What are the cheapest and easiest upgrade paths to Windows 8.1?

What are the cheapest and easiest upgrade paths to Windows 8.1?

Summary: Microsoft keeps threatening to simplify the Windows upgrade process, but the reality is never quite as simple as it should be. Windows 8.1 is just around the corner, and your upgrade options are still confusing. Use this guide to find the cheapest, best way to update to Windows 8.1 or downgrade to Windows 7.

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TOPICS: Software, Windows
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Updated September 30, 2013

On October 18, 2013, Windows 8.1 will officially be available to the general public.

If you’re already running Windows 8, the update to Windows 8.1 is free (and it’s well worth installing as soon as it’s available). If you’re buying a new PC, you’ll still have a choice between two Windows versions that are still fully supported by Microsoft: Windows 8.1 and Windows 7. Here’s what you need to know to make the right decision.

With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has once again changed its licensing rules, reversing a key decision it made only one year ago.

Windows 8 got rid of the Full Package Product (FPP) options and introduced a new license option for consumers and small businesses: the Personal Use License (PUL) for System Builder OEM copies. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has undone both of those decisions. FPP is back, and the PUL option is gone from System Builder copies of Windows 8.1. If this decision sounds like it’s maddeningly arbitrary, you’re right.

The new rapid release cycle for Windows 8.1 means you have to know the difference between an upgrade and an update. (The short version: moving from 7 to 8 requires a paid upgrade, whereas moving from 8  to 8.1 is a free update.)

The mix of available editions (core, Pro, Enterprise) hasn’t changed since the launch of Windows 8. But there are still plenty of gotchas in the process that can cost you money.

These are the current answers to the most common upgrade and update questions you're likely to have. Some details won’t be available until the actual release date; I plan to update this post as needed.

You should read this article even if you plan to skip Windows 8.x and stick with Windows 7. If your new PC comes with Windows 8.x, you can spend a relatively small amount to secure downgrade rights that could save you a very large amount later.

See also:

I've broken this post into upgrade scenarios. If you've got a scenario you don't see covered here, use the Feedback form at the bottom of this post to send me a note.

You’re planning to buy a new Windows PC.

If you want Windows 8.1, it doesn’t matter whether Windows 8 is preinstalled. You can update to Windows 8.1 for free when it’s available, and there’s no technical difference between Windows 8.1 that’s preinstalled versus what you get if you update on your own.

But the OS edition you buy with that new PC makes a huge difference, and you should choose carefully.

Most consumer PCs are sold with the core Windows 8.x edition. On some business-class PCs, you can choose to upgrade to Windows 8.x Pro at the time of purchase. Here’s why that matters:

  • If you want to use downgrade rights to replace Windows 8.x with Windows 7, you must purchase Windows 8.x Pro .
  • Windows 8.x Pro is required if you want a PC or other device to join a Windows domain.
  • You need the Pro version to add Media Center capabilities.

PCs that are sold in retail outlets such as Best Buy do not include the option to upgrade to Windows 8.x Pro. In general, the option to go Pro is available on build-to-order PCs from business-focused sellers.

You've purchased a new Windows 8.x PC and want to upgrade to Windows 8.x Pro.

If you've purchased a new PC with Windows 8.x, you can go to Microsoft's Add Features page and order the Pro Pack, which is available as a simple online upgrade. Current pricing for the Windows 8 Pro Pack is $100. Windows 8.1 pricing is not yet available but should be identical.

You have an existing desktop PC or notebook that came with Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7.

You have two options:

  • You can order an online upgrade from Microsoft. Currently, the Windows 8 upgrade costs $120 and the Windows 8 Pro upgrade is $200, with the Windows 8.1 update free when it’s available. (Windows 8.1 prices are not available yet.) Note that you can order the upgrade on a different PC than the one where you plan to install it. (You’ll need to use the option to create bootable installation media on a DVD or USB flash drive.) You can order a backup DVD for another $15. If you have questions about prices and upgrade paths, see this FAQ.
  • Purchase a boxed upgrade to Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro from a reseller like Newegg, Amazon, or Staples, and then update to Windows 8.1 for free when it’s available. (Windows 8.1 retail upgrades are not available yet.) The current list price in the U.S. is identical to Microsoft’s online price, with some resellers offering slight discounts, free shipping, and so on.

Windows 8 Box shots - MSFT cropped

When Windows 8 was released in October 2012, Microsoft made discounted upgrades available for recent purchasers of new PCs running Windows 7. Those offers have all expired and I do not expect to see any similar offers for Windows 8.1.

You want to install Windows 8 in a virtual machine on a Mac or PC.

A virtual machine is treated as if it were a new PC. See the next question.

You want to install Windows 8 on a new PC that you built or bought that did not include a Windows license.

You can order an OEM copy of Windows 8, which includes the Personal Use License, and then update it to Windows 8.1 for free. Or you can wait until October 18 to see what price Microsoft offers on its new Windows 8.1 FPP boxes.

You have a new Windows 8.x PC and you want to add DVD playback capabilities and Media Center software.

You can add DVD playback capabilities with any third-party DVD playback software. (Many new PCs already include this capability.) You can also install the free VLC software to add the required codecs.

To add Media Center capabilities, you must be running the Pro version of Windows 8.x. The Media Center bits are available in one of two ways:

  • On a new PC that came with the core edition of Windows 8.x, you need the Windows 8 Pro Pack, which upgrades Windows 8.x to Pro and also includes the Media Center bits.
  • On a PC that is running Windows 8.x Pro (either via a retail upgrade or as part of an OEM purchase), you need to install the Media Center Pack, a $10 upgrade. This option is available from the Add Features page.

You want to downgrade to Windows 7.

If you purchased a new PC with Windows 8 Pro installed by the OEM, you can use your own Windows 7 media to install Windows 7 Professional. You’ll need to activate your copy over the phone using the product key from the sticker on the PC.

If you bought a new PC that included the base edition of Windows 8, your only official downgrade path is to buy a retail copy of Windows 7 and install that.

Upgrade copies of Windows 8 Pro do not include downgrade rights.

For more on downgrade rights, see “How the new Windows 8 license terms affect you”  and "How to skip Windows 8 and continue using Windows 7."

Topics: Software, Windows

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115 comments
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  • Multiple virtual machines and Win 8 installation clarifications.

    Oh great one, can you answer the following questions please. I have XP already installed as a virtual machine. Can I install a Win8 upgrade package over XP or do I need the full Win 8 OS package installed as a separate virtual machine?

    Last clarification question. I need a separate Win 8 license for each of my home computers I wish to install Win 8 on, correct? (Unlike Mac OS X, where I can install the one copy of the Apple OS on all my personal home computers)
    kenosha77a
    • A virtual machine is just another PC

      If it has a proper license for XP, Vista, or Windows 7, you can use an upgrade copy. (If the software is installed but not properly licensed, you can still do the upgrade. You won't need to prove ownership of the qualifying edition.)
      Ed Bott
      • Ed Bott....No if someone gives it to you

        than its for Free and free is still the cheapest......at least the last time I heard it was......
        Over and Out
    • A virtual machine is just another PC

      If it has a proper license for XP, Vista, or Windows 7, you can use an upgrade copy. (If the software is installed but not properly licensed, you can still do the upgrade. You won't need to prove ownership of the qualifying edition.)
      Ed Bott
    • I think that's true..

      but if you wanted to make those other OSX systems in your house useful, you will still need to buy multiple copies of Windows 8 to install on those Macs :)
      kstap
      • I'll keep MacOS on my Macs,

        They're quite useful already.

        And there's no registry to make app transfer between Macs difficult... amongst other issues...

        Use a computer much, do you?
        HypnoToad72
      • touche

        Lol... touche.
        dsf3g
    • Why not

      Trying Linux? Perfect time, not to support this criminal monopoly and FUD-Patenttroll!
      Watchmen247
      • Remember when this case was settled....

        ....back in 2001? 11 years ago?

        You should get over it.
        alsw
  • Really?

    SC's post hardly reads as informed opinion. "Psychadelic debacle" and "it's a joke" are not what I would call useful when deciding whether to install or not install software. As for Ed, he is just supplying real facts that will enable people to make decisions.
    TKR1
  • Don't play dumb, Dilligent Bystander

    you know there is a BIG difference to Ed Bott offing his experienced opinion and insight, vs SeanConnery007's envious and idiotic, trolls.

    Talk about hypocritical...
    William Farrel
    • @William Farrel

      It seems both DB and SC are one the same. :D. "It" is trying to convince others that "it" had a supporter.
      Ram U
  • LOL!

    Great - now you're talking to yourself.
    William Farrel
  • Upgrading?

    Why would anyone without a touchscreen bother. It would be more trouble than it is worth.
    hayneiii@...
    • thats a big misconception.

      I am using Windows 8 since consumer preview on my laptop and upgraded it to RTM, and I never really felt I needed a touch screen, just mouse is sufficient. Of course if you have Touchscreen that would be definitely useful, but you don't really need it. I have ExoPC with Windows 8 installed and I can tell the experience on Laptop without touch and ExoPC slate are similar.
      Ram U
      • That's interesting...

        I wonder if there is a write up - perhaps even a video - of laying out how Win8 works with and without touch. Since you have the experience of working on Win8 without touch perhaps you could do a short write-up. Or, perhaps Ed could do it? The audience would be someone like me who already has a Win7 Pro laptop and who is going to invest in another laptop within the next 30 days. Though I have been intrigued by Win8, my laptops will not be touch-enabled. I see no need for them to be so. Tablets (which I am also going to invest in within the said 30-day period) are, of course, another matter. My plan till now was to continue with Win7 - it does what it is meant to do efficiently (at least in my experience). But given the upgrade pricing etc., I would seriously look at getting Win8. Thanks.
        crystalsoldier
        • I've never used windows 8

          On a touch device. On my workstations it is quick, flexible and very promising. No way I'm going back to win7. I use keys, mouse and wacom digitizer on two 22 inch displays. You wont regret the upgrade.
          ethananim
        • I'm working on that

          I have something like that on the drawing board.
          Ed Bott
        • D'oh

          theywork the same as they did in windows 7.
          sarai1313@...
        • Keyboard Vs Touch

          Hey CrystalSoldier, This Article here has what you're are looking for. http://www.theverge .com/2012/3/1/2835586/windows-8-keyboard-shortcuts-video

          I have used Touch screen (Acer Iconia) and Non Touch (HP 8440) laptop, as well as a desktop.
          In a nustshell it will take you a day or two to get used to the new start screen/ Hot Corners/ Charms bar. After a week it'll be scound nature. The Metro---Err Modern apps work just fine with mouse. Since I live in Windows Desktop App land, the start screen didn't get much use after I checked mail, FB, Twitter. (I love Live tiles but hey I'm WP7/Zune/Xbox user so I already "got it".
          Then after that it was "click on the Desktop tile and open my apps from the task bar". That said with the integrated search you can just start typing the name of your app/document/control panel widget and it will show up in list pretty swiftly.

          I really think that despite all the crying and whinging about the UI, it really is pretty nice, and informative and fast. The "jarring" transition form "Modern" apps to "Classic" apps is much ado about nothing and will be become forgotten after month or so. IMHO.

          Another good reasong to upgrade is performance. For example, I use two pieces of Music DAW software on my machines, Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason, and they both got a nice performance bump, (performance bump = being able to handle more tracks/Virtual synths/FX with stuttering or audio artifacts. ditto with VJing software like Resolume working at the same time as the aforemetioned apps. Games run pretty smooth too ;)
          Threv