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

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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."

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