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Exclusive: Easing XP Netbook owners' path to Windows 7

Microsoft plans a tool that will allow users to download Windows 7 and create a bootable USB drive that can be used to upgrade machines that lack their own DVD drive.

After months of grappling with the issue of how to allow Windows XP Netbook owners to move to Windows 7, Microsoft is ready with its answer.

Starting on Thursday, Microsoft is adding a tool to its online store that will allow those who buy Windows 7 to create a bootable USB drive with the operating system that can then be used to upgrade a Netbook.

"There are lots of XP Netbooks out there," Microsoft's Chris Flores said in an interview. "We wanted to make it as easy as possible for the enthusiasts that want to do this."

Microsoft plans to make available on Thursday a tool that will walk users through the process of moving a downloaded copy of Windows 7 onto a USB drive, be that a memory stick or portable hard drive.

The challenge is that Netbook owners must still tweak their computer's BIOS (Basic Input Output System) to look for a USB drive before booting off the PC's hard drive.

"We're still not recommending this for the average person," Flores said. A rule of thumb is that if a user doesn't understand what is meant by tweaking the BIOS, they probably shouldn't do it.

Consumers should also make sure their USB drive has at least 4GB of free space and check Microsoft's compatibility center and run an upgrade adviser to make sure both their hardware and software will work with Windows 7.