Everything you need to know about Windows 8 upgrades (FAQ part 2)

Summary:Upgrading to Windows 8 is a straightforward process, but the details vary depending on your starting point. This second installment of my Windows 8 upgrade FAQ covers the ins and outs of different upgrade paths.

In the first installment of this FAQ , I addressed the questions I hear most often about purchasing a Windows 8 Pro upgrade directly from Microsoft.

Here's a recap of what you'll find in that post:

  • Where's the product key?
  • If you choose the download option, what format do the installer files come in?
  • How much does the upgrade cost?
  • How many upgrades can you purchase?
  • Is there an upgrade path from an earlier 32-bit Windows version to 64-bit Windows 8?
  • And more... So go read it if you haven't already.

See also:

In this post I want to walk you through the ins and outs of each upgrade path. There are quirks, limitations, and restrictions, depending on your starting point.

Getting Started

You can purchase the Windows 8 Pro installation media in a retail package from online resellers like Amazon and Newegg, from the Microsoft Store, or from any local brick-and-mortar outlet. The biggest advantage of that package is that it includes both 32-bit and 64-bit media that can be used on any PC. (You get to choose one version. The retail package includes a single license only.)

If you purchase the upgrade online, directly from Microsoft, you get the best price, but you might have to jump through some hoops to download the installer files. You can purchase the downloadable copy for $40 and pay $15 extra for a backup DVD to be delivered via email. That total price is less than the retail package price, although you might be able to find discounted copies in retail outlets.

For this FAQ, I'll emphasize the download options.

When you purchase a Windows 8 Pro upgrade, you get a product key good for installation and activation on one PC, which must be licensed for an earlier version of Windows (the exact details are in the license agreement).

You also get the option to download the files and begin the upgrade immediately, but you're not required to do that. The e-mail receipt you receive from Microsoft for your Windows 8 upgrade order (which you should save for future reference) contains your product key and a download link that you can use later. That link downloads a very small (5 MB) stub that prompts you to enter the product key and then begins the download process.


You don't get to choose which version of Windows 8 Pro you download. If you run the Windows 8 downloader from a machine running 64-bit Windows, you get a 64-bit installer. Run it from a 32-bit machine and you get a 32-bit installer. If you want the option to download an ISO file or create a bootable USB flash drive from the downloaded files, you must use Windows 7 or Windows Vista.


At no point during the upgrade process will you be asked for any proof that you're eligible to upgrade. You won't need to enter a product key or supply a DVD from a previous version. You can use the upgrade media to perform a completely clean installation on a brand new hard drive, or you can format the system drive during install. None of those scenarios have been blocked in my testing.

Assuming you've got the installer files (on DVD, USB flash drive, or downloaded directly), you're ready to begin setup. Choose your starting point to see what's involved with each upgrade path. Let's begin with Windows XP, the oldest currently supported Windows version.

Upgrading from Windows XP

The first thing you need to understand is that Windows XP is old. More than a decade old, in fact, which makes it downright ancient by tech standards. The support clock is winding down rapidly for XP, which will be officially retired in April 2014.

XP is so old that the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant does not allow you to migrate any settings or programs. You can keep the data files from your personal profile, but that's it.


The device driver model has changed radically in Windows versions after XP. Any current drivers you have will probably be useless. You'll want to check compatibility carefully for devices like printers and scanners and anything old or offbeat (most video cards and network adapters will work just fine).

If you're running Windows XP, it is almost certainly the 32-bit version. (Yes, there's a 64-bit Windows XP, but it's an odd beast rarely found in the wild, and it's highly unlikely you're running it.)

When you download the Windows 8 Pro upgrade using Windows XP, you get setup files only. Those files are copied to a hidden C:\ESD folder, and you get the option to run the Setup program immediately after the download concludes or create a desktop shortcut to run it later. The options to download an ISO file or create a bootable USB flash drive are not available.

And those installer files will be 32-bit files. If the XP machine you're upgrading has 4 GB or less of RAM, that's not a problem. If you're planning to use the upgrade on a system with more than 4 GB of RAM, though, you'll need to download the installer files from a computer running a 64-bit version of Windows Vista or Windows 7, create bootable installation media, and then use that media (DVD or USB flash drive) to do a clean install.

Regardless of which method you choose, you'll need to reinstall any programs that you were previously using.

Upgrading from Windows Vista

An upgrade to Windows 8 Pro from Windows Vista allows you to keep files and settings, but not installed programs.

As with all Windows versions, the upgrade option is only available if you're upgrading to the same version that's installed: 32-bit to 32-bit, 64-bit to 64-bit. If you're running 32-bit Windows Vista, you'll need to boot from 64-bit installation media. In this scenario, your old program and data files will be copied to a Windows.old folder, where you can recover them after Setup finishes.

Upgrading from Windows 7

This is the simplest upgrade path of all. You can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro from any version of Windows 7, and you can choose whether you want to migrate files, settings, and programs, just files, or nothing. Be sure to pay close attention to the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant, which will alert you to any programs or drivers that must be uninstalled before the upgrade or updated afterwards.


Next page:  Upgrades and downgrades from Windows 8

Topics: Windows, Microsoft


Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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