Windows 8.1: Should You Upgrade?

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If you haven’t installed the final edition of Windows 8.1 by now, you might still be weighing whether or not you want to do that. The best answer is likely to depend on a few factors: your PC hardware configuration, which version of Windows your system is currently running, what kinds of functionality you need, and the risks you’re willing to take. The decision can be hardest for XP users, but installation isn’t necessarily a walk in the park even for users of Windows 8 or the Windows 8.1 Consumer Preview. Here are some important points to consider, specific to users of Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows 8, 7, Vista and XP. In this article, we’ll look at these OSes in order of their original release dates: XP first and 8.1 Preview last.

Windows XP: Does an 8.1 Upgrade Make Sense?

An estimated one-third of the world’s PCs are still operating Windows XP. Yet less than six months from now, Microsoft plans to end “extended support” for XP, meaning no more security pataches and hotfixes. “So bottom line, PCs running Windows XP will be vulnerable to security threats,” contended Stephen Rose, senior marketing manager and community leader for Microsoft’s Windows Division, in July of this year.

Just released last week, Windows 8.1 brings with it four generations of security improvements beyond XP, an OS first introduced way back in 2001. The security niceties include a bunch of new features brand new with 8.1: new network behavior monitoring technology in the built-in Defender antivirus software; built-in BitLocker-based device encryption in all editions of Windows; and fingerprint-enabled device security. Microsoft has also tweaked the underlying OS to allow for scanning of Internet Explorer ActiveX controls and other binary extensions before execution. (For expanded views of the pictures at right, please click on the images.)

So if you’re going to bother to upgrade to a new version of Windows at all, why not go with Win 8.1? Well, here’s the rub. Microsoft is not “recommending” this solution for either XP or Vista users. Yet if you do install the latest OS, Microsoft suggests that you use the retail product — which hit retail stores last Friday — rather than the downloadable version that went live last Thursday.

Files, settings and programs will not transfer from XP or Vista, warned Brandon LeBlanc, Microsoft’s communications manager, in a blog post around a month ago. “Consumers will need to back up their files and settings, perform clean installation, and then reinstall their files, settings and programs,” he cautioned.

Meanwhile, unlike Windows 8 users, who get the download for free, users of XP and Vista — and Win7, for that matter — have to pay $119.99 for either the retail edition or the download of Windows 8.1 (or $199.99 for the Pro version under either scenario) if they step to 8.1 directly.

Why the discouragement by Microsoft? It seems to revolve around hardware requirements. Minimum system requirements for XP called for a Pentium 233 MHz processor; 64 MB of RAM; and 1.5 GB of free space on the hard drive.

In stark contrast, for Win 8.1 you need a 1 GHz processor (with support for PAE, NX, and SSE1) and 1 GB of RAM. Other requirements include 16 GB of free hard disk space for 32-bit systems and 20 GB of free hard disk space for 64-bit systems.

“If you install Windows 8.1 on an XP machine, it might work properly, but it might not,” noted Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, in an interview with Notebook Review. 

But hey, wait a minute! Haven’t lots of users already upgraded from XP to Windows 8, anyway? “If you’ve already upgraded to Windows 8 without any problems, I don’t know of any reason why you shouldn’t then be able to upgrade to Windows 8.1,” Miller said. “But there are no guarantees.”

Basic system hardware requirements for Windows 8 and 8.1 — and Windows 7 — are essentially the same.  However, as we all know, Microsoft — a perpetual believer in planned obsolescence — always loves users to buy new PCs.

On the other hand, you might or might not be able to run the same legacy software programs on 8.1 as on XP. For example, according to Microsoft’s onine Windows Compatibility Center, Windows 8.1 supports the Basic and Standard editions of Office 2003, version 11, but not the Professional edition. It also supports the standalone Outlook 2003 product, version 11, but not the standalone Word, Excel,or FrontPage 2003 products. Go figure. 

How About From Vista?

If you’re a Vista user, you have a lot more breathing room on the security side. For one thing, with Vista, Microsoft introduced some new security features, such as User Account Control (UAC), for blocking software from silently gaining admin privileges without the user’s knowledge.

Much more significantly, though, Microsoft isn’t killing off security patches and fixes for Vista until April 11, 2017 — a date still nearly five years away.

But what if you’re finally ready to get rid of the old-fashioned and overly bloated Vista, anyway? If you’d like to update to 8.1, it’s even more likely that this will be doable from a Vista PC than from an XP system.

Vista’s minimum system requirements are much higher: for Home Basic, an 800 MHz 32-bit (x86) processor or 800 MHz 64-bit (x64) processor, 512 MB of system memory, and a 20 GB hard disk with 15 GB of free hard disk space; and for all other editions, a 1 GHz 32-bit (x86) processor or 1 GHz (x64) processor and 1 GB of system memory, plus a 40 GB hard disk with 15 GB of free space.

Then again, you can always soup up your old Vista or XP machine with more disk space or memory.

What About Upgrading from Windows 7?

For Win7 users, the decision rests largely on whether or not they give a hoot about Microsoft’s “Modern” UI and Windows Store apps.

From a security perspective, Microsoft won’t be ending extended support for Win7 until far into the future — January 14, 2020, to be exact.

Unlike Windows 8 and 8.1, Win7 doesn’t come with Microsoft’s built-in Defender antiviral protection. Yet third-party AV products from companies like McAfee, Symantec and Kaspersky support Windows all the way back to XP, anyway.

But if you really want to get with Microsoft’s “Modern” world, and you dont mind spending $119.99 or $199.99 for the privilege, you might consider running Windows 8.1 alongside Win7 in either a separate drive partition or a virtual machine (VM) environment.

This should let you run Win7 uninterruptedly while at the same time climbing the Win8.1 learning curve and dealing with any snafus — like driver issues or application software incompatibilities — that might spring up with 8.1. 

And from Windows 8?

Theoretically, at least, there’s little or no reason not to go to Windows 8.1 if you’re a satisfied Windows 8 customer — especially if you’re one of the still lucky few who’s gotten your hands on a touch PC. After all, the price for the software downlaod is right, at zero dollars and no cents.

The well known “return of the Start Button.” Boot to desktop. The newfound ability to use the same wallpaper on the Start Screen as on your desktop. Internet Explorer 11. Cooler search. SkyDrive integration. The list of new features goes on! Really, what’s not to prefer about Windows 8.1?

In reality, however, users trying to install the Windows 8.1 download are sending tweets to Twitter and posting complaints on message boards about a variety of installation issues. Users receiving some kinds of error messages are prevented from installing the Win8.1 update, although their systems do automatically roll back to Win8. Others are getting a different error code, which comes up midway through the download. They are then unable to finish the download. 

For some users, though, the download has been smooth sailing.

If you do get an error message, hunt around online. With good fortune, maybe you’ll find a fix.

Upgrading from Windows 8.1 Preview

Ironically, perhaps, things seem to get even more complicated for users of the Consumer Preview.

The official word from Microsoft is that those who have already installed the Windows 8.1 Preview need to reinstall their apps when moving to the full version of Windows 8.1, whereas anyone moving directly from Windows 8 doesn’t face this requirement.

Yet Windows 8.1 users don’t really have much choice but to go ahead and upgrade to the final version — and to do it soon — unless they want to go back to their previous OS.

“You must install the version of Windows 8.1 or Windows RT 8.1 before January 2014 when the license for the preview will expire. If you’ve been using the preview, you should update to the final edition as soon as possible to avoid an interruption in using your PC,” according to information on a Microsoft customer support page.

If you installed the preview from the Windows Store — or you installed it using media while Windows 8 was running — you can download the update for free from the Windows Store. (Supposedly, you’ll be able to keep all of your personal files, although you will have to reinstall all of those apps.)

Yet “if you installed Windows 8.1 Preview by booting from ISO media, you can update to the final version of Windows 8.1 Pro using the Windows Store, but your system won’t activate until you buy a Windows 8.1 license and product key. You can do this by following the instructions when you activate your system, or by purchasing a DVD of Windows 8.1 Pro,” intoned Microsoft.

On the very same customer support page, Microsoft lists links to the specific directions for returning from Windows 8.1 Preview back to Windows 8, Windows 7, and Vista or XP.

There’s also a link for directions on returning to Windows 8 RT from the Windows 8.1 RT Preview.

Meanwhile, as of now, Microsoft has pulled the upgrade to Windows RT 8.1, after reports that some Surface tablet users who installed the RT tablet upgrade — a separate entity from Windows 8.1 itself — encountered the creepy “Blue Screen of Death.” 



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