Windows 7 has already earned itself a blue ribbon, and it isn't even in stores yet. Many Vista users will migrate to Redmond's latest and greatest operating system in search of greener pastures, and countless Windows XP laggards will be lured from the woodwork by Windows 7's polish.

Microsoft will be granting both XP and Vista users the right to buy "Upgrade" versions of Windows 7 which run for considerably less money. For example, the Windows 7 Home Premium Upgrade is $120, versus its full version counterpart that will sell for $200. Similarly, Windows 7 Professional ($200/$300) and Ultimate ($220/$320) will be sold as Upgrade and Full versions.

Now, in terms of how you can perform an upgrade on a machine already running Windows, for some the in-place upgrade option will make the experience seamless; all your programs, files and settings will remain untouched coming from certain versions of Vista. However, for another significant portion of users, installing from scratch will be the only route available (and a recommended one at that).

Microsoft has released a chart to help users figure out what upgrade paths are open to them. Unfortunately, the chart is so cluttered and dysfunctional that it makes the whole process seem much more complicated than it really is. In an attempt to smooth things out for our readers, we've created a condensed, easy-to-digest reference with all of the potential upgrade paths.

Note that if your desired path isn't included in the table below, you will have to run a fresh install -- this includes Windows XP and Windows Vista Starter users.

Also realize that you can't mix architectures if you want to upgrade without a clean install. In other words, if you are presently running a 32-bit copy of Windows, you must upgrade to a 32-bit version of Windows 7 (likewise with 64-bit).

Installed version of Windows Vista Upgrade paths to Windows 7 Price
Vista Home Basic Windows 7 Home Premium, Ultimate $120, $220
Vista Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium, Ultimate $120, $220
Vista Business Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate $200, $220
Vista Ultimate Windows 7 Ultimate $220

There are a couple more things worth noting here. While you can't perform a direct update from Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium to Windows 7 Professional, there is simple a workaround: You can run an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, and then use Windows Anytime Upgrade to move up to Professional for an additional $90. The total upgrade cost amounts to $210, which is $10 more than a direct upgrade but still better than buying a full Professional license at $300.

Windows XP users are not limited in the version of Windows 7 they can upgrade to via a clean install. Additionally, users of XP may have a possible path to Windows 7, if absolutely necessary, though it's less than recommended. It's been suggested that one could upgrade to Vista using a spare or borrowed disc, skip activation altogether, and then run an in-place upgrade to Windows 7. This approach might take more work than just installing fresh, and results will surely vary. If anything, make sure to backup any precious data before having a go at it.

Did you know?
If you're 'stuck' without an upgrade path, don't fret. Use our backup checklist to ensure that your data is safe, and then look at our top applications to install after a fresh OS installation as a quick reference on what you should have installed after a reformat.

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