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Since Windows 8 no longer comes with a Start menu, a cottage industry has emerged to fill the gap. Windows 8.1 has a Start button, but no new functionality is present. Our third-party Start menu, Start Menu 8 (free, www.iobit.com), had no issues with our updating to Windows 8.1. Microsoft's new Start button just never appeared.
The trickier issue is Microsoft accounts. By default, Windows 8.1 does not invite you to create a standard local account during the installation phase, which stores your credentials on your computer like usual, rather than on Microsoft's server in the "cloud." Instead, the company wants you to sign into a pre-existing account for services like Hotmail or Outlook.com, or create a new one inside this networked ecosystem. To get around this installation step, click Create Account instead of entering your Outlook.com or Hotmail login. Then, at the bottom of the next page, click "Continue using my existing account." If you are installing 8.1 from scratch, you will have the option to create a new local account instead.
Win 8.1 will prompt you to create a Microsoft account, but you can bypass that in favor of a local login.
An MS account isn't bad news or anything. It allows you to use SkyDrive to sync your apps and settings across different PCs. It will let you consolidate Facebook, Twitter, Outlook, and LinkedIn feeds into the People app. It makes Hotmail and Outlook.com integration smoother. And you need it to get and update apps from the App Store, anyway. (You don't have to worry about not being able to log in if you're offline, because Windows itself will "remember" the last correct password you entered.) You can also switch your PC from an MS account to a local account later on.
If you have a small business or a household with a bunch of Windows 8.0 machines, downloading the 8.1 update for each PC could take a lot of time and bandwidth, since each download is basically the entire OS. But we know a trick to convert this download into an ISO, which you can then put on a DVD or USB flash drive, so that you only need to download it once. Be advised, however, that this only apparently works if you are running a retail version of Windows 8.0—the downloader rejected the OEM keys we tried as well as the “generic keys” floating around the Internets.
You can download a full ISO of Windows 8.1 to perform an in-place upgrade or even clean installs, sorta.
Pick any of your Windows 8.0 PCs and navigate to this Microsoft site: http://bit.ly/SCANcl. Have your product key ready. Click the "Install Windows 8.1" button. Choose "Install by creating media," click Next, select ISO File, and click Next again. Choose the destination folder of the download, and click Next. The program will now download the Windows 8.1 update and create an ISO for it. Then it will ask if you want to burn the ISO to a DVD right now. You do have the option to create a bootable USB stick, but the general consensus is to just save the ISO instead, as you can always create a bootable USB stick version later on using the Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool: http://bit.ly/162L74X. Using this disc, you’re still limited to an in-place upgrade only—not a service-pack-like upgrade.
You may have been told that you can't install Windows 8.1 from scratch and use a Windows 8.0 key. However, you can use a "generic" key designed for testing. The “generic” keys we refer to are those floating around the Internets—if you Bing “generic Windows 8.1 key” it shouldn’t take too long to find. Using the generic key, you will be able to eval Windows 8.1 for 120 days. Once you’ve entered in the correct generic key for your version of Windows (either Core or Pro) you can now activate it with your original, licensed Windows 8.0 key.
Once you've completed installation using one of these keys, open Windows Explorer (it's the folder icon in your taskbar), right-click This PC, select Properties, and click the link at the bottom-right that says Activate Windows. Then click the first Enter Key button and enter your Windows 8.0 retail key. Your copy of Windows 8.1 is now officially installed.
Windows 8.1 introduces a visual upgrade to the method for changing your product key.