How to set up a Windows 7 emulator for Windows 10

The Windows 7 logo in orange
Windows 7

Setting up and running a Windows 7 emulator for Windows 10 can be a rather complicated task. 

Microsoft is notorious for its lack of nostalgia or preserving well-loved systems that many have grown attached to over the years. 

Combine this with the fact that many IT professionals can’t bear to give up Windows 7, one of the most popular operating systems of all time, and this has led some to seek novel ways of sticking with the long-lasting system. 

Luckily, there are ways available to help modernize antiquated systems while still retaining their traditional charm. Virtualization, which involves making a digital copy of Windows 7 that runs inside modern operating systems, is an ideal way to keep your old favorite while enjoying the security features of a newer OS. 

In this article, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide on how to set up and run a Windows 7 emulator for Windows 10. 

How to set up a Windows 7 emulator for Windows 10

1. Install vCenter Converter

  1. Start by downloading vCenter Converter onto your Windows 7 system.
  2. Next, launch the installer and decide what you want to include in your VM.

To do this, you'll need to set up a VMware account. However, like the software, this is free for personal, non-commercial use. 

Also, in our case, we started with a PC that has both Windows 7 and Windows 10 installed on it, but the aim is to virtualize only Windows 7. That needs special consideration, as we’ll explain later.

2. Start the conversion wizard

  1. Click “Convert machine” on the vCenter Converter toolbar. 
  2. Select the radio button beside “Powered on”.
  3. Click the menu beside “Select source type” and pick “This local machine” from the list.

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. Once this is done, you can click Next.

3. Set destination type

  1. Click the menu beside “Select destination type”.
  2. Then select “VMware workstation or another 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”.

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.

5. Tailor your VM contents

  1. 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 recognize, but make sure that at least the C: drive and any active drives, colored 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.

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.

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).

8. Import your VM

  1. In the Player app, click “Open a Virtual Machine”, navigate to your VM image and select the vmx file. 
  2. 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.

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.

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.

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. To set Windows 7 as the OS and make it the default:

  1. Press Ctrl+G immediately to enable the keyboard
  2. Select Windows 7 and press Enter
  3. Once loaded, open the Control Panel
  4. Open Advanced System Settings
  5. Open Startup and Recovery
  6. Under Default Operating System, select Windows 7 from the dropdown.

Having followed the steps listed above, Windows 7 should now work exactly as it did when running natively. However, you should be aware that connecting an external drive or USB flash drive will bring up a prompt. 

This will ask you to choose to have your emulation mount within the host operating system (so Windows 10) or the guest OS (Windows 7). You'll need to click Player on the Workstation Player toolbar to enable Unity mode, which will allow you to run Windows 7 applications as though they were installed under Windows 10. 

Virtualization is a fantastic process for salvaging legacy tech, reducing hardware costs, and saving floor space in your office or data center. Click here for more virtualization guides, tutorials, and features.

Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.

Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.