Virtualise Windows 7 under Windows 10

It isn’t safe to run a Windows 7 PC connected to the internet, but if you don’t want to lose access to your apps and setup this is a cunning workaround you can do safely

By now you surely know that support for Windows 7 ended back in January. But there are reasons why you might not yet have upgraded an older PC to Windows 10. Perhaps you have applications that won’t run under the newer operating system, or maybe you would rather invest in a brand-new Windows 10 system and leave your old Windows 7 installation untouched, so you can dip back into it if need be.

Even in those scenarios, we’d still warn against using Windows 7 as your primary OS. What you can do, however, is create an image of your existing Windows 7 installation and run it inside a virtual machine (VM). When you access the OS in this manner, it’s much less exposed to potential online threats. Your host PC will continue to benefit from Windows 10’s ongoing patches, minimising the opportunities for hackers to get in, and if something does manage to infiltrate your Windows 7 installation, it will only be able to affect the virtual hard drive – and you can undo its mischief by simply rolling back to an older, backed-up copy of your virtual hard disk file. 

And, best of all, you can do all of this without paying a penny. Over the next three pages, we’ll show you how to convert your existing Windows 7 setup to a VM using the free VMware vCenter Converter software, after which you can host it within Windows 10 using VMware’s Workstation 15 Player – which is also free for personal, non-commercial use (note that business users will have to splash out £131).

Step 1  Install vCenter Converter

Start by downloading vCenter Converter onto your Windows 7 system. You’ll need to set up a VMware account but, like the software, this is free for personal, non-commercial use. Next, launch the installer and decide what you want to include in your VM. In our case, we’re starting with a PC that has both Windows 7 and Windows 10 installed on it, but we want to virtualise only Windows 7. This needs special consideration, as we’ll explain later.

Step 2  Start the conversion wizard

Click “Convert machine” on the vCenter Converter toolbar. We’re running it on the machine we want to convert, but the software can also target a remote machine across your LAN – as long as you know the IP address of the computer whose setup you want to clone. For our purposes, click the radio button beside “Powered on”, then click the menu beside “Select source type” and pick “This local machine” from the list. Click Next.

Step 3  Set destination type

Click the menu beside “Select destination type” and then select “VMware workstation or other VMware virtual machine” from the list. You might also want to change the name of the VM underneath “Virtual machine details”. Initially, this will be populated using the name of your machine as set up in Windows, but for clarity you might want to set it to something such as “Old Windows 7 system”.

Step 4  Specify your media

You can store your new VM file anywhere you like (as long as the location is available to the machine that will be running the Player). To make your old Windows 7 system accessible on a new Windows 10 PC, put it on a removable drive. Click “Browse…” below “Select a location for the virtual machine” and navigate to the location. You don’t need to dedicate an entire volume to the archive – your VM is stored within a file, rather than requiring a bootable disk.

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Step 5  Tailor your VM contents

Click OK followed by Next and vCenter Converter will check if there’s enough space on your destination drive. By default, it assumes that you want to include all of the drives attached to your PC in your new virtual system. You can deselect any drives you don’t want or recognise, but make sure that at least the C: drive and any active drives, coloured yellow and red, remain selected. If you deselect a drive that’s crucial to the running of the VM you’ll be asked to confirm the action.

Step 6  Start the virtualisation process

Once you’ve reviewed your settings, click Next followed by Finish and the Converter will get to work on creating an image of your current setup. In our case, the software warned us that we were in for a wait of around two hours, but it actually finished much more quickly so it’s worth keeping an eye on its progress unless you have something else to do in the interim. When it’s finished, reboot your PC.

Step 7  Install Workstation Player

Now, in Windows 10, download and install VMware Workstation 15.5 Player. If you’re bringing your Windows 7 installation across from another PC, now’s the time to connect your external drive. It’s up to you whether you choose to copy the virtual disk image onto the internal drive for faster access, or keep it permanently on the external drive (which is useful for moving between machines).

Step 8  Import your VM

In the Player app, click “Open a Virtual Machine”, navigate to your VM image and select the vmx file. Click Open and it will be added to the list of machines in the Workstation Player sidebar. Make sure it’s selected here, then click “Play virtual machine” in the main part of the window to boot it. Your host environment – Windows 10 – will retain control of the keyboard and mouse; press Ctrl+G to switch these to the VM.

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Step 9  Install VMware Tools

The first time you boot, Workstation Player will ask if you want to install VMware Tools. These add some very useful features to the VM host, including what’s known as Unity mode, which lets you run virtual applications on the desktop alongside “real” windows that are running natively on Windows 10. When the tools have downloaded, Windows User Account Control will ask if you’re happy for the installer to make changes to your machine. Click Yes.

Step 10  Deal with any dual-booting issues

As we mentioned earlier, our test PC was set up to dual-boot Windows 7 and Windows 10. If your system is similar, the first time you start up, the Windows Boot Manager will appear asking you to choose between the two versions of Windows. After a few seconds, this defaults to Windows 10, which isn’t what you want. In our case, we didn’t virtualise the hard disk that Windows 10 was installed on so it wasn’t able to boot anyway.

Step 11  Choose your OS

If your dual-boot menu doesn’t automatically launch Windows 7, don’t worry: just shut down the VM and relaunch it. This time, press Ctrl+G immediately to enable the keyboard, then select Windows 7 and press Return. Once Windows 7 boots, you can make it the default by opening the Control Panel and navigating to Advanced System Settings | Startup and Recovery and selecting it from the dropdown menu under “Default Operating System”.

Step 12  Windows 7 in Windows 10

Windows 7 should now work exactly as it did when running natively. Just note that connecting an external drive or USB flash drive will bring up a prompt asking you to select whether you want it to mount it in the host operating system (Windows 10) or the guest (Windows 7). To run Windows 7 applications as though they were installed under Windows 10, click Player on the Workstation Player toolbar and enable Unity mode.

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