Windows 8 received a lot of press attention at its introduction in 2012, not all of it good. Since then Microsoft has listened to the press and its users, introducing small but meaningful changes in its revised Windows 8.1. We previously published an article on the impacts of the new operating system on gaming performance, but as it turns out, our experience upgrading a Windows 7 system for that article led us to think that everyone might appreciate a comprehensive guide to the Windows 8.1 upgrade process.

So, here it is, a step-by-step guide on how to upgrade your system from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. Trust us, it's not as easy as it should be! In addition to detailing the pitfalls to watch out for, we've included some basic performance benchmarks, usage impressions, and even some key tweaks to give would-be upgraders a better understanding of whether the upgrade will be worthwhile for them.

Test Setup

We performed the upgrade on a fairly high-end system, which has implications for the amount of time the upgrade process took, as well as any potential performance improvements. Here are the specifications of the system:

  • Intel Core i7-3770K Quad-Core Processor
  • Asus Maximus V Gene Motherboard
  • 16GB of DDR3-1866 Nemory
  • EVGA GeForce GTX 780 3GB Video Card

One of the promises of Windows 8 was that it would be more "lightweight" than Windows 7, which would reduce the memory footprint as well as the CPU power required for background tasks. This could in turn provide benefits to older, slower systems. We provide a few system benchmarks on the next page, but as you might expect, our system was more than capable of handling Windows 7, so we didn't expect (and didn't observe) major changes in the responsiveness of basic tasks,

The Upgrade Process, First Step - Windows 7 to Windows 8

First things first: there is no Windows 8.1 upgrade. What, you say, you must be joking, isn't that what this article is all about? Well, in fact, there is a Windows 8.1 upgrade option, but the only in-place upgrade option, which keeps all files and applications, is from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1. That's not much of a challenge, given that mostly cosmetic changes have been made. But what about the huge cohort of PC users still relying on Windows 7? Surely they can upgrade to Windows 8.1 without losing all their applications, right? Nope. Like we said, there is no upgrade option, at least not to Windows 8.1.

But there's a work-around: buy the Windows 8 installation disc, if it's still available, not the newer Windows 8.1 installer. Microsoft widely advertised the option of upgrading to Windows 8 from Windows 7, even going so far as releasing a Windows 8 Pro upgrade-only version. We used the full Windows 8 installation disc, simply because it's more versatile and still allowed an in-place upgrade. We'll walk you through the steps we took and how the process works, and then on the next page, we note a few issues we had installing the free upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1. 

Below are the upgrade options you are presented with from the Windows 8 installer - that first option simply wasn't there when we used a Windows 8.1 installer, but boy were we glad to see it in this installer!


So, once we determined that upgrading to Windows 8 was going to do what we wanted, how did it go? Fairly well, at least at the start. The upgrade process allowed us to keep nearly every application. Only two were deemed incompatible by the Windows 8 upgrade advisor: the Intel USB 3.0 extensible Host Controller Driver and Microsoft Security Essentials. As it turns out, removing that first application (actually a driver) may have been a cause of one problem we experienced regarding USB devices - see below for the resolution of that issue. Security Essentials is built into Windows 8, so it clearly is no longer necessary and we had no qualms regarding its removal. Everything else stayed put, but we'll get back to this issue later on, as finding our applications once the upgrade was complete was not all that straightforward.

Once we initiated the upgrade, it took exactly 27 minutes on our fast desktop system, including several restarts. That's not instant, but it's fast enough as long as you are around to input a few pieces of information like time zone and user name. The only piece of advice we have for you is in regard to one of the last pieces of information the upgrade installer asks for: your Microsoft Account login information. We strongly recommend that you do not provide this unless you would like to keep various computers' settings in sync. It results in an unnecessary log-in requirement every time you turn on the computer, and for many users, the syncing across computers will be wholly unused. We just skipped that and logged in with a "local" account, and continue to do so to this day. Once everything was said and done, you're greeted with the following Start Screen in Windows 8:


But back to that issue of preserving our applications - Windows 8 did preserve our applications, to a certain extent. But it was a botched process, and we're pretty confident that this is the very reason that Microsoft does not provide an option for upgrades from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. The issue is that the Start Screen lost the icons for nearly every single application on our system, keeping only a random few, as can be seen above. And remember, there's no Start Menu built into Windows 8/8.1, so those applications were lost in huge sea of icons, as shown below.


What a mess! But miracle upon miracles, installing a Start Menu emulator, which we discuss in more detail on the next page, put Humpty Dumpty back together again, matching apps with help files and sorting them back into folders, just like the old days. 

But our work was not yet done. Read on to learn how we upgraded to Windows 8.1, and to hear our impressions on the new operating system...

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