Everything you need to know about the Windows 8.1 Preview (FAQ)

Everything you need to know about the Windows 8.1 Preview (FAQ)

Summary: You've got Windows 8.1 questions. I've got answers. What's the best way to install Windows 8.1? Can it be uninstalled? What's new, what's changed, what's missing?


Are you thinking about trying out the Windows 8.1 Preview? Before you do, make sure you know what you're getting into. I've gathered the best questions from my mailbag and answered them here.

What is Windows 8.1?

Windows 8.1 is an update to Windows 8. A preview version was released on June 26, 2013, for Windows 8 and Windows RT. If all goes according to plan, the final version should be released to manufacturing in August so that it can be widely available for the 2013 holiday season, roughly a year after the debut of Windows 8.


This is the first release in Microsoft’s new “rapid cadence” update cycle for Windows, which accelerates the pace of Windows development to annual releases compared with the traditional two-to-three-year cycle for Windows desktop clients.

The Windows 8.1 Preview has its own home page. Microsoft has published a somewhat long-winded Windows 8.1 Preview FAQ that has a few facts mixed in with the marketing happy talk. For technical support, Microsoft has created a dedicated Windows 8.1 forum at its Community site.

What’s new? What’s changed?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, this is not just a service pack. (See “Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview.”) You’ll find a long list of new and changed features in Windows 8.1. Here’s a partial list:

  • A Start hint that appears on the taskbar, where the Windows 7 Start button is located
  • More flexible Start screen customization options
  • The option to go directly to the desktop instead of the Start screen
  • Much tighter integration with SkyDrive
  • More options for arranging modern (Metro) apps side by side
  • New “first party” (Microsoft-authored) Windows 8.1 apps
  • A redesigned Windows Store
  • New capabilities for third-party Windows 8.1 apps
  • A greatly enhanced PC Settings module that duplicates the desktop Control Panel
  • Support for smaller tablets
  • Internet Explorer 11, with significant improvements in tab handling and security
  • Some new capabilities for the on-screen keyboard on touch devices
  • Integrated search

Some features and apps that will be in the final release of Windows 8.1 are not yet in the preview. This includes a significant update to the Mail client, which Microsoft has shown in demos but did not include in the preview release.

What’s missing?

A few features that were in Windows 8 are not in the Windows 8.1 Preview at all. Some have been changed radically, with features removed, at least for the preview. I’ve included a detailed list here: “The missing pieces from the Windows 8.1 preview.”

What are the system requirements for Windows 8.1?

Any device that can run Windows 8 should be able to run the Windows 8.1 Preview. The Windows RT 8.1 Preview requires that Windows RT already be installed and that you have at least 10 GB of free storage space. The update is available in 14 supported lanugages: English (U.S.), English (U.K.), Arabic, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. Language Packs are available after installation for other supported languages, via PC Settings.

Will the Windows 8.1 Preview run on a device with an Atom CPU?

For the initial release of the preview, some Atom-powered devices were initially blocked from upgrading. This block has since been removed, although it remains for at least one device. You must update the device’s firmware before installing the Windows 8.1 Preview. See this forum discussion for details.

Can the Windows 8.1 Preview be uninstalled?

No. The only way to roll back to your previous installation is to wipe out the installation and replace it with a backup created before you installed the preview.

Will there be a direct upgrade path from the Windows 8.1 Preview to the final release of Windows 8.1?

Probably not. The company’s official documentation does not cover this topic, so your best bet is to assume that a complete reinstall will be necessary.

What happens to Media Center during the Windows 8.1 Preview update?

If Media Center is already installed on the system to be updated, it will be available after the update is complete. If you install the Windows 8.1 Preview using an ISO file, you’ll need to use your Windows 8 Pro Pack or Media Center Pack product key to re-enable Media Center.

If you use an Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender, you should skip the preview release. Windows 8.1 does not work properly in that configuration. The problems should be resolved by RTM.

How do you install Windows 8.1?

The preferred way for consumers to get the final release of Windows 8.1 is either preinstalled on a new device or via the Windows Store. If you visit the Windows 8.1 Preview page on a device running Windows 8, that’s the way you’ll be gently steered. After installing a Windows Update Standalone installer package, you’ll be prompted to restart your Windows 8 device, at which point you’ll see this message.

windows 81-preview-via-store-small

When you kick off the update via the Windows Store, you must use a Microsoft account, at least initially. You can switch to a local account later.

If you are running Windows 8 Enterprise, you cannot update via the Store. Likewise, you’ll need to use an alternative mechanism if you want to set up a dual boot system or perform a clean install on an existing partition.

Developers and IT pros should start at the Windows 8.1 ISO Download page, where links are available to download ISO files that can be burned to a DVD, copied to a bootable USB flash drive, or mounted in a VM for installation. ISO files are available in 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) versions in 14 languages. This page also includes the universal product key for the preview: NTTX3-RV7VB-T7X7F-WQYYY-9Y92F.

If you have an active TechNet or MSDN subscription, the preview files are available from the Downloads area, and you can claim up to three product keys for TechNet and five keys for MSDN.

I’ll have a more detailed look at different update scenarios in a follow-up post.

What customization options are available in Windows 8.1 for desktop users?

You can set options to boot directly to the desktop, bypassing the Start screen. You can disable the hot top left and right hot corners. You can also customize the Start screen so that its background is the same as the desktop background. You can also tweak the default display of the Start screen so that it shows the All Apps view, with desktop apps shown first, by category.

I’ll have a more detailed look at these desktop customization options in a follow-up post.

Can I install the upgrade in a virtual machine?

Yes, as long as your virtualization software supports it. I’ve successfully installed the Windows 8.1 update in a virtual machine running under Hyper-V on Windows 8 Pro.

Update: If you're using VirtualBox, you need to tweak the VM configuration for the update to install succssfully. Details in this discussion thread.

Can I install the update on a virtual disk?

I’ve written previously about this installation technique, which involves creating a VHD file, mounting that file as a virtual hard disk, and then installing Windows 8 on that virtual disk. In my testing, attempting to update this Windows 8 installation from the Windows Store resulted in an error message that very specifically stated it's impossible to install the update on a virtual disk.

However, when I created a new VHD file and booted from a USB flash drive containing the Windows 8.1 setup files, I had no trouble doing a clean install on a multi-boot system.

Do you have questions that I didn't answer here? Ask away in the Talkback section or talk to me on Twitter: @edbott.

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Thank you

    Thank you for the Windows 8.1 review that actually reviews it. I am using it at home and I like it quite a bit. It's fast and snappy and works well. I even got my NOD32 Antivirus software to work.
    • And....?

      Clearly 8.1 is better than 8.0. Nobody is doubting that. An easy trick when you've got 8.0 to follow.

      But is 8.1 actually better than 7, in a way that would cause a desktop or notebook user to spend the money and go out and upgrade?

      It doesn't feel it to me.

      A bit like going from Windows 2000 to XP Pro.

      Just strategic window dressing.
      Henry 3 Dogg
      • Actually...

        8 is better than 7 from a software standpoint. The UI might have raised a lot of hackles, but that's hardly all MS did with the new release. It's improved my system's performance dramatically.
        • Windows 8.1 maximum spyware from Windows (and CIA/FBI/NSA/Pentagon)

          " Pieces of Windows 8 inexplicably didn't survive jump to Windows 8.1, and new feature allows Microsoft to track your local searches "

          " it's very difficult to install Windows 8.1 "Blue" Preview without using a Microsoft Account. While there are some clever workarounds to bypass the forced Microsoft Account login, you have to be quite persistent to get the Preview installed without linking your installation -- your computer's unique ID -- to your Microsoft Account. "

          " Microsoft has officially announced that advertisers will be able to dish up advertising to your computer, based on the searches you perform on your computer. "

          • What that article, almost intentionally..

            ..mischaracterizes, and then progresses upon said misrepresentation of, is namely, app-contracts. Feel free to look up Windows 8 app contracts, and how they are more in favor of user privacy and limitations, than your uninformed mischaracterization leads them to be. The search function with Windows 8 must have an 'app contract' with any other application, opted into or out of, by the user (default being 'opted out'). Any search I do on my Windows 8.1 system has the 'brains and ability' to search more than the web. It could, for instance, search the app-store, or Google, or Bing, or 'my pictures', or any number of apps that serve a related purpose in that context.. like even email. You, as a user, have every right and possibility to limit your searches to only one, or even none of these available searchable areas. All with a simple notion as a contract, that you obviously neglected for some reason or another, to explain in detail. Possibly just your lack of knowledge or understanding of complexities. Better to fail-over to paranoia, I suppose.
      • While it will still be a tough sell in offices

        Yeah, I think this does it on the home front. I think people will need a bit of getting used to a start menu going full screen. But the ability to dock more screens in Metro, a more fluid interchange between Metro and desktop, and the ability to sideline Metro somewhat are going to make this a fairly natural upgrade, when you consider that OS performance is better on the same hardware.
    • Good Replied

      as Melvin responded I'm shocked that some people able to get paid ($)8363 in four weeks on the computer. did you look at this web link... can99.ℂ­om
      • Do you still believe get rich quick scheme?

        If I tell you that you can earn $10,000 per month on the computer, do you believe? If not, then why do you believe that ad? If yes, then go ahead but I do think it will involve some kind of nudity.
        • I'm breaking silence to say this once a month..

          July 2013.. Please don't respond to obvious spam. Responses lend credence to the spamming OP. See you next month, hopefully not.
    • Yea works great!

      I'm liking 8.1 too. Seems pretty finished to me. I like that you can boot right into Desktop and that you can make the Start screen a real start menu with all apps just like prior windows. It just uses the whole screen to display them which, if you think about it, is better than the cramped menu on Win7-.

      Also demand Skydrive looks to be a hit. No more constantly choosing folders to sync on limited devices.
      • Me too!

        Yes, I said "Me too!" despite the all-too-obvious repercussions. But, it just works.
  • Can I install the update on a virtual disk?

    Personally I didn't encounter any issues installing the update on a virtual disk.
    • Did you do an update or clean install?

      I get a very clear error message when I try to update a VHD-based installation. If you succeeded, tell me more:

      Are you talking about an installation inside a VM or in a VHD mounted as an NTFS drive?
      Did you update via the Store, install via ISO, or do a clean install via ISO?
      Ed Bott
      • Ed Bott... I don't think its a requirement that Surface RT be installed,

        because I did a clean install via a ISO on a new drive without any problems at all.

        So are you sure that you need to have a Surface RT already installed?

        I seem to like 8.1 at this point over 8.0 .......I haven't put my finger on it yet....but time will tell If I stay with it or again go back to w-7.

        Good article
        Over and Out
        • Where did you download a Windows RT ISO?

          I think you're confusing Surface Pro and Surface RT. There are no ISOs for Windows RT available anywhere, as far as I know.
          Ed Bott
          • Ed Bott...Sorry I miss interpreted Windows RT to mean Surface RT

            It never pays to read to quickly. Anyway 8.1 is running fine at this point in time...but I still like the Aero look and feel over the Metro/tile look and feel. But I'll give it time and see if it grows on me.
            Over and Out
      • my VHD experience

        I also could not get 8.1 to install from ISO on a VHD. I use VirtualBox for my virtual engine, and created a new VHD with Oracle's VDI format to install 8.1. I tried installing clean via ISO, tried installing 8.1 after I installed the developer's Win8 Enterprise evaluation edition, and tried to update via the Store. No method worked. I got some error about my processor not having the proper settings to be able to install 8.1. I'll try to re-install and see if I can get the actual error, then re-post here.

        If you find out how to do this, I personally would like to know to test Win8.1.
        • more info on my VHD experience

          Just tried to reinstall again. Since I am using Win8 enterprise eval edition, I have to run from ISO. Running setup returned error that my processor doesn't support CompareExchange128. However, my processor is an i7-2600 which I have verified does support this. Not sure what's going on.
          • My experience...

            You must enable the "CompareExchange128 instruction set" on Virtual Box.
          • Erm... too late.

            But, yes, THAT.