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Sometimes we wonder if Microsoft didn’t actually build a new OS so much as a Frankenstein that its customers could direct years of pent up anger, frustration, and fear onto. For example, just hint that Windows 8.0 ain’t that bad on the Internet, and some Windows users will react as if you keyed their mint ’64 Chevelle Malibu and kicked their dog with your steel-toed boot. To say you’ll get a beat down of YouTube-able proportions is an understatement of people’s rage at Windows 8.0 today.
It’s this gale-force headwind that Microsoft is flying into with its first major update to the much-maligned OS, which some blame for the record declines in PC sales. Dubbed Windows 8.1, this point release promises to address some of the major concerns people have with Windows 8.0 and even reintroduce the familiar Start button. But does it? Can this simple point release calm the seething masses?
Maybe and maybe not. If anything, it might actually make some people even angrier. Windows 8.1 brings back the Start button, yes, but it turns out it wasn’t just the Start button we wanted, but the Start Menu that came with it. The process to even get the update and who exactly gets it and the work-arounds isn’t going to make too many friends, either. In the past, major updates could be downloaded and installed on all of your machines en masse with little effort. Not so this time. Just getting the update on Windows 8.0 requires following a flow chart and throwing chicken bones across the top of your chassis.
Yes, we know you’re skeptical, distrustful, and even a little pissed off, but to find out the full skinny on what you need to do to get Windows 8.1 and whether it’s even worth the hassle, and how to make the most of it should you decide to take the plunge, you’ll need to read the whole story.
Updating to Win8.1: easy for some, a real PITA for others
Windows 8.1 is no mere Service Pack. No, it’s a whole tenth better than Windows 8.0, thus the point-release designation by Microsoft. Therein lies most of the problems with even getting Windows 8.1. People expect it to be as easy and painless as a Service Pack, but it ain’t. For the vast majority of folks, it just works, but that’s no consolation to those of us who hit snags. Here are the possible issues you could encounter. (Note: We highly recommended that you run a backup before you install the upgrade, as going back isn’t always easy).
Anyone who is currently running Windows 8.0 or the Windows 8.1 Preview is eligible for the upgrade. If you were waiting for the notification to pop up in Windows Update that Windows 8.1 is ready for download, stop. In its infinite wisdom, Microsoft has decided that despite intense hatred by many of the Modern interface, that’s the only place you can get the Windows 8.1 update, in the Windows Store. Even more confusing, this won’t work for everyone. Those running the Enterprise version of Windows 8 or Win8 Pro using a volume license, MSDN, MAK, or TechNet key will not be able to grab the update in this manner. Instead, Microsoft is recommending that those with VLK versions download the ISO from MSDN or TechNet and perform an in-place upgrade. Enterprise users are recommended to just talk to their sys admin about how to update. Not sure what you’re running? Just hit Windows R and type slmgr.vbs –dli and Windows will identify your version.
Microsoft has included the requirement that the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 support the CMPXCHG16b instruction. This won’t cause problems for anyone with a modern CPU, but if you’re using one of those earlier CPUs that had 64-bit support but not an explicit CMPXCHG16b instruction, you’re screwed. According to formerly in-print PCWorld.com, the affected chips include Athlon 64 X2 parts, Opteron 185, and other “vintage” 64-bit processors. Sometimes, it’s not even just the CPU, as reports indicate that the Core 2 Quad, which apparently supports the instruction, is stopped by the error because the P35 chipset doesn’t support it. The “fix” is to run 32-bit, or not run the upgrade. There is also a reported work-around but it’s no fun to execute and would take a page just to describe. Poo.
Getting the upgrade should be simple, except it’s not. First, as we said, you can only get it through the Windows Store from within the Modern UI. Second, well, sometimes it still won’t show up. Why not? You need to have all of the previous updates installed first. You may also need to reset the Windows Store. You can do this by swiping in from the right, touching the magnifying glass icon, and… oh hell, forget that. Just start a command prompt by hitting Windows Key + R and typing wsreset.exe. Now reboot. Go back into the Store and the update should be displayed prominently. Still not getting it? It’s possible that your Windows 8 is a version that doesn’t qualify—meaning it’s an Enterprise or Professional version using a product key from MSDN, TechNet, or a volume license. Unfortunately, your only answer may be an in-place upgrade (if you’re lucky) or nuking from orbit.
The Windows 8.1 upgrade can only be found in the Windows Store, and only after all Win 8.0 updates are applied.
If you installed the preview version of Windows 8.1 and are still using it, your trial license is about to expire. After January 2014, you have to activate with a retail product key. You'll still need to download the final version of the OS, too. Thankfully, you can get that update from the Windows Store, just as if you were upgrading from a retail copy of Windows 8.0. The store is the green-and-white "shopping bag" icon on the Start screen, which you access by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard.
If you made a "clean install" of the preview version from ISO media, where you use a DVD or USB key to completely replace the current operating system instead of upgrading from it (or you installed onto a blank hard drive), you too can use the Windows Store to upgrade to version 8.1.