How to hang on to Windows 7 for the long run

Not sold on Windows 10? We have the keys to keeping your Win7 system running the way you like it

If Windows 7 represents peak Windows for you, you’re not alone. Twice as many people use Win7 as use Win10, even after 18 months of Microsoft pressure to get you to give up Win7 and jump to the shiny new version as your operating system of choice.

Your reasons for staying with Win7 may range from mere convenience to mental inertia to an abject fear of the Win10 info borg. Whatever your reasons for remaining with Win7, there are steps you can take right now to ensure Win7 keeps working -- at least until Microsoft pulls the plug on security patches, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Yep, that’s a Patch Tuesday.)

The key, as you might expect, is to stow away a solid “ground zero” full backup. From that point, you should patch judiciously, use incremental backups scrupulously, and tend to the maintenance jobs that you’ve no doubt neglected. If you go about it in an organized manner, your machine should last forever ... or at least until you throw it in the trash and buy a new one.

Step 1. Pick a patching method

Before you back up your machine, make sure it’s in top shape.

If you’re concerned about Microsoft’s “telemetry,” the fact is that you agreed to a certain level of snooping when you consented to the license agreement for Windows 7:

Microsoft may use the computer information, accelerator information, search suggestions information, error reports, and Malware reports to improve our software and services. We may also share it with others, such as hardware and software vendors. They may use the information to improve how their products run with Microsoft software.

The method for bringing your Win7 up to speed and keeping it going for the duration depends on how much information you’re willing to share with Microsoft about your system, software, and activities. Starting in October 2016, Microsoft changed the way it distributes patches to accommodate individuals and organizations that only want security updates, and not other patches that may affect how much information is collected and sent to Microsoft. That gave rise to two patching strategies and a “no patch for me, please” option.

I detail the three main patching choices in “How to prepare for the Windows 7/8.1 ‘patchocalypse.’” Long story short, Win7 patches align with three major groups:

  • Group A: Those who are willing to take all of Microsoft’s new telemetry systems, along with potentially useful nonsecurity updates.
  • Group B: Those who don’t want any more snooping than necessary and don’t care about improvements like daylight saving time zone changes, but do want to keep applying security patches.
  • Group W: Those stalwarts who will take their chances and don’t want to install any new patches, whether they fix security holes or not.

Group A (apply all of the offered patches) or Group W (don’t ever patch) are the easiest to join, but Group W is vulnerable to all sorts of problems. I don’t recommend Group W. Group A can use Windows Update to get everything they need. It’s harder to join Group B, because it requires manual download and installation of patches.

It’s helpful to figure out whether you want to be in Group A or Group B (or Group W) before getting going.

Step 2. Optionally reinstall Win7 from scratch

Right off the bat, you need to make sure your Win7 system is fit to fly. There's no sense preserving a baseline system in stone (or at least in backup) until the baseline is working right.

For many of you, Windows 7 works fine the way it is. If that describes your situation, skip to Step 3.

For the rest of you, a fresh install of Windows 7 is vital to preserving a fully functional Win7. The best approach I know was published on, based on a procedure developed by Canadian Tech. There are two significant sticking points:

  • Obtaining “genuine” Windows 7 Service Pack 1 installation files can be difficult.
  • Once you have Win7 SP1, which updates should you install?

Obtaining the real ISOs is a significant concern because there are many pirate copies of Win7 floating around the internet. Until May 2014, you could download the retail bits from an Microsoft distributor known as Digital River. In an InfoWorld column, I talked about the way that source disappeared.

Microsoft has this official download site, but it works only if you feed it a valid product key -- and there’s the rub. Microsoft defines the product key thusly:

From an authorized retailer. The product key should be on a label or card inside the box that Windows came in.

A new PC running Windows. The product key will be preinstalled on your PC, included with the packaging the PC came in, or included on the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) attached to the PC.

But I’ve heard from many people that the keys they’ve retrieved (typically from ProduKey or Belarc Advisor) don’t work, even keys from a 100% genuine Win7 installation. I’ve also heard that retail keys -- the ones inside a box that you bought with Win7 inside -- work in all cases.

I asked Microsoft how people with demonstrably genuine copies of Win7 can get fresh new Windows 7 SP1 installation files. The response:

For customers who do not have a product key, they will need to contact Microsoft Customer Support Service, where we have alternative options for acquiring the Windows 7 product when they have lost their media.

If you have trouble locating a clean copy of Win7 SP1, check out “The safest way to get a new copy of the Windows 7 bits.”

A clean install isn’t for the faint of heart. No matter how hard you try, you will lose data, somehow, somewhere -- it always happens, even to us masochists who have been running clean Windows installs for decades.

Start with a full set of program installation CDs, DVDs, or a list of locations where you can download what you’ll need. Make sure you have all the keys. Stick all your passwords in a repository like LastPass or RoboForm. You should send your data, and settings wherever possible, off to DVDs or an external or network drive using a product like Windows Easy Transfer (see Lance Whitney’s how-to on the TechNet site).

Then, armed with a good copy of Win7 SP1, you’re ready to follow Canadian Tech’s steps to install a clean copy of Win7.

Note: I don’t recommend installing the so-called Convenience Update, KB 3125574, which was created to roll up many outstanding patches. Although the Service Pack 2-like update may save you some time, in my experience if you follow Canadian Tech’s advice, the speedup is minimal. The all-star team of Abbodii, PointZero, and Komm has documented the shortcomings of the Convenience Update, and they shouldn’t be overlooked.

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