Everything you need to know about your Windows 8.1 upgrade options

Summary:It's another release of Windows, which means it's time for Microsoft to change the mix of retail products and rewrite its license agreements. Here's what to look for in the new lineup (with some suggestions on how you might be able to save some money).

[Note: I’ll be updating this post as new details emerge about the options discussed here. Last update: October 4, 2013, adding details about Windows 8.1 Preview]

Here we go again…

With each new release of Windows, Microsoft changes the mix of products it offers to consumers and also changes the terms of use. Windows 8.1 is no exception.

windows 8.1 boxes
Windows 8.1 retail boxes, full edition (upgrades are no longer available)

This post lists the key changes you need to know about in Windows 8.1 pricing and licensing, with a few buying tips thrown in for good measure.

Let’s start with the good news: the Windows 8.1 update (which will be available online via the Windows Store on October 18) is free for all properly activated Windows 8 computers. Now the bad news: If you’re planning to upgrade a PC running an older version of Windows, you’ll need to pay for a new Windows 8.1 license. You’ll also need to pay if you want to install Windows 8.1 on a new computer you build yourself, on a Mac using Boot Camp, or in a virtual machine.

Beginning with Windows 8.1, Microsoft is no longer selling separate upgrade and full price editions through retail partners or online. Instead, every retail copy includes a full license. The Windows 8.1 software can be used to upgrade Windows 7, or you can do a clean install, with no requirement to have a previous Windows version installed.

By and large, that's a change for the better. A lot of Windows 8 upgraders were frustrated by installation roadblocks when they tried to use an upgrade copy to do a clean installation of the operating system. That's a perfectly valid installation scenario on a PC that has an underlying Windows license but no installed operating system, such as when where you're upgrading or replacing the main hard drive. The "full edition" licenses for Windows 8.1 retail purchases mean that you don't have to jump through any hoops to complete that sort of installation properly.

There’s also a big change in the terms attached to OEM System Builder versions of Windows 8.1. With Windows 8, Microsoft introduced a new Personal Use License , which allowed anyone to buy an OEM System Builder copy of the software and install it on a PC that is intended for personal use. Windows 8.1 removes that rider from the OEM System Builder license agreement, which means that the license agreement once again is for use on PCs built for resale only; the terms prohibit installing an OEM System Builder copy of Windows 8.1 on a PC for personal use.

To purchase a Windows 8.1 retail edition, you have two options:

  • Online purchase directly from Microsoft, via Windows.com
  • Boxed copy purchased from a retail outlet

Regardless of which option you use, you have the same two choices:

Windows 8.1 $120 (ERP)

Sometimes referred to as the Core edition, this is what you’re most likely to see on new PCs and tablets sold through the retail channel. It’s the successor to Windows 7 Home Premium in terms of its place in the lineup, although the mix of features is different.

Windows 8.1 Pro $200 (ERP)

If you need corporate network features like Windows domain join, Group Policy support, and the ability to be a Remote Desktop server, you pay the extra 80 bucks or so. Hyper-V virtualization is only supported on the Pro edition and, oddly, Pro is also required to run the Windows 8.x version of Media Center.

If you have a computer running Windows 8.1 (regardless of whether you updated for free from Windows 8 or purchased the newer OS software preinstalled on a new PC), you can update to the Pro edition using the … 

Windows 8.1 Pro Pack $100 (ERP)

As with Windows 8, the Pro edition is already installed on a Windows 8.1 (Core) PC. To unlock the Pro features and make them available, you just need to enter the Pro Pack product key and go through a very brief upgrade. (The Pro Pack is version specific, with one you can buy today for Windows 8 and another for Windows 8.1 that will ship when Windows 8.1 does.)

When Windows 8 was released, Microsoft offered discounted copies for more than two months. I don’t expect any such discounts this time around.

See the next page for details that cover the most common Windows 8.1 upgrade scenarios.

Topics: Windows


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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