How Virtual Machines Make PC Refresh Easier

I recently used a Virtual Machine (VM) to fast-track the process of replacing old, failing hardware. By leveraging virtualization, I “moved in” to my new computer instantly, and I left myself empowered to manage migrating my data, settings, and applications separately from the hardware changeover.

I believe any IT team with a PC refresh agenda should consider a similar approach. End users have deadlines and business objectives that have priority over a computing refresh, yet IT service members have their own goals and timelines to manage. By transforming a user’s old PC into a VM, the IT schedule and the client’s schedule become largely independent. The VM also mitigates the stress and risk that comes along with migrating computers. These are valuable outcomes for any business.

Use Cases

The strategy outlined below will meet the requirements of users needing a PC refresh.

PC Refresh

1. Replacing aging and/or failing computer hardware with a new desktop or laptop.
2. Applying a clean operating system image to existing computer hardware.

Smart businesses will budget for PC refresh on a cyclical basis. I have worked for nothing but smart businesses, and the PC refresh cycle I have most typically seen is 5 years. Laptops and desktops older than 5 years become a liability for a business. They are usually outside of a warranty period, and components like drives and memory have increased failure rates from prolonged use. Moreover, the new hardware can be configured faster and more capable to boost productivity (and morale).

Not only a hardware change fits the definition of PC refresh. A security upgrade, merger, acquisition, or final-attempt to fix a ticket may necessitate wiping a user’s operating system to start clean.

The Old Ways

There are a few different approaches that an IT team can use to refresh a client’s PC. I’ll cover the two I’m most familiar with.


A new computer is given to the user while the old computer remains online. The client uses 2 keyboards, 2 mice, and 2 or more monitors to work on each system simultaneously. The advantage of this approach is that the user can manage moving in to the new box over time. The disadvantages are obvious. More desk space is consumed. Additional peripherals and network jack are required. The electrical circuit must accommodate additional load. Disposal of old hardware is delayed.

A user hates the idea of carrying two laptops.

Keep the Hard Drive

The old computer’s hard drive is removed and inserted into the new computer. With this strategy, the client must be briefed ahead of time about how the disk will become a data drive in the new PC. The advantage is that the client can have immediate access to data from the old computer without waiting for network transfers or cloud sync. The disadvantage is that installations of old software may not run correctly, as the drive letter, system registry, and user folders are all new. Additionally, displayed values for frequently and last-used files and folders are reset. Many users leverage these displayed values to navigate work, and a productivity loss may occur without a transition period with access to the old computer. Lastly, by reusing the old drive, there is no opportunity to fit a larger or faster one.

A man listens to health of hard drive.

Physical-to-Virtual (P2V)

To avoid the pitfalls of the old ways, instead create a virtual copy of the client’s old computer. This process is termed P2V by the IT crowd, as it involves migrating the operating system of a physical computer to a virtual one.


The P2V procedure has some basic requirements.

Hypervisor (HV)

For those uninitiated to virtual technology, the hypervisor is a type of computer software, firmware or hardware that creates and runs virtual machines [Wikipedia]. The end user can run a HV locally on the new computer. Using a local HV is a great option for users that have a laptop and travel away from the corporate network. Moreover, a local HV doesn’t require any additional servers or storage in the datacenter. Processing power, disk space, and memory for the virtual copy of the old PC are all shared with the new PC. Additionally, the old PC can, optionally, be isolated to a host-only network, which may be favorable if a refresh is part of a solution with updated security constraints. Alternatively, an IT team can host the virtual copy of the old PC on a centralized HV. Users would then remotely access the VMs via the company network. Either a local HV or centralized HV is a valid solution, so simply choose one per your requirements.

For my purposes I have chosen VMware Workstation Pro for a local hypervisor solution. Other local HV choices are Hyper-V from Microsoft and VirtualBox from Oracle. I have used all three of these products for decades now, and my first choice is VMware. I spend less time troubleshooting the HV solution with VMware. For example, when I need to pass a USB device through to a VM, it is simple and easy with VMware. With the Hyper-V product from Microsoft, USB passthrough isn’t supported at all. The VirtualBox alternative supports the USB passthrough feature, but the extension pack to support it is expensive and frankly unreliable in my experience. Moreover, VMware offers the centralized vSphere hypervisor. VMware VMs are portable between vSphere and Workstation Pro, so a local HV choice today can easily be centralized to the datacenter later.

A Bonus for Power Users

A hypervisor is a powerful tool for skilled technical professionals. I have used virtualization in my workflow, as a software engineer, for many years now. VMs are a great way to implement software build machines, test platforms and runtime environments with mixed OS components. The purchase of a HV has value beyond PC refresh!

Temporary Storage

The P2V procedure requires saving an image of the old computer and recovering it to a VM. One can use an external USB hard drive for this. Saving the image to an external drive is intuitive. Restoring the image is also straightforward, provided the HV supports USB passthrough. My preference, however, is a network share instead of an external drive. As such, I will author this guide using a network share.

Storage Preparation

Create a shared folder on a network accessible to the old PC. This can be done on the new computer if space is sufficient.

  • Prepare Storage Step 1
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Save the Image

For Microsoft Windows, I’ve found the legacy system image to be the most reliable method for P2V. I’ll cover P2V for other operating systems in future content, so be sure to enter your email below to subscribe to the blog!

Perform the following steps on the old PC:

  • Save Image Step 1
  • Save Image Step 2
  • Save Image Step 3
  • Save Image Step 4
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  • Save Image Step 9

Cloud Storage

The Office 365 right-click menu to free up space.

Individuals and businesses alike leverage cloud storage in the modern era. If the old PC has cloud storage, like the 1TB provided by Microsoft Office 365, then it is wise to “Free up space” before saving the system image. Your content is still available via the cloud, but it uses no space in the image or the eventual VM to be created.

Create the VM

These steps will vary by hypervisor. Again, the procedure below is for VMware Workstation Pro.

  • Create VM Step 1
  • Create VM Step 2
  • Create VM Step 3
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  • Create VM Step 20

Restore the Image

The final step is to restore the physical PC’s recovery image to the new VM. The regular Microsoft Windows procedure to restore a physical PC from a recovery image works the same for a VM. The only addition in this guide is to add VMware tools to the guest at the end of the installation. (VMware tools enables many great features, including: bidirectional copy and paste, drag-and-drop file copies, and coordinated host/guest power events.)

  • Restore Image Step 1
  • Restore Image Step 2
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Update License

Some Microsoft Windows licenses will require reactivation in the VM. Mine did not. I originally purchased a retail license, which can be reused in the VM. OEM keys, like those applied when you buy the operating system preinstalled on a new PC, will not transfer. In this case, you should apply a new license if the machine is to be used indefinitely. I am not a lawyer, and it is only my opinion that the VM could be used unlicensed, within the reactivation trial period, for the purpose of moving to a new computer. For assured compliance, apply a new license.

For those interested in permanent reactivation, Amazon sells both retail and OEM activations for Windows. Note OEM editions cost less, because the keys cannot be transferred to a new computer and include no support from Microsoft. An OEM key should, however, work to activate Windows as a guest within VMware.

Cost Breakdown

The current MSRP of VMware Workstation Player is $149 and VMware Workstation Pro is $199. For power users, like software developers, the pro variant should be the only considered purchase.

Again, note that a Windows license key may not be required. The MSRP for a retail Windows key is $139 for the Home Edition and $199 for the Pro Edition. The MSRP for an OEM Windows key is $119 for the Home Edition and $169 for the Pro Edition. Buy the edition that matches your old PC, or just buy Pro and never look back. Buy a retail key for the flexibility of transferring it to a different computer later. Buy an OEM key if you don’t care about that. Business users may further reduce price by activating installations using a MAK.

The following table shows a variety of possible virtualization costs:

HVNo Win LicenseWin OEM HomeWin OEM ProWin Retail HomeWin Retail Pro
VMware Workstation Player$149$268$318$288$348
VMware Workstation Pro$199$318$368$338$398


The process of converting an old PC to run as a VM on a new PC does incur some additional investment. This investment has a return in productivity, however. IT personnel can move rapidly to roll out the next PC refresh project. End users can move into the new PC on their own schedule, which reduces interruption to priority work. Old machines can be removed from the office at the same time the new machines are installed, yet employees need not fret they overlooked migrating critical settings or data. Lastly, even if the old PC VM is finally deleted, the user is left with a powerful virtualization tool that can be used for future work.

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