8 lessons learned from upgrading a dog-slow XP machine to Windows 8

8 lessons learned from upgrading a dog-slow XP machine to Windows 8

Summary: ZDNet's David Gewirtz decides to upgrade a "dog-slow" Atom-based PC from the nearly dearly departed Windows XP to Windows 8. In the process, he learns a lot and shares some of those lessons with you in this article.


Here's the TL;DR version of this article: it is possible to upgrade an old XP machine to Windows 8 Pro. The key things to keep in mind are your machine needs to be properly prepared for the upgrade and drivers are a hassle.

Okay, so now the rest of the story.


Here at Camp David, we have a bunch of computers. My main office desktop is an uber-tricked out machine running 32GB of RAM and big, gloriously fast SSDs. It runs Windows 7 and will probably keep running Windows 7 because it works well and there's no reason to make any changes.

On the other hand, the machine in my study (a quiet room in the west wing — yes, we have a small wing of the house that faces west) is a leftover from a bygone day. I don't use that machine all that often and when I need to do real work, I use my main machine or my Windows 8-running Mac mini in our media room (which is what I'm writing on right now).

The machine in my study is a Zotac MAG I purchased from Amazon back in 2010. It runs a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom 330 processor, 2 GB of DDR2-800 RAM, a very slow 160 GB SATA hard drive. The machine has three saving graces: (1) I own it, (2) it was cheap even back when I bought it, and (3) it's tiny, about the size of a Mac mini (but with a fraction of the power).

Anyway, after writing a lot about the need to upgrade to Windows 8 and recalling Jason Perlow's Installing Windows 8 on your old PC could turn it into Greased Lightning, I decided to see if I could breathe some new life into the old Zotac.

My alternative was to get another Mac mini and put Windows 8 on it (these are proving to be great, tiny Windows machines at a good price), but I still really didn't want to spend the cash if I could help it. I had a spare $40 license to Windows 8 Pro (which I bought last year) and using what I already had would definitely be cheaper than spending a grand on another tricked-out Mac mini.

My ZDNet colleague Ed Bott recommends the Intel NUC as a great alternative to the Mac mini. He says it's smaller, half the price, runs great, and is built for Windows. This is definitely a machine I'm putting on my Christmas list for a future upgrade, especially since it supports up to 16GB of RAM, although unlike the Mac mini server's i7, the NUC only has an i3. On the other hand, it is substantially less costly.

Tip #1: It's easier upgrading a newer XP machine

It's important to remember that the Zotac was anemic when I bought it. It was cheap. Period. But it's also important to remember that it's an XP machine that was built relatively late in XP's lifecycle, which means there was a better chance I'd find modern drivers than for a machine built back in 2003 or 2004.

So, here's your first tip: if you're running a more modern XP machine, you have a better chance of succeeding than if your machine came from way back in the day.

Also, as Ed points out, you should check the list of Microsoft's supported upgrade paths before getting started. Ed also points out, "Your CPU must have support for PAE, NX, and SSE2. If it doesn’t, you can’t install Windows 8 at all. I had a few machines around the 2005 era, many of whose brethren are still running today, that don’t qualify." You can read this Microsoft technical document for more info on those restrictions.

Obviously, you should check restrictions out before you attempt your upgrade, because my experience has been that once you start a Windows 8 upgrade, there's no turning back unless you decide to fully reinstall XP (yep, did that on one machine).

Oh, and before I move on, it's also important to note that if your machine is already handicapped by slow RAM and a paltry processor, nothing will make it "greased lighting". That said, the finished machine is pretty tolerable.

Tip #2: Upgrading will zorch your apps

I really didn't have much running on this machine. I had Office, but the files are all stored on our central media server. I had Chrome, but Chome syncs everything beautifully. I ran Netflix from within Chrome. And that was about it.

I never tried to put my programming environment or my graphics tools, or VirtualBox, or anything else on the Zotac. It was for simple writing and Web browsing.


If you're upgrading an XP machine that's chock-full of applications, you need to know that those applications will not be available from within Windows 8. Windows 8 will, theoretically, preserve your documents, but you will need to reinstall your applications.

Tip #3: Backup as though you were formatting to bare metal

Ed points out that you're really not "upgrading" XP at all. You're really running an installer that's doing a clean install of Windows 8, simply preserving your documents. In that vein, Ed recommended (and I may still do it), that you just swap out a slow HD for an SSD (or keep the HD and use it as a data drive) and see how far that takes you. It's a good suggestion and if I wasn't running in "how cheap can we do this for" mode, I probably would have tried it on this machine.

That brings me to the third tip. After doing a bunch of Windows 8 upgrades on a number of different machines, I've become aware that if Windows 8 fails to complete its upgrade, it may leave your machine in an indeterminate (i.e., broken) state.

The best practice is to back everything up as if you're planning to format your drives back to bare metal, because that may well be what you do. Don't assume it will work on the first try. It probably won't.

Tip #4: Be sure you're running SP3 on XP first

Sigh. What is it with Microsoft? Sigh.

Okay, okay. Deep breath. It's not particularly hard to upgrade to Windows 8, but there's something wrong with the water the folks in Redmond drink. Let me give you two examples, which will also help you succeed in your upgrade.

I moved over the installation files onto the Zotac, and double-clicked the .EXE file. After a moment or two, I got this message: "This platform is not supported."

No, wait... huh? I thought XP was supported as upgradeable to Windows 8. A little digging proved it was. So, what's with "This platform is not supported"? Okay, maybe because I'm running a crappy little Atom processor, the Atom processor isn't supported. More digging. It certainly is supported.

What. The?

The answer to this mystery, plus many other XP-to-Windows 8 tips are on the next page... 

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Windows


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Drivers

    "So, here's your first tip: if you're running a more modern XP machine, you have a better chance of succeeding than if your machine came from way back in the day."

    Another factor is the vendor your working with, some do a better job than others supporting machines with updated drivers. In other cases its the components used in the device, you might find generic drivers for common components while it could be nearly impossible for some of the more offbeat components. i.e. if you picked up a cheap computer it may well have cheap off brand components that are hard to find drivers for. OR if your trying to find drivers for components in a MAC converted to windows... Good luck.
    • Dell does the best job I have ever seen at keeping drivers up to date

      Still, if your machine is over four years old, it can get tricky. Graphics and sound seem to be the areas most affected by missing drivers.
      M Wagner
      • That's true.

        I have a Dell GX620 running Windows XP (yes, laugh all you want. I plan to put 7 on it this weekend) and if you go to their website and enter your service tag and or express service code, not only can you find appropriate drivers, but they are also great for finding replacement hardware in case your CD-ROM ceases to operate.
        Richard Estes
  • Drivers

    When I'm looking for drivers i always copy Dev/Ven Id from device manager and then I go to this site:
    just paste your devid to the search and choose OS.
    • Forget Drivers and hassle completely.

      I upgraded my Atom Acer netbook with Linux Mint via USB drive. No cost, just sheer elegance and driver issues with Linux are completely taken care of in the install. I haven't needed to work with drivers at all since using Linux.... With one exception, Sometimes there are proprietary (non-free) drivers available for Mint for some video cards. It's already there, all you have to do is select and click if you want the Nvidia or ATI Linux driver, but in all cases, the default (open source) driver works fine.
      • Wow. I guess I should've bought a real netbook.

        It seems that the Samsung 500 Chromebook is horrible for putting alternative Linux distributions on, no matter how many different sets of instructions Google pops up for me.
        Richard Estes
      • Xp to 8

        I'm running XP on 5 of the desk-tops we have. They are all older machines that I keep running for myself and the kids. I run Mint 13 on my main machine even though it came with XP Media Edition. I switched to Mint 15 for a couple of weeks but it is still a touch buggy when running Chromium. I'm back to 13 LTS and everything is fine. I found that I didn't care for Ubuntu Unity for a desktop. Mint seems to work from the start, no problem.
      • BS

        There is nothing magical about Linux and drivers, you can run into not only the same issues but really even worse ones if you have hardware with no Linux driver support. I have had to in the past create a driver wrapper around unsupported drivers to get Linux to use them.

        Windows is far, far, far more tolerant of obscure hardware then most Linux distros.
        Rann Xeroxx
  • 32bit to 64bit

    Actually upgrading from 32bit to 64bit is quite straight forward. Run the setup with a boot drive. Done. USB drives are cheap and I bet you have a ton of them.
    Dreyer Smit
  • what someone from ZD saying nice things about Win8

    but seriously this the cool thing about it, you can stick it on 'old hardware' and it will to a certain extent work ok.
    Paul Smith-Keitley
    • Metro Silliness

      He did give compliment Windows 8 on its ability to work with old hardware. However he did rightfully slam Windows 8 on its "Metro silliness." I have to agree with him that once you do everything you can to eliminate or hide anything "Metro" in Windows 8, it actually becomes somewhat useful.
      • Agreed

        I used 3 programs from Stardock.com and I never have to see the Metro start screen and I have a start button. The programs ate Start8, ModernMix, and Decor8.

        With drivers I've used DriverAgent and they did a good job but they use a Pay to Play model - Slimware Drivers does not and I've used them to get drivers for an older desktop I got for my wife to use.
        • Your comment had a funny typo...

          You said "...the programs ate Start8, ModernMix, and Decor8." LOL

          My programs don't eat anything, although Windows 8 seems to have eaten all of Windows 7 reputation.

          I guess a daily dose of Start8, ModernMix and Decor8, is the digital equivalent of Alka Seltzer, Pepto Bizmol and Losec for the Metro Induced Acid Reflux Syndrome (aka Ballmer's disease)
      • Depends

        I spend most of my time on my desktops on the desktop but I have been using metro more and more. Things like going full screen on a youtube vid while running another app in a snap window. I also like the sandboxing of applications in metro as they do not affect my OS. In fact I have gotten to the point of always choosing a metro app if one exists over a desktop one just to keep my OS clean.

        Don't even mind the start screen or charms but I think there is a LOT of improvements that can be made to it. I hope they cont. to make those improvements while giving people back the start menu in W9.
        Rann Xeroxx
    • If you have a newer graphics adapter

      you'll be successful. Otherwise, you're going to end up with a dog-slow machine with extremely ugly graphics.

      This is partially unavoidable, as Windows 8.x looks like garbage no matter what, but at least works quickly enough if you have recent driver support.

      Microsoft, AMD, and nVidia really drew a line in the sand with this - if you have anything older, such as most AGP cards, you're out of luck, even though the card, were it to have drivers which could be installed, would give excellent results. The Microsoft basic driver is so ridiculously slow I'm sure that MS was laughing when they designed it.
  • Whew, that was a lot of trouble.

    Me, I'd get the drivers off on a thumb drive FIRST. Windows 8 best, Windows 7 in a pinch, latest XP drivers if desperate. Get both 32 and 64 bit sets if possible. Then use something like True Image (or a free alternative) to back up the system drive. Finally, use a burned DVD or another USB drive to boot and install from. Then happily nuke the XP installation and go. If it sucked, then use the backed up image to return to where I was. Then move on. It's a little tedious, but not as dramatic as this article makes it.
    • Lenovo drivers

      I started to do something similar for a Lenovo machine... By the time I managed to download all the drivers for Win 8 x64 from their site for one model laptop I was exhausted, didn't bother with the rest of them. It was like mining coal with a toothpick.
      • Trick for Lenovo

        Get the Network, disk drivers, Intel Chipset and their "System Update ver 5.x" utility.

        Install Win 8 with the NIC, disk and Intel chipset.

        Install "System Update ver 5.x" utility and run it to pull down all the other available drivers and install them.
    • More trouble than Linux ;-)

      Install blows away your apps? 32-bit vs 64-bit issues? Use a wired network connection? "Dig hard for drivers"? Honestly--this article sounds like a guide to install a Linux OS from 10 years ago!

      I do understand this was an "experiment" and NOT a "reccomendation"--nobody would actualy think upgrading any PC of that vintage--that was shipped with and certified for XP--to Windows 8.x (would they?)! Obviously a more logical alternative would be Windows 7 Starter or Home Basic--but then where can you buy this or acquire the install media if you don't already have it or something like an MSDN subcription?

      Given the use case of the machine invovled--it is an ancilliary machine that sits in the "west wing" and is used for basic tasks only--you'd probably have more success installing a Linux OS. Driver support for older hardware in Linux is superior in most respects (versus newer hardware for which Windows gets the drivers first). You can run a proper browser, you can use LibreOffice, and you can RDP into another box or use WINE should you need to do something unusual. It is obviously not a gaming box so that isn't an issue.

      Seriously, if you want to stretch out the life of an XP machine a couple more years, the most logical upgrde from XP is to a lightweight Linux OS running a familiar-looking desktop like Cinnamon or XFCE. I don't say this becauss I am some kind of fanboi or to slag on Windows. It is simply that MSFT has moved on with Windows and there are alternatives that are sincerely easier to install and use on more "experienced" hardware--and you can remain "metro free" if you do not like that sort of thing.

      If you do fancy Win8 really it isn't worth your time to upgrade anything that pre-dates Win 7. You are really best to look at total system replacement, and there are very affordable Win8 PCs out there that will give you a lot less trouble.

      You still have choice..and if you have that kind of attachment to old hardware you have to look at all options.
      Mark Hayden
      • I agree, Mint is probably the best choice.

        I use a Knoppix 7.2.0 encrypted flash drive on my keychain. You create it by booting to the Knoppix CD and using the menu option to create Knoppix flash drive.

        It's a little different working this way, but easy.

        As a first step, just click the main menu > Knoppix >Install components after connecting to the internet to get flash and other goodies. I also recommend installing GDebi installer from the Synaptic Package Manager to make web installations easier.

        I also change the DNS to Google Public DNS for IPv4 and iPv6, which I found works much better than the default Verizon FIOS DNS. It also has phishing protection and advanced caching.

        It's really fast and uses the 3.9 kernel, so applications are cached into the SSD if you are using one making everything go faster.

        I constantly log into Google and use Chrome. Chrome bookmarks and settings are shared over the cloud when you do this, which is really, really nice.

        With the Knoppix Flash drive, you can use anyones computer without accessing their hard drive or passwords. .... Just Awesome. Any files or settings are saved to the flash drive.