A guide to installing Windows 8.1

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft both polishes up the software, removing many of the illogicalities, and adds some new features. It makes for a smoother computing experience in general, and for those users who want to bypass the new-style, tablet-friendly Start screen at start-up, Windows 8.1 gives them that choice.

It also gives them better SkyDrive cloud storage integration and a new, more standards-compliant browser version, Internet Explorer 11. The .1 version number increment should be taken to heart, though — Windows 8.1 is not a drastic departure from Windows 8, maintaining its two modes, namely the new-style tablet-friendly one, and the traditional Windows desktop.

The new operating system version becomes available in the form Microsoft calls GA, for "general availability," on 17 October (tomorrow) as a free update for existing Windows 8 users, and on 18 October for retail purchase in the form of installer discs or software downloads from the Microsoft Store.

It's actually already available for pre-order from the Microsoft Store website, with pricing of £99.99 for Windows 8.1 and £189.99 for Windows 8.1 Pro. (Don't confuse the Microsoft Store website with the Windows app store built into Windows 8 and 8.1).

And, of course, you might have access to Windows 8.1 already via an MSDN account, if you're a developer.

Windows 8.1 installation scenarios

There are several scenarios for Windows 8.1 installation depending on the PC you want to install the OS on. Here are the possible choices:

  • An existing Windows 8 machine or tablet
  • A PC or tablet running Windows 8.1 Preview
  • A Windows 7 PC
  • A PC running Windows Vista, XP, or an even earlier OS version
  • A PC with no functioning OS

And for the systems with an existing Windows installation running, you have two further options:

  • Windows 8.1 (regular) versus Windows 8.1 Pro
  • 32-bit versus 64-bit edition

The Pro version provides business capabilities like disk encryption and network domain joining, and the ability to install Windows Media Centre. As for the 32-bit or 64-bit choice, at this point it makes the most sense to go with 64-bit, as all contemporary processors are designed for 64-bit data paths. However, if your PC currently is running a 32-bit operating system, you'll only be able to perform a clean install — in other words, you won't be able to execute an upgrade installation that keeps any data or programs if you choose 64-bit.

The upgrade from Windows 8 is a fairly automatic process, so I'll focus on installing from the ISO disk image. Windows 8 upgraders will still want to heed step 3 below.

Step 1: Make sure your system meets the requirements

Microsoft lists the minimum system requirements for Windows 8.1 as follows:

  • Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
  • RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2GB (64-bit)
  • Hard drive: 16GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit)
  • Graphics Card: DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher driver
  • Taking advantage of touch input requires a screen that supports multi-touch
  • To use Windows Store apps, you need a screen resolution of 1024 x 768 or greater
  • To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768

Microsoft also has a Compatibility Centre site where you can check whether any particular piece of hardware or software will run under Windows 8.1. At the time of writing, there's no Windows 8.1 Compatibility Scan utility as there is for Windows 8, but it's a good bet that at launch time Microsoft will make such a tool available. In fact, you'll probably have to run this tool prior to installation if you download the installer from Microsoft.

Step 2: Get the installer

Before you install Windows 8.1, you obviously have to obtain the installer somehow. I deal with this issue in my guide to downloading Windows 8.1. For PCs running Windows 8 or 8.1 Preview, getting the 8.1 installer will be a simple matter of going to the Windows Store and choosing the Windows 8.1 upgrade. You can also obtain a Window 8.1 ISO disk image file. If you're running Windows 8 or 8.1 Preview, you can mount and run the installer from right within Windows. But if you're on an earlier Windows OS or if you have no OS at all, you'll have to burn a DVD or create a bootable USB stick for the installation. Make sure the installer you get conforms to the flavour of the OS you want: 32-bit or 64-bit, regular or Pro.

Step 3: Back up

The same warning applies to all OS upgrades: Since it's such a fundamental system change, make sure you back up any important data. Although several of the upgrade scenarios mentioned above allow the process to retain your personal files, why risk anything when backing them up generally isn't too onerous a task? You can use Windows' own Recovery Drive feature or a third-party tool such as Acronis Backup & Recovery.

Step 4: Burn your installation media or create a bootable USB stick

For Windows 8 or 8.1 Preview users, this step isn't necessary, since those let you mount a disk image file (making it act just like a drive) with a right click. After you've downloaded your ISO disk image file (once again, here's the link showing you how to get this), you'll need to make a bootable DVD or USB stick. You can create the disc using a utility like ImgBurn or Windows 7's Burn Disc right click option. Creating a bootable USB stick is a simple matter of running Microsoft's USB Download Tool; you specify the file and the target USB drive, and the utility does the rest.

Step 5: Run the installer

You can either boot your subject PC with the media in the drive or USB slot or, if you want to perform an upgrade installation, run the setup.exe program in the installer folder while your Windows 7 PC is still running (this isn't an option with systems before Windows 7). When the Installer starts running, after a brief "Preparing" percentage progress indicator, you'll be asked whether to Download and install updates, which is recommended.

You can also optionally check a box that sends Microsoft installation data to help them improve the process. After the quick update, you'll see a "We're getting a few things ready" message, after which you'll need to enter your product serial number. A clever on-screen keyboard is an option on this page. Next you'll agree to the user licence.

As with past Windows installations, you can only perform an upgrade installation by running the installer from within Windows. A custom installation – also called a "clean" installation – keeps nothing from the previous Windows installation. (Actually, that's not entirely true, since you'll find files from the previous version in the Windows.old directory under your root drive folder if you don't choose to format the drive you're installing on – but those files don't show up in the new version of Windows' folders).

After choosing the partition to install to (or even if you've chosen the upgrade path) the typical Windows installation will proceed, taking about 20 minutes.

Note that the installer reboots – I had to remove the USB thumb drive so that the installation process wouldn't start again from the beginning, and reboot to continue with the Windows 8.1 setup.

Step 6: Set up and customise

The next steps involve some simple interface colour choices and signing into a Microsoft account so that you can take advantage of the Windows apps store, as well as syncing customisation choices and files through SkyDrive. You can either sign into an existing Microsoft account or create a new one. If you sign in, you'll need to verify your account through another email or phone text message – the two-step verification process. You enter the code sent into your new Windows 8.1 setup.

Next, you'll see some "getting ready" type screens with rotating colours, letting you know that you can get apps from the Windows Store. After this, you'll see the familiar tiles of the Start screen. The first time you use the new OS, you'll see tips in the corners of the screen showing how to use the Charms and new Start button (and more). My display resolution wasn't correct, so I had to install the driver for my display adapter and restart to get the screen configured correctly. Once that was done, I was ready to enjoy the new world of Windows 8.1.

While you're here, you might also want to check out our 5 tips to help you run Windows 8.1 as smoothly as possible, and our guide to dual booting Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.