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Windows 8.1: Read this BEFORE updating - especially you, IT admins

Get ready for a long download ... and another ... and another

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

Microsoft is rolling out Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade for all Windows 8 users. But installing the new OS may not be as simple as it sounds, particularly for those with multiple PCs to manage, or those who installed the earlier Windows 8.1 Preview.

The basics are simple enough: Windows 8 users can apply the update by downloading it from Microsoft's Windows Store.

You may have to launch the store once or twice before you see the Windows 8.1 Update Live Tile – if you're having trouble, try typing "ms-windows-store:WindowsUpgrade" into your browser's URL box – but once you've found it, starting the download takes just a couple of clicks.

The download itself may be a bit frustrating, though. The size of the update varies based on which version of Windows 8 you have installed, but it's generally about 3.5GB, so you'll want to have a reliable broadband connection.

Getting the Windows 8.1 Update from the Windows Store

For most customers, the Windows Store is the only way to get the update (click to enlarge)

Note, also, that the update has only just shipped, so Microsoft's servers are swamped and downloads may be slow going. Fortunately, you can keep using your PC while the files come down in the background and if the download is interrupted for any reason, you can pick it up from where it left off by starting the update again from the Windows Store.

Further complicating matters, however, if you have multiple devices to upgrade, you won't be able to download the update just once and apply it to all of your machines. El Reg asked Microsoft for clarification on this point and this is what we were told:

The Windows Store is the only way for consumers (non-enterprise, non-IT Pro) to download and install Windows 8.1. No ISOs will be made available, so each device needs to be updated individually via the Windows Store.

It actually goes further than that, though. "Consumers" here really means any copies of Windows 8 that weren't purchased through Microsoft's Volume Licensing programs. So a small business with 20 PCs to upgrade, for example, will have to do them one at a time via the Windows Store – so that's 20 separate 3.5GB downloads.

Enterprise customers have it a little easier. The installation media for Volume Licensing (VL) versions of Windows 8.1 can do in-place updates over existing Windows 8 installs, so admins won't need to download the update again for every PC that needs to be upgraded.

Enterprise sysadmins can also choose to perform what Microsoft calls a "refresh" deployment, where "data and settings are captured, the current OS is removed, Windows 8.1 is installed on a clean drive, apps are reinstalled, and then the user data is restored."

These methods are only available with the VL install media, the ISOs of which were released to MSDN and TechNet on Thursday. The earlier Windows 8.1 ISOs that shipped in September can only do clean installs with fresh product keys; they don't include the in-place update or refresh functionality.

What's more, customers who installed the Windows 8.1 Preview face an additional hurdle. When they upgrade to the final Windows 8.1 code, only their user accounts and data will be preserved. All of their applications will have to be reinstalled – and that means all of them, including Windows Store apps and desktop applications alike. (Though, to be fair, we were warned about this.)

Finally, if you're upgrading from an earlier version of Windows, official Windows 8.1 media is available for preorder from Microsoft's online store now and is scheduled to begin shipping tomorrow. But that's only good if you're upgrading from Windows 7. If you want to upgrade a machine that's currently running Windows XP or Vista, the correct procedure is to purchase Windows 8 media, upgrade your machine, then download the Windows 8.1 update using the Windows Store method.

Got it? Good luck and happy upgrading! ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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