readers through the House Call articles. (You can find more on the House Calls project in the April 12, 2012, Top Story, “House Call 2012: Fixing a sluggish PC.”)

Vista system needs cleaning before upgrading

As I noted in Part 1 of this series, Pam had five PCs — each with various problems. But because each House Call is just a one-day visit, I chose only two systems for analysis and repair.

In addition to the obsolete Toshiba, Pam had a Dell notebook running Vista. But the machine had problems so severe and persistent, she wanted to ditch Vista and upgrade to Windows 8. Here’s how Pam described the trouble.

  • “I used Dell’s factory-restore image from the default partition, but the notebook wouldn’t run right, even after this total rebuild. Everything seems fine, until I try to install any application — even something as basic as Thunderbird.

    “Installing software seems to work. But when I try to load the new app from its icon or program file, nothing happens — Vista just won’t run anything other than itself. I think I’d like to start fresh with Windows 8 on this PC.”

The rest of this article details how we diagnosed and stabilized Vista so it would make a solid foundation for an OS upgrade. It also covers the actual installation of Win8.

A full backup is — usually — the first step

Before any major system maintenance — and certainly before any OS upgrade — I recommend fully backing up the current system, preferably with a disk image. (Need more info? See the Dec. 3, 2009, LangaList Plus, “Using Windows’ built-in disk-imaging utility.”)

In Pam’s case, however, she’d already tried reinstalling Vista to correct problems. That meant the system was in a near-OEM state — it had no personal files or other sensitive information to speak of. If the Win8 upgrade failed, we could still use the factory-restore option to get her system back to its current state. So we proceeded without doing a separate backup or system image.

Before heavy maintenance on an upgrade, it’s also wise to write down all passwords, product keys, and installation codes — plus any other important data that might be needed later to reinstall software and access the system and network. Pam had already done this; we were good to go. We rolled up our figurative sleeves and got started.

Next step: Update Windows and all needed drivers

Although a Windows 8 upgrade is designed to let you retain some or nearly all of your pre-upgrade Windows setup, what’s retained depends on the Windows version you’re upgrading from, as shown in the following chart.

If you upgrade from … … you can keep:
Windows 7 Apps, Windows settings, and personal files
Windows Vista Windows settings and personal files
Windows XP Personal files

Whatever Windows you’re starting with, the standard Win8 upgrade process will use it to install Win8. So before you start, it’s vital that the system be fully up to date and as healthy as possible.

To clean up Vista, we started with Windows Update. But we immediately ran into trouble; just as Pam had noted, her system was extremely balky, and we had a hard time getting the OS to do much of anything.

We tried simplifying the setup by uninstalling all the obviously unnecessary software the factory reinstall had put into place. Although that helped some, Vista still wasn’t running right. We needed to dig deeper to see what was causing the trouble. For that, we used ITSH’s free What’s My Computer Doing? (WMCD; site), shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. What's My Computer Doing? continually monitors — and displays on demand — information about programs and processes currently running on Windows systems.

Using WMCD, we identified and terminated several out-of-control system processes. We then identified the apps that owned those errant processes and uninstalled them. For detailed info on using WMCD and similar tools for this type of troubleshooting, see the Aug. 23, 2012, LangaList Plus column, “Apps temporarily — and randomly — freeze,” and the Oct, 18, 2012, column, “Diagnosing PC hangs and freezes redux” (both paid content).

Eventually, we regained enough control over the PC to manually launch Windows Update.

With Update finally running, we found a surprise: Pam had set Vista to automatically install only critical/important updates. Her setup was missing literally hundreds of recommended and optional updates — including Vista Service Pack 2 (info) and numerous drivers. That undoubtedly caused some of the system’s issues.

So we let Windows Update install all the operating system updates it wanted to, including SP2. This took a while, with multiple reboots along the way.

Next, we looked at updating the system’s hardware drivers. Because it’s usually best to obtain drivers directly from the system’s manufacturer, we paid a visit to Dell’s support site. Pam’s still-balky system complicated matters, and navigating Dell’s poorly laid-out site was confusing. On several occasions, for example, clicking through the site to locate a specific driver brought us right back to the page we had started from — accomplishing nothing.

We downloaded what we could from Dell, but eventually we went back to Windows Update and let it update those drivers it could identify as obsolete (more info).

The entire process of uninstalling unnecessary software and installing OS updates and current drivers took several hours and required several reboots. But when we were done (see Figure 2), Pam’s notebook seemed to be operating normally; Vista was finally stable and responsive!

Windows up to date

Figure 2. An essential step in any Windows upgrade is to get the current operating system and drivers 100 percent up to date

With Vista running as well as it was going to, we moved on to the hard drive.

Error-checking and cleaning the hard drive

We used Windows’ Disk Check (Microsoft info) to ensure that her hard drive was error-free. (It was.) We then ran Windows’ Disk Cleanup tool in its hidden, enhanced mode to thoroughly scrub the hard drive of temporary files and other digital debris. (See Figure 3.) For more info on this technique, see the March 13, 2008, LangaList Plus, “Using Windows’ hidden Disk Cleanup options” (paid content).

Windows disk cleanup tool

Figure 3. The Disk Cleanup tool's enhanced mode offers additional deep-cleaning options that are normally hidden

We finished the cleanup process by using Piriform’s CCleaner (site) to remove any junk files that the Windows tool might have missed, and to find and correct numerous Registry errors — another possible source for Vista’s previous misbehaving.

It had taken most of the morning (we started right after initiating the drive wipe — a six-hour process — on Pam’s defunct Toshiba), but Pam’s Vista setup was finally fully current, cleaned up, and error-checked. It was the best-possible foundation we could provide for downloading and installing the Win8 upgrade.

Moving the Dell from Vista to Windows 8

For the upgrade to Win8, we started with Microsoft’s free Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant (site; see Figure 4) to verify that her system was Win8-compatible. As expected, it was.

Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant

Figure 4. The Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant reports on hardware and software compatibility and offers a way to buy, download, and install Windows 8 through your browser.

When it concluded, the Win8 Upgrade Assistant offered to sell Pam a downloadable Windows 8 or Windows 8 Professional upgrade (more info on version differences). She could have also purchased the upgrades online at the Win8 site or bought a DVD-based upgrade through the Microsoft Store (site) or some other retailer.

Pam wanted Win8 Pro, so she selected the offered downloadable upgrade. It costs less than the DVD version and still gives the option to burn an installation DVD for safekeeping (a good idea).

Pam entered her credit-card information and the download began.

The upgrade process is clear and self-guiding. First, you download a small stub program, which in turn downloads the full 2GB Win8 Pro installation file to your hard drive. Obviously, with a download of this size, you’ll want to use the fastest connection possible. Pam had a good connection, so the download took about 40 minutes.

Once the download is complete, you’re given the opportunity to burn the installation DVD — and then the actual installation begins.

Win8’s installation is highly automated, requiring minimal user input or intervention. You answer a few basic questions and enter the product key given when you made the purchase; the software then takes over. On Pam’s system, the full install and setup took about an hour.

At the end of the process, following clear on-screen prompts, Pam gave the PC a system name (so it could be identified on her home network), set up her user account, and entered her Wi-Fi password to let the system get back online. Win8 booted without a hitch, connected to her network, and opened to the Start screen (see Figure 5).

Windows 8 running

Figure 5. Success! The new OS booted clean, stable, and working normally.

The hours spent in cleaning up the Vista system had paid off. Upgrading to Windows 8 worked perfectly.

A few final system tweaks and customizations

To end the day, we spent a little time customizing Pam’s new setup. I won’t go into detail, because much of what we did has already been covered in previous editions of Windows Secrets.

For example, the Nov. 1, 2012, special Windows 8 issue contained these helpful stories:

  • “Win8 boot guide: Your first hour with the new OS”; Top Story by Woody Leonhard
  • “Win8 early adopters compare notes in the Lounge”; Lounge Life by Kathleen Atkins
  • “Add custom tiles to the Win8 start screen”; LangaList Plus (paid section) by Yours Truly
  • “Getting to know Windows 8’s File Explorer”; Windows 8 (paid section) by Lincoln Spector
  • “Navigate Win8 quickly with keyboard shortcuts”; Best Practices (paid section) by Michael Lasky
  • “Why I actually want to buy Windows 8″; Windows 8 (paid section) by Susan Bradley
  • “Improving the Win8 experience with a Touch Mouse”; Best Hardware (paid section) by Ryan Pierson

And with those final tweaks, this House Call was done!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.