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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The answer to this mystery, plus many other XP-to-Windows 8 tips are on the next page...
Here's what the message turned out to be about. The Zotac was running XP SP2. Windows 8 requires SP3 to install. Now, here's where I get to the point where I want to fling someone into the ocean.
Do you think the Windows 8 installer could have detected it was running on a pre-SP3 XP? Sure. Do you think Microsoft could have added one more string that says something nice like, "You're running SP2. Click here to download the upgrade to XP SP3 before upgrading to Windows 8"?
Could they have done that? Sure. Would any reasonable company writing an installer have done that? Sure. Is Microsoft desperate to move their customers off of XP? Sure. So WTF?
Okay, so here's the point of this tip. Upgrade your XP machine to SP3 before you try installing Windows 8. Otherwise you'll get a stupid, unhelpful, customer-hostile error message for no good reason.
I know that headline doesn't make much sense, so let me clarify. If you're running a 32-bit version of XP, you must upgrade to a 32-bit version of Windows 8.
It's been at least three years since I installed a 32-bit OS on any of my PCs. I generally equip each machine with the maximum RAM I can get (the least amount is usually 8GB), so I just default to installing Windows 8 64-bit. So, that's what I tried to install on the Zotac.
Uh, uh. Nope. No way.
You'd think it would be possible because Microsoft is pretty much zorching everything already running on your computer to upgrade to Windows 8 anyway. But no. 32 to 32. You might think 64 to 64, but reports are that since there were so few 64-bit installs of XP (which Ed tells me was really a variant of Server 2003), Windows 8 flat out won't upgrade from 64-bit XP to Windows 8 in any way.
So, bottom line: if you have 32-bit XP, you're going to 32-bit Windows 8. Period.
This initially led me to quite a degree of distress. When I bought Windows 8, I remember only downloading the 64-bit installer. I looked all over the Microsoft site, trying to find a 32-bit installer, with no success. I even tried calling Microsoft support for Windows 8...
... here's a tip within a tip: don't ever call Microsoft support for Windows 8. There's not enough aspirin in the world for that exercise in futility.
Fortunately, my wife is much smarter than I am. When we bought our Windows 8 upgrade licenses, she decided to download both versions because, "we might need them someday." She was right. I pulled that version off the file server and started the install, this time without Windows 8 displaying indecipherable messages.
If you don't have a 32-bit download of the Windows 8 installer, I'm not sure how you can get one. Maybe one of our commenters below will have some hints for you.
I was going to initially talk about how to find drivers in this tip, but it turns out that you should pay attention to your network connection first.
The Zotac supports both hardwired and wireless network connections. The thing is, drivers for wireless networks don't always come out of the box for an OS install, where hardwired network drivers generally work.
This was certainly the case for me. WiFi didn't work after I installed Windows 8, but the basic Ethernet cable connection did. This made it much easier to track down the other drivers I needed and run Windows updates.
So, first plug in your machine via a hard-wired Internet connection, even if it will eventually be wireless.
Tips #7 and #8 are coming up, along with my final thoughts...
I found I had a lot of driver errors that would require my hunting down drivers online. However, once I ran Windows update on Windows 8, I found a few of them magically disappeared. Apparently Microsoft added some additional driver support in later updates of the OS.
So once you have a network connection, run Windows update.
The last major problem I had in updating this machine was finding the remaining drivers. I did not find the drivers on the Zotac site. In fact, the Zotac site said the drivers page for the MAG was down for maintenance and the page they sent me to didn't even list my machine.
Oh, one note about the Zotac I may not have been clear about earlier: it's a compact machine that doesn't allow you two swap out components. This isn't a machine where I can yank out an old graphics card and shove in a new one. You got to dance with them what brung you. So that means you must find drivers, not swap hardware.
This is not a new problem for Windows users. Driver hunts are a rite of passage. I tend to use two techniques for finding drivers: forums and chip maker sites.
The easiest approach is digging around for forums with users of the machine you're using. Often, you'll find users who have already taken the path you're taking and have discovered the drivers you need. This is usually the easiest approach.
Another approach is to figure out the chip sets inside the machine. Sometimes you can find that out in Device Manager. Sometimes you can use something like Belarc Advisor to tell you what's running inside your box. And other times, you just have to open up the box and look at the chips.
There are some commercial sites that promise to find drivers for you, but they've always kind of weirded me out. They seem a little too much like malware waiting to happen, so I've avoided them. They may well be legitimate, and perhaps our readers can share any experiences below in the comments.
Ed Bott had a great suggestion here as well. He told me that a free product called SlimDrivers is really quite good at snagging drivers. You need to be careful to avoid a dodgy toolbar for AVG, and the free version is apparently a little naggy, but for the time you'll need it, Ed says it's quite the win. I'm definitely going to download and check it out tonight.
In any case, even without SlimDrivers, I eventually found all the right drivers, updated everything, and the machine is up and running.
It's still slow, but it's not half bad. So far, I haven't felt the compelling need to plunk down a grand to replace it, and that's always a win. And it does seem faster and smoother than when it was running XP, so that's a win. Oh, and before I close out this article, I should point out that I immediately put the Start menu back on the machine and tweaked it so Windows 8 would seem normal. Windows 8 is actually a quite sweet desktop OS once you get past the Metro silliness.
Good luck with your own upgrades. Please share your experiences below. And extra special thanks to Ed for reviewing this article and adding so much useful information.