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The move to Windows 8: Upgrade, or clean install?

If you’ve been seriously considering taking the plunge and moving to Windows 8, you’ve probably also been wondering whether you should do a clean install or an upgrade. Conventional wisdom says that a clean install is the best way to get a solid, running Windows installation. But if you’re like me and have dozens of applications installed, the idea of re-installing all of them can be a daunting roadblock in itself. If you’re running Windows 7, and don’t need to switch from 32-bit to 64-bit, then an upgrade is a viable option.

Because fortunately, Microsoft has actually done a very solid job of making the process of upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 pretty painless. I’ve now upgraded my three main working machines – a laptop, a netbook, and a desktop which doubles as a server and HTPC machine. In each case I’m glad I did, and found the process a lot less jarring than the clean install I did on my fourth machine – which required redoing all my settings and reinstalling all my applications.

Run the Upgrade Assistant

Until now, I haven’t been much of a fan of Microsoft’s upgrade wizards. They typically provided long lists of problems with few solutions, and didn’t do a very good job of isolating which problems were critical and which ones were just a friendly heads-up. Fortunately the Windows 8 version is much improved. In each case it gave me a fairly clearly worded list of applications which had updates for Windows 8 available, ones about which it wasn’t sure, and ones it said wouldn’t work or should be uninstalled before upgrading.

In my case the wizard recommended getting updates for several of my applications – which I did – and pointed out that several others would probably not work after the upgrade. None of them were critical, fortunately. For two of the upgrades, I performed the process with Office 2013 Preview installed, and the third with the RTM version of Office 2013 installed. It worked fine either way.

Performing the upgrade: Down the rabbit hole

Set aside a good chunk of time for the upgrade itself. It can easily take hours to do a full in-place upgrade. The good news is that it happens largely automatically. Simply pressing enter a few times is the only part you need to play. However, it can be easy to get frustrated if you take the cheerful status messages and optimistic percentage bars too seriously. Don’t try to make sense of them.

Perhaps in an attempt to dumb down the process, status messages like “Taking care of a few things…” and “Getting Ready…” wander across the screen while percentage-complete figures vary almost arbitrarily from 0 per cent to 100 per cent and back several times. In particular, “Getting Ready…” appeared after more than an hour and several runs from 0 per cent to 100 per cent had already gone by – making me wonder, ready for what? If you can hold your temper – and your sarcasm – until the end of the seemingly interminable Alice-in-Wonderland-like experience provided by the upgrade process, you’ll have a fully upgraded Windows 8 installation.

Frankly, Microsoft should know better. Providing a step-by-step status as the update progressed – much as some previous versions of Windows installers have done – with a percentage readout on the total process and on the current step would be a huge improvement. Instead Microsoft has decided to hide all useful information and only provide confusing titbits. Better that it had blanked the screen and merely had it come back to life when finished. Perhaps a re-run of the Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld ad could be shown during the upgrade so that we all know something is happening? I’m all for simplifying, but not stupidifying.

In my case, all my applications, settings, taskbar entries, and Desktop icons were perfectly in place. Office, including Outlook, Adobe Creative Suite, and other applications worked flawlessly after the upgrade. I did have to get a new version of ATI’s Catalyst software in order to run its control panel. Windows Update didn’t know about it, so I had to head to the ATI site to download it.

You’ll also need to decide whether to use a Microsoft cloud-based login, which allows Microsoft to sync your settings between your Windows 8 machines, much like a Google account allows you to do with Chrome.

Using a cloud-based login

I experimented with both a purely local login and one which was tied to my Microsoft Account (the new name for Microsoft Passport, Microsoft Live ID, etc). In hindsight I prefer the cloud integration option. It didn’t seem to mess up any of my local permissions or applications – much to my surprise – and meant that my settings were instantly applied to all of my Windows 8 machines. That meant that as I upgraded additional machines they’d “learn” settings I’d already made on the other machines, so I wouldn’t have to enter them again.

I did run into one instance where the cloud got a little too pushy. Microsoft remembers where you place the taskbar when you move it around. I like having it on the bottom of my desktop, and on the left on my laptop. However, each time I moved it on one machine it would move itself to match on the others. This was sort of fun the first time, but I quickly learned I needed to search for sync your settings in Windows settings and turn off Desktop personalisation if I wanted each system to have its own taskbar orientation.

Upgrading Windows Media Centre

One reason I waited this long to upgrade my desktop is that it also records TV shows from a set-top box using Windows Media Centre. Now that Microsoft has released a Windows Media Centre add-on for Windows 8, and made it free for the next couple of months, I was ready to take the plunge. In principle the steps are simple and documented on the same page where Microsoft provides the free product key, but like many other users I ran into some trouble.

Adding the Windows Media Centre continues the Alice in Wonderland adventure. Starting with a “This might take awhile,” expect your computer to wander off for a half hour or more with only a few spinning balls to let you know it is working. After that you’ll be treated to several more sets of 0 per cent to 100 per cent status complete messages, so don’t expect to actually have a clue how far along the update is.

In my case, and for many others, the Media Centre install failed without much in the way of explanation. Fortunately Microsoft has upgraded its troubleshooters, and Windows 8 offers a helpful Windows Update Troubleshooter. Simply search for Troubleshooters to find and run it. In my case it fixed a couple of issues and the Windows Media Centre update worked perfectly. The best news is that WMC runs much faster under Windows 8 than it ever did under Windows 7. The program guide now scrolls instantly, for example.

A final note

For some reason I can’t fathom, included Metro (new-style) apps are not updated from the regular Windows Update. Instead Microsoft uses an approach more like the Android Marketplace, where you navigate to the Store itself. If you use Metro, the Store tile will show a small number indicating how many updates are available.

Once you get Windows 8 up and running, be sure to check out our articles on bringing back some of your favourite Windows 7 features, and our top 50 tips for Windows 8.