Windows 8.1 brings some greatly desired new features — a Start button, powerful new apps, a better browser, and lots more. You can read about some of the smartest tweaks Microsoft has made in our article entitled Top 6 new features Microsoft has introduced in Windows 8.1 Preview. But how can you get it? Do you need to have Windows 8 to upgrade? Actually, if you're using Windows 8, upgrading is a cinch, but non-Windows 8 users can join the party, too, thanks to a downloadable .ISO disk image file of Windows 8.1. For this article, however, we'll assume you're already running Windows 8.
With this update, Microsoft takes a similar approach to the way Apple now updates OS X — through the App Store. So current Windows 8 users will start the Windows 8-to-Windows 8.1 process through the Windows Store, where they'll see the new OS version prominently promoted, and tap Install. But with this Preview version, there's a little prep work involved, as you'll see below.
A note for Windows RT tablet users: You won't be able to downgrade back to Windows 8 after the upgrade process. And Windows Pro with Windows Media Centre users should also note that your Media Centre will be retained if you upgrade through the Windows Store, but you'll have to reinstall if you upgrade using an ISO file.
Remember that Windows 8.1 Preview is just that — a preview of software that's still in development. So birthing glitches aren't out of the question. Don't install it on a mission-critical work machine or your primary home PC: Bugs and data loss are a possibility. That said, Microsoft claims it's tested the new OS extensively, and you can bet they wouldn't put it out for the public to install if it was a completely crash-ridden mess.
You shouldn't have to worry about your programs and devices not working: Microsoft has stated that backward compatibility has been its goal for decades, and that hasn't changed. MS has tested it with thousands of apps and devices, but there's always a chance of upgrade hiccups — especially for deep system tools such as antivirus and VPN clients.
Okay, so let's get started on upgrading to a new and better Windows 8.
Microsoft lists the minimum system requirements for Windows 8.1 as follows:
If there are any files you care about on the intended upgrade machine, the same advice applies as with any operating system upgrade: Back up your PC! You can use Windows' own Recovery Drive feature or a third-party tool.
Upgrading through the Windows Store is the more straightforward method, and if you're on a Windows RT tablet, it's your only option. The other choice is to download an ISO file and create a bootable DVD or USB drive using that. If you upgrade by booting the ISO, you won't be able to keep Windows settings, personal files, and apps, but you will when upgrading from Windows 8 and the Windows Store. Here we'll focus on upgrading through the Windows Store. Those who are comfortable with creating bootable media from ISO files probably don't need a step-by-step article such as this.
To get started, head to http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/preview-download (the ISO is available for download from the bottom of this page, too). From here, click or touch the "Get the update" button. This will initiate a download of a very small MSU file that will make the update available on the Windows Store. You can either choose Download and then run it, or just Open.
You'll then see a security warning on which you can simply click Open.
This runs the Windows Update Standalone installer — but note that this isn't the actual OS updater — that comes later. Click Yes to run this system updater. After half a minute or so, you'll see a message saying Installation Complete, with a Restart button. Click that (or you can click the Close button if you're not ready).
You'll go through a typical Windows Update shutdown, and when your system comes back to life, you'll see a bar across the Start screen offering to take you to the Windows Store to install the upgrade.
You'll now be on the Windows 8.1 Store page, just as if it was any new-style app. If you head back to the Store front page, the featured app space will be occupied by the 8.1 Preview ad.
From the Update page in the Store, click or touch the "Download" button. This starts a long multi-gigabyte download, so you may want to go grab a cup of coffee or tea. The progress bar switches messages several times, from Downloading, to Getting Update Ready, to Scanning, to Applying Changes, and Gathering info.
After another reboot, you'll see a colourful fish (a fish has appeared on Windows betas since Windows 7) and more percentage counters. Messages like Getting Devices Ready, and Applying PC settings will appear, followed by another reboot. More percentage counters and messages along the lines of Getting Ready appear.
Once all the progress counters and reboots are done, you'll see the user licence agreement. Agree to this, you don't have much choice if you want the update. Next come the typical Settings options, such as whether updates are automatic. I just use the Express settings. You'll then be asked to sign into your Microsoft Account, but you'll have to verify yourself by having a code sent to a trusted email account or mobile.
Your final choice is whether to use SkyDrive. I recommend allowing this; not only does it let you migrate your PC settings, customisations, and touch apps, but also offers a very convenient, built-in online file storage capability that both the system and other apps can use.
Finally, you'll see the Windows 8.1 Start screen, which looks identical to the Windows 8 one, except it will have a fish-themed background that demonstrates the new moving Start screen backgrounds of Windows 8.1. But that's just the start of the new features you'll discover.
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