How to Make Windows 7 Installs Easy
I'd hate to think exactly how many times I've installed some version of Windows 7 since its debut back at Microsoft PDC 2008. There was the Windows 7 pre-public beta (that didn't have the new UI and menu bar), the Windows 7 public beta, the Windows 7 RC and the Windows 7 RTM. On my daily use laptop alone I've installed each of these Windows 7 versions, some more than twice. Then there's all the Windows 7 installations I've done under Hyper-V and on test machines prior to using them myself. So let's conservatively say I've probably installed Windows 7 at least 8 or 10 times (but it's probably more like 15 or 20.)
Now Microsoft is saying it can take anywhere from a half hour to 20 hours to install a fresh copy or do an upgrade in place, respectively. If you are upgrading from XP, well, you've probably got the longest road ahead of you and frankly would probably be better off doing a fresh install in my opinion anyway. When I can, I'll go the fresh install route most times.
There are ways you can make the fresh install time shorter, particularly when it comes to getting all your apps and configurations in place. The most important to do is keep all of your data on a separate partition (or drive) from the Windows OS. I mean put EVERY BIT OF YOUR DATA on a separate partition, including your Documents folder, Downloads, Outlook PST and OST files, favorites, music files, videos, pictures... all of the folders normally under my documents. If you were to drill down into my user folder on the C drive of Windows 7, you'd find all of those folders (Downloads, My Documents, My Pictures, etc.) empty because they've been relocated to a separate data partition. If you're in a little larger company, that data can be located on the company's Windows file server with local copies on your computer, though they may not want all your music files (and everybody else's) eating up server file space.
Most applications will place data in your documents folder, but some like to be tricky and put it buried next to their own app folders, so check this when you install the application and relocate the folder to your data partition, placing a shortcut where they kept the folder. Most apps these days deal with that just fine. Also check within the app itself for a setting that lets you change where data and other files live.
With a separate data partition, installing a fresh OS (Windows 7 or otherwise) is now a much easier proposition. Install the OS, repoint My Documents, etc., to the data partition where they live, install the apps and also repoint them to the data partition, etc. Some applications, like Outlook, are a bit more involved. After Outlook finishes installing, go into the control panel, open up Mail, and create a data file reference pointing to where your PST and OST file(s) live on the data partition, and make the appropriate data file the default.
Windows 7 actually has a new feature that makes all of this even easier, Libraries. You can learn more about Libraries by reading Windows 7 Feature Focus: Libraries.
Also note that if you don't have a separate partition setup to house your data (or a separate drive), the best time to do it is during or right after the Windows 7 install. Most computers come with some pretty hefty disk space these days so during install make your Windows 7 primary partition around 80GB and then make a separate data partition with the remaining space. You'll want a lot of disk space for your data partition, particularly if it's storing mp3, video and image files from your My Music, My Video and My Pictures folders. Another good time to do this is right after the OS install, by dropping into the Disk Management portion of Computer Management within Administrative tasks. Shrink your Windows 7 primary partition and then create a new data partition. This can be tricky to do if your OS isn't a freshly installed OS (especially under Vista) so I'd recommend doing this right away after installing or go back and create the partitions during installation.