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A guide to downloading Windows 8.1

If, like me, you've been using Windows 8 on a daily basis, you may have managed to tune out all the noise about how hard it is to use, and found that, contrary to the bête noire treatment of anything out of Redmond these days, the operating system is actually more pleasant and faster to use – even on the desktop – than Windows 7.

Windows 8 does have a first-impression problem: Yes, it looks different, but it certainly isn't hard to use – it just requires a couple of usage adjustments, which, once you're acclimatised to, make for a computing experience that will make you never want to look back to Windows 7.

As with any completely new product release, Windows 8 did have kinks to work out. Windows 8.1, coming out in its final form on 18 October, addresses these, while adding lots of new value as well. It's not the rethinking that Windows 8 was, but rather a major refinement that also brings a lot of new capabilities to Microsoft's new hybrid desktop-tablet OS.

The update adds things like new app window sizes, a help app, more powerful search, lock screen slideshows, much better built-in apps (such as a mail client with drag-and-drop support, and a better Xbox music app). SkyDrive cloud storage and syncing will be built in. It will also offer lots more control from the new-style Settings page, built-in support for 3D printing, NFC printer setup, Miracast Wi-Fi display support, a redesigned and much more helpful app store, a boot to desktop option, the new Internet Explorer 11, and tons of usability refinements. There are plenty of new business features, too.

How to get Windows 8.1

So now that I've made you want it, how do you get Windows 8.1? Firstly, you have to decide which of the three release points of the operating system you’re going to go for: Preview, RTM, or GA (General Availability). The Preview has been available from Microsoft as a free download since 26 June, and it gives you the vast majority of the new operating system's features. I've explained how to install that on an existing Windows 8 PC in my guide to upgrading your PC to Windows 8.1 Preview.

You can also download the Windows 8.1 Preview ISO disk image file, and burn it to a DVD or copy it to a bootable USB drive in order to install it on any PC – XP, Vista, Windows 7, or whatever.

A couple of caveats here: You won't be able to uninstall Windows 8.1 Preview if you installed via ISO disk image; the only way to get back a previous OS version will be to reinstall it from recovery media, which often resides in a separate disk partition created by the PC maker. Another point to bear in mind is that if you install the Preview, and then you decide to upgrade to the released version of Windows 8.1, your installed applications won't be retained with that upgrade. You will be able to retain your personal data files like documents and photos, though.

Windows 8.1 RTM

In late August, Microsoft made the RTM (Release To Manufacturing) version of Windows 8.1 available to hardware makers, and then in early September the version was made available to developers with MSDN, IT professionals with TechNet, or students with DreamSpark accounts. If you have any acquaintances with any of those account types, you have a legitimate way to get Windows 8.1 RTM, but because of this wide distribution, the code has naturally turned up on BitTorrent and other file sharing services.

Of course, we must stress that we don't condone downloading software illegally, but if you do go this route, you'll need a bit of savvy. After downloading Build make sure that the installer file's SHA-1 hash code matches the one shown on Microsoft's own MSDN download page. You do this by running the command line File Checksum Integrity Verifier (FCIV) utility on the downloaded file. For example, according to MSDN, the SHA-1 hash code for the US English 64-bit Windows 8.1 is BC2F7FF5C91C9F0F8676E39E703085C65072139B.

So after installing the FCIV utility from the link above, you'd type Command from the Start menu, and then switch to the directory where you installed FCIV and type: fciv c:/path to downloaded file (where “path to downloaded file” is the location of the file on your C: drive – see the screenshot below for an example). This will spit out the number that you hope matches the correct hash code provided by MSDN.

Once you've got your hands on a valid Windows 8.1 installer, if you're installing from Windows 8, it's a very simple matter of double clicking the ISO file to mount it as a virtual disk, and then running the standard Windows installer. If you're installing on a pre-Windows 8 system, you'll have to burn a DVD or create a bootable USB drive using the Windows USB/DVD Download Tool. Again, if you've installed Windows 8.1 Preview, you'll lose your installed applications, but there's a way around this, if you download the cversion.ini Removal Utility from winisoutils. This removes Microsoft's file telling the installer to remove existing apps and settings.

Windows 8.1 General Availability

Starting on 18 October, Windows 8.1 will be made available to Windows 8 users for free on the Windows Store, and downloading and installing will work just as it would for any other app. The company just announced that for non-Windows 8 users, the installer will be available on that date, too.