Upgrading to Windows 8.1: Your new OS survival guide

Windows 8.1 is here. Now what?

A year after Microsoft released Windows 8, the highly anticipated upgrade is ready for download as of Thursday, and retail copies will be available Friday. As our in-depth Windows 8.1 review found, Microsoft left the foundation of Windows 8 largely unchanged, but it's helpfully added tips, tools, and new features that make the OS more accessible, and it's made other incremental improvements across various areas.

Windows 8.1 brings many crucial improvements, as well as a vastly better app ecosystem. But here’s the bottom line: Windows 8.1 is worth the upgrade. And here’s how to do it.

Windows 8.1 Taskbar
Boot directly to the desktop with this new Windows 8.1 option. (Click to enlarge.)

Preparation

By the time you read this, Windows 8.1 General Availability (GA) should already be available. Microsoft has told us that by 4:00 a.m. Pacific time today (Oct. 17), Windows 8.1 will be available for digital download throughout the world. Deploying a simultaneous worldwide launch is ambitious, so don’t be surprised if an initial crush of eager downloaders swamp Microsoft’s servers. On Friday, Microsoft will also begin selling Windows 8.1 at brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy, where you can purchase a product key to download it from Microsoft’s servers.

The first step is to identify your operating system. We’ll help you sort through some of your OS-specific issues below, but Microsoft has also provided a handy cheat sheet. The page will detect your operating system and configure itself automatically to provide the most relevant information.

With that out of the way, make sure that you own a license key to download either Windows 8 or Windows 8.1. You can download Windows 8.1 ($120) or Windows 8.1 Pro ($200) from Microsoft’s website. (The Pro version of Windows 8.1 offers Remote Desktop Connection, Bitlocker encryption, and Windows Media Center with DVD playback. Note that third-party video software, like VLC, offers DVD playback for free.)

You'll have two Windows 8.1 options to choose from: Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro.

Ensure you have a Microsoft ID. If you use a Hotmail (now Outlook.com) email address, you already have one. At some point, you’ll need to sign in to Windows 8.1 using that username (yourhandle@hotmail.com, for example) and password. Like Google, Microsoft encourages you to use that ID as your focal point for interacting with Windows 8.1, as well as its apps and services.

Finally, back up your data. Microsoft provides some good advice on how to do just that, whether you’re upgrading from Windows XP, Vista, or 7.

With Windows 8, you shouldn’t have to worry about losing critical documents or files. But it’s always a good idea to store copies elsewhere, just in case. Microsoft’s own SkyDrive would do just fine.

Windows to Windows 8.1 compatibilityMicrosoft
Before you upgrade, know what data you can or can't transfer from a previous installation (click to enlarge).

Upgrade: Windows 8

If you already own and are running Windows 8, you’ll be able to download 8.1 from the Windows Store within Windows 8, for free.

Upgrading from vanilla Windows 8 should be relatively straightforward. Microsoft won’t alert you that Windows 8.1 is available, we're told. Instead, you must click the Store live tile and look for the Windows 8.1 upgrade option. Tony Leung, one of our testing analysts who downloaded and installed the Windows 8 preview, reported that the total time needed to download and install Windows 8.1 was about two hours on a fast system with a solid-state disk. However, if you choose to upgrade from a DVD installation, the process should go much faster. (Update 5:30 AM: Windows 8 installation is proceeding as expected on my home machine, after I clicked the Store tile and began downloading the update.)

windows 8

For an in-place Windows 8-to-8.1 installation, Windows should slowly apply the updates. You shouldn’t have to worry about entering a license key. Chances are, after the installation is complete, your system will reboot and ask for your Microsoft username and password; when you provide that, you’ll be all set.

(Update 6:44 AM: The download totaled 3.62 Gbytes, and required about two hours to download and install, as expected.)

Upgrade: Windows 8.1 Preview

If you chose to upgrade early to the Windows 8.1 Preview edition, good for you: You know what all the fuss was about. But as we’ve mentioned in our previous coverage, any apps that you’ve installed, in either the modern (Metro) interface or the desktop versions of Windows 8.1, will need to be reinstalled.

What that should mean is that user data associated with a particular app (configuration files, saved games) should carry over, even if the app itself needs to be reinstalled. But don’t count on it. Microsoft itself can’t say for sure what the expected behavior will be, so back up and hope for the best. (Update 6:57 AM: I previously installed three games, a few MP3 files, and a few test documents via Word. All of the games were erased, including the directories and save files, and desktop shortcuts to them were blank. However, my MP3 files, pictures/screenshots, and Word documents remained.)

Microsoft Bing Smart Search
Bright, beautiful layouts in the Travel app and others are one benefit of Windows 8.1.

Again, your plan of action should be to visit the Windows Store within Windows 8 and look for an upgrade option. Downloading and upgrading the General Availability version of Windows 8.1 should probably require the least amount of time of any of the OS upgrades this article discusses, since most of the necessary files should already reside on your hard drive.

(Update 5:30 AM: As of Thursday, we've had some problems downloading Windows 8.1 onto a Surface Pro tablet running Windows 8.1 Preview - we think. The Surface downloaded several updates in the background, rebooted, then indicated it was performing a "system update". But the System still identifies the Surface as running Windows 8.1 Preview.)

(Update 6:44 AM: It's unclear whether Windows 8.1 General Availability will download in the background without assistance. Richard Hay (@winobs, via Twitter) discovered a direct download link for "forcing" the Windows 8.1 Preview-to-Windows 8.1 GA download. The problem is that Windows 8.1's practice of downloading updates in the background doesn't indicate whether it's doing anything.

In any event, we originally tried booting the Surface at about 5 AM, then clicking the direct download link sometime after. By 6:40 AM, it had finally completed downloading and installed. One note on the download process: expect a few reboots, along with "helpful" notices that your system is "doing a few things". You'll also be asked to personalize your PC with a color scheme, whether you want to use "express" Settings, and to input an emailed code that I received at my alternate email address.)

Upgrade: Windows 7

All things considered, upgrading from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 should be a fairly smooth process. But before hopping from an older Microsoft OS to Windows 8.1, you’ll have to consider the hardware as well as its OS.

Microsoft has already set the hardware specifications for Windows 8.1 Preview, and you should assume that they’ll apply to the general release of Windows 8.1, too.

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster

  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2GB (64-bit)

  • Free hard disk space: 16GB (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit)

  • Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver

If your existing PC doesn’t qualify, stop here and consider getting a refund for your Windows 8.1 license key. Then buy a new PC: Take a look at our roundup of the best Windows 8 PCs or some of the newest and best laptops. Finally, keep an eye out for the latest Intel “Bay Trail” tablets, such as the Dell Venue Pro, if you want a PC that’s both inexpensive and moderately powerful.

Keep in mind that Windows 7-era laptops are not touch-enabled, meaning that you’ll need to buy a touch-enabled monitor for desktop use, or resign yourself to scrolling “down” to scroll right on the Start screen. This is less of a concern than you might think, but sometimes it’s just easier to simply “flick” the screen down with a finger than move a mouse, especially when extending your screen from a desktop monitor to a laptop.

As our graphic above (under "Preparation") indicated, an upgrade to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7 will only allow you to keep personal files, such as stored pictures and Office documents. Again, back them up.

Although you can download an ISO file from Microsoft, you’ll need to burn the ISO to a DVD using Windows 7’s DVD-burning software. But since Microsoft also sells physical DVDs from the Microsoft Store, you might feel more comfortable with a physical disk if something goes wrong.

Packard-Bell PCLegroom.net
If you own a PC like this one, we'd suggest simply buying a new one, rather than upgrading.

If you’re upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1, the installation process will be slightly different than the Windows 8 procedure. You’ll need to enter your name and license key, naturally, and indicate on which drive or partition you want to install Windows 8.1. Again, make sure you have at least 16GB of disk space available for the 32-bit version of Windows 8.

Chances are, however, that you’ll want to install the 64-bit version of Windows 8. Why? Because in a system with a large amount of RAM (“large” meaning 4GB or more), a 64-bit system will do a better job of managing memory, so you can have more applications open without fear of a system slowdown.

Microsoft provides a nice guide to determine if your PC is 64-bit capable. As a rule of thumb, if your PC was originally purchased after 2004 (with either an AMD Athlon 64 or Intel Pentium 4, or later) chances are you own a 64-bit system, and should opt for the 64-bit version.

After Windows 8.1 is installed, your system will reboot. At this point, you’ll get a few options to personalize your device, including the colors and themes of your Start screen. You’ll also have a chance to choose an “express” Settings configuration, or you can click through and select various options. We’d suggest the latter: Some useful preselected “express” choices, including downloading Windows updates automatically, are mixed in with preselected options that absolutely require you to use Bing’s search results, for example. (Read carefully: you'll be asked whether you want to provide your location and a unique advertiser ID that Microsoft and its partners can use to help tailor ads.)

Finally, enter your Microsoft ID and password. Voilà! You’re done. And if you’re wondering what to do now, use our Ultimate Windows 8 Starter Guide as a reference document to steer you through Microsoft’s new OS.

Upgrade: Windows Vista/XP

Microsoft will discontinue support for Windows XP in April 2014, so now’s the time for those of you still using Microsoft’s ancient OS to migrate onto something more modern—and more secure, before the “zero day forever” threat puts your PC at risk. (Businesses, unfortunately, are turning to Windows 7 to escape the “XPocalypse.”) And if you’ve been forced to run Windows Vista for the past few years—well, we feel sorry for you.

Windows 8 TabletsMark Hachman
Consider upgrading to new hardware if you own an older OS. And why wouldn't you want one? They're beautiful!

Microsoft doesn’t explicitly forbid upgrading to Windows 8.1 from XP or Vista, but it’s a two-step process: first to Windows 8, and then to Windows 8.1. “Windows 8.1 is not designed for installation on devices running Windows XP or Windows Vista,” Microsoft says.

The two most important issues to keep in mind are: (1) it’s increasingly likely that you’ll need to invest in a new PC, and (2) if you don’t, you’ll still need to reinstall everything: apps, settings, personal files, you name it.

At this point, laptops and especially desktops are so moderately priced that it’s almost foolish not to consider a hardware upgrade and jump on our links above (under "Upgrade: Windows 7") for the best options.

Remember to review Windows 8.1’s hardware requirements in that same section, above, to see whether your PC meets the minimum specifications.

Before you even consider upgrading, however, make absolutely sure that you back up your critical personal data. If you’ve stored everything on your local PC, you may find that even a lifetime of photos, documents, MP3s, and other files are just a few gigabytes. If this is the case, either root around for or consider buying a 32GB flash drive: As of this writing, they’re only $20. Copy everything over to the flash drive, and then copy back onto your PC, after the installation.

Don’t worry so much about the applications—chances are they won’t work with Windows 8.1, anyway. (Want to know what will work and what won’t? Visit Microsoft’s compatibility page and type in the product name, such as “Office 2003.”) By now, many utilities and apps have been upgraded for Windows 8, so as long as you make careful note of your programs, you should be fine simply searching out new, upgraded versions.

Even older versions of Office may not be compatible with Windows 8. You’ll likely be forced to choose between a new, stand-alone version of Office or an ongoing Microsoft Office 365 subscription.

Got that? Good.

If you’re upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 8.1, the installation process will be slightly different from the Windows 8 procedure: You’ll need to enter your name and license key, naturally, and indicate on what drive or partition you’ll want to install Windows 8.1. Make sure you have at least 16GB of disk space available for the 32-bit version of Windows 8. Vista users may be able to run a 64-bit version of Windows 8.1. Microsoft’s guide will help you determine this, or our notes in the Windows 7 section, above, may answer your questions. Chances are, however, that you own a 32-bit system.

After Windows 8.1 is installed, your system will reboot. At this point, you’ll be offered a few options to personalize your device, including the colors and themes of your Start screen. You’ll also be offered the option to choose either an “express” Settings configuration, or click through and select various options. We’d suggest the latter: Some useful preselected “express” choices, including downloading Windows updates automatically, are mixed in with preselected options that absolutely require you to use Bing’s search results, for example. (Read carefully: you'll be asked whether you want to provide your location and a unique advertiser ID that Microsoft and its partners can use to help tailor ads.)

If you are an active user of Outlook.com, then you already have a Microsoft ID.

Finally, enter your Microsoft ID and password. Voilà! You’re done. And if you’re wondering what to do now, use our Ultimate Windows 8 Starter Guide as a reference document to steer you through Microsoft’s new OS.

Troubleshooting and next steps

If everything looks good, you’re golden. But if you do run into issues, consider the following support options: Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 support forums are a good place to start, with advice contributed by other users as well as Microsoft gurus themselves. Microsoft will also be hosting an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. (PT) on Oct. 17, plus a special Twitter chat (hashtag: #winchat) from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. (PT) the same day.

And now that you’re running Windows 8, a whole new world is open to you. Welcome! Come on in and poke around.

How did the process go? Any problems? And how do you like Windows 8.1? Tell us your experiences in the comments.

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