Q. I’ve decided to upgrade my operating system from Windows 98 to XP. I’m not so much interested in all the new XP features—although I’m sure I’ll find them useful. My primary reason is that my current Win 98 setup is unstable. No matter how I tinker with the system, it continues to give me problems. I even reinstalled it, but that did not improve things. So, with great reluctance, I figured it’s a “go” for XP. My question is this: Can I install XP right on top of Windows 98, or do I have to do a clean install?
A. That’s an important issue. As you suggest in your question, there are two ways to upgrade an operating system (OS): The easy way is simply to insert the new CD and let the new system automatically figure out how to upgrade the old one. The hard way is to totally reformat your current hard disk—that means you need to clean it out entirely, totally scrubbing it by reformatting it. Understand, however, that by reformatting a disk, you are completely erasing all its files; there’s no going back to retrieve a file you forgot to back up before you started the reformatting process.
You can see why the first method is so easy. You don’t have to back up any files (although you should anyway for safety) and Microsoft does most of the work. But if your old system is unstable, it’s unstable for a reason (or many reasons) and installing a new OS over an old one is like painting over old, blistered paint. It’s probably not going to work too well because the underlying foundation is compromised.
So if your current setup isn’t working perfectly, you really have no option but to do a clean install. However, you may at least want to give the simple method a try. It probably won’t work, but then, with software, the unexplained does happen.
If it fails, get prepared for the clean install by first backing up all your files. Also, be sure you have copies of all your applications and passwords because when you reformat the hard disk, all that will be lost.
If you’re not computer savvy and a little nervous about this exercise, you’d be wise to get an expert to guide you through the process and then help you set up your new defaults. When it works right—as it usually does—the whole process (not counting the backups) takes about an hour.