FAQ: Microsoft offers cheapest-ever Windows upgrade

Who's eligible for Windows 8 upgrade, how to do a clean install, getting Media Center for free

On Monday, Microsoft announced a record low price for the upcoming Windows 8, telling customers that they could upgrade their PCs -- even aged machines running Windows XP -- for just $39.99 later this year.

But almost as soon as Microsoft posted the announcement on one of its blogs, the questions started flooding in. Where will I get it? Do I pay just once for all my PCs, like Apple's offering Mac users this summer? Do we get the Start button back?

Microsoft answered some of those questions in its blog, tackled others in replies to the hundreds of comments there and ignored a few entirely.

We take a stab at them all.

Where do I get it? From the Windows.com website, as a download.

Or if you're willing to shell out 75% more, you can pick up a shrink-wrapped box with a DVD inside from a local retail outlet or online seller. That might be the way to go if you use a dial-up connection to the Internet, or your ISP aggressively meters your usage.

What do I get? Windows 8 Pro, the pricier and more feature-packed of the two editions that Microsoft will be selling later this year at retail.

While Windows 8 -- that's the name of the de facto consumer edition -- and Windows 8 Pro share a slew of features, the latter includes several that appeal to small businesses, such as full-disk encryption, or to customers who want to use their home PCs to connect to their company's network.

Why Windows 8 Pro We don't know, and Microsoft's not saying.

But the upper-end edition is also the one that Microsoft will serve customers through its Windows Upgrade Offer (not to be confused with the new $40 deal rolled out this week). That's the program that gives buyers of new Windows 7 PCs a $14.99 upgrade to Windows 8 Pro, a move Microsoft regularly makes as a new version looms to keep people buying hardware.

How do I know if my PC is up for the upgrade? Microsoft will tell you when you run the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant on the Windows.com website when it goes live later this year.

The assistant snoops through the PC, verifying that you have Windows already installed and deciding if the hardware meets the system requirements. It will tell you if you're good to go, point out possible problems you that could prevent an upgrade -- giving you a chance, for instance, to update a particular component -- and spells out omissions that may limit what you can do with Windows 8.

All that takes place before you commit your credit card.

How much? $39.99 through Jan. 31, 2013 for the download, $69.99 for the shrink-wrapped DVD.

The download price is the cheapest Windows upgrade ever -- or as far back as our records go -- and is 20% less than Microsoft's lowest price for Windows 7's boxed upgrade during a two-week promotion in 2009.

To give you an idea of the size of the cut, the list price of the upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium is currently $119.99, or three times that of this deal. Even discounted -- Amazon sells the upgrade for $97.80 -- it's more than twice as much. And Windows 7 Professional, the version most like Windows 8 Pro, lists for $199.99, or five times more, and on Amazon, sells for $149.95, or enough to buy three Windows 8 upgrades and have enough left over to send hundreds of texts to CEO Steve Ballmer asking him to restore the Start button.

What payment options will I have? We're not sure, but we assume the same as for buyers of new Windows 7 PCs who take advantage of the $14.99 offer Microsoft made a month ago.

Those were: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Card, Diners Club and JCB credit cards, and PayPal.

How long will this price last? At least until Jan. 31, 2013.

Microsoft sometimes extends promotions, but the $40 upgrade definitely runs through the end of next January.

When can I upgrade? Microsoft's not saying, not exactly.

The upgrade kicks off at Windows 8 "general availability," Microsoft said earlier this week, using its term for the launch of the new OS.

The company has yet to set an official debut date for Windows 8, but most expect that to occur this fall, most likely in October. Based on the schedule Microsoft used three years ago, the date this time would be Oct. 25.

What editions of Windows are eligible for this upgrade? Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7, in other words all still-supported editions.

All versions within those three lines can be upgraded to Windows 8 at this price, assuming, of course, that the hardware is up to the task.

That means it should be possible to upgrade from both Windows XP and XP Professional, all versions of Vista -- including Ultimate -- and all of Windows 7.

Even the bare-bone Windows 7 Starter can be upgraded, Microsoft has confirmed.

What does the upgrade keep from my long-abused PC? That depends on your starting point.

Only Windows 7 conducts a "full" upgrade, the term applied to an upgrade that brings along everything, including data files, user accounts, Windows settings and installed applications.

Vista-to-Windows 8 transfers settings and data files, while XP moves the least, just personal files.

Can I upgrade from one of the Windows 8 previews Microsoft has shipped this year? Maybe.

In follow-up answers, Microsoft said that users running Windows 8 Release Preview -- the newer of the two sneak peeks, shipped on May 31 -- can upgrade using the Windows.com upgrade tool and pay the $40.

However, the only bits that are retained during that upgrade are personal data files. Other elements, including the applications, Windows settings and user accounts that migrate from Windows 7, do not.

So, for anyone running Windows 8 Release Candidate, the "upgrade" is only as effective as that from ... wait for it ... the 11-year-old Windows XP, which also keeps only personal files. Go figure.

Although Microsoft did not spell out what options are available to those who stuck with 2011's Developer Preview or the February 2012 Consumer Preview, our assumption is that such an upgrade won't be supported.

I don't live in the U.S. Is the deal for me too? Yes, the promotion will be available in 131 countries and Windows 8 Pro comes in 37 languages.

Microsoft has already listed the countries and languages in this FAQ for the Windows Upgrade Offer, the $14.99 program for buyers of new Windows PCs.

Is there a Family Pack? No, not with this upgrade offer.

Microsoft's Family Pack for Windows 7 -- a three-install upgrade bundle the company sold in 2009, pulled off the market but then restored in 2010 -- brought the per-PC price down to $50 ... as long as the number of machines you wanted to update came in increments of three.

In this deal, users simply pay $40 per PC, with no additional volume discounts.

I used a Family Pack, which supplied one product key for Windows 7 upgrades to three of my PCs. Since they're all under the same license, do I buy just one Windows 8 upgrade to migrate all three machines, or do I have to buy three new upgrades? The second.

"Each PC you have installed Windows 7 on via the Windows 7 Family Pack can be upgraded one at a time ... for $39.99 [each]," said Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc in a reply to one of the hundreds of comments posted on the blog that announced the deal this week.

Is there a limit to the number of PCs I can upgrade? Yes, five.

We're not sure how Microsoft is going to enforce this, but officially any one user can only obtain five upgrades at the $40 price. Like the similar restriction for the free upgrade that will be offered to buyers of Windows 7 PCs -- the $14.99 deal Microsoft announced at the end of May -- it's an attempt to weed out businesses that might try to take advantage of the low price rather than subscribe to expensive volume licensing contracts such as Software Assurance.

Will I need to have the original Windows installation discs or product key to upgrade to Windows 8? No.

The Upgrade Assistant takes care of verifying that a copy of Windows is already on the machine's hard drive, and that the PC is thus eligible.

Does this Upgrade Assistant you keep talking about check for a pirated copy of Windows on the PC? Microsoft doesn't come out and say so, but we're betting it does.

In one of his answers to a user's question, Microsoft's LeBlanc said people could upgrade from Windows 8 Release Preview "as long as you also have an underlying license for either Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 as well."

That may be a hint that the Upgrade Assistant is conducting a validation check.

But what Microsoft does with that information -- assuming it does detect an illegitimate Windows -- is another story. When LeBlanc answered a follow-up question posed by a user who had done a so-called "clean" install of Windows 8 Release Preview, meaning he had wiped the hard drive and so there was no proof on the PC that he had had an earlier version, LeBlanc said "you should be able to" upgrade.

Microsoft may be thinking it's better to get the $40 from a pirate for a valid copy of Windows 8 than to get nothing by denying upgrades to counterfeits.

I'm building a new PC for Windows 8. Can I install the upgrade on the brand new, no-bits-here hard drive or SSD? No. Instead you'll have to buy what Microsoft calls "System Builder" for Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro.

("System Builder" is what Microsoft used to call an "OEM" version of Windows.)

Microsoft has not yet disclosed the price of the System Builder versions.

You can do an end-around, though, Microsoft said, by installing an already-owned copy of Windows -- say Windows 7 -- on the empty hard drive or SSD, then use the Upgrade Assistant to upgrade that to Windows 8 for $40.

Can I upgrade a 32-bit installation of, say, Windows 7, to the 64-bit version of Windows 8 Pro? We don't know. Microsoft's been mum on this one, but according to ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, the company has told partners that a cross-architectural migration isn't supported.

Can I do a "clean" install? Yes, you can, but not using the Upgrade Assistant.

Instead, here's what you'll want to do to format the hard drive before installing Windows 8 Pro.

Step 1: Use the Upgrade Assistant to qualify the PC and pay the $40. Step 2: When the "Install Windows 8" message appears, select "Install by creating media" to create a bootable USB flash drive or an .iso (a disk image) file. Step 3: Wait for the Assistant to download the Windows 8 Pro installation package and create the bootable media or .iso file. The flash drive must have 3GB or more of free space available. Step 4: Burn the .iso file, if that's the path you chose, to a blank DVD. Step 5: Use that USB drive or DVD to boot the PC. Step 6: When you get to the screen in Setup that asks, "Which type of installation do you want?' choose "Custom." Step 7: Select a disk partition for the OS in the next screen. At this point, you can create a new partition if there's enough space available, or reformat the drive. Step 8: Continue with the installation of Windows 8 Pro.

Can I make a backup install USB drive or DVD? Yes you can. And that's a good idea.

To do so, follow the instructions just above.

An alternate route: Pay Microsoft $15, plus shipping and handling, for a backup DVD installation disc, which the company will mail to you.

I want to play DVDs on the Windows 8 PC. How do I do that? Microsoft's made that easy -- and free -- by giving away Windows Media Center during the promotional period.

Once you've installed Windows 8 Pro, head to the "Add features to Windows 8" section of the OS -- that's the new name for what was previously called "Windows Anytime Upgrade" -- where you'll be able to download and install Media Center free of charge.

Can I keep using Release Preview and save $40? Yes, but only until Jan. 15, 2013, at which point the preview expires.

I just have to ask ... did Microsoft restore the Start button in the final code? We won't know until Microsoft ships the OS. But we think the chance of that happening is smack dab between slim and none.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, send e-mail to gkeizer@ix.netcom.com or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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