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Best Driver Strategy for Upgrading Windows from 7 to 8 to 8.1 Confirmed

Over the holiday weekend, I migrated several more PCs from 7 to 8 to 8.1, and made some deliberate variations along the path from the initial starting point (Windows 7 SP1 ) to the final destination (a fully-patched and up-to-date Windows 8.1) to see what I could learn about how to make that path as smooth as possible. The short version of my story, for those disinclined to revel in the gory details, is best summarized as: “Update all drives after the first step, from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and the second step from 8 to 8.1 will go more easily.”

Drivers in need of upgrade as per DriverAgent
PC/Laptop 7 –> 8 8 –> 8.1 Clean Install
Acer 5552 8 5 15
Lenovo X220 Tablet 12 2 21
Lenovo T520 10 3 23
Dell XPS12 12 3 17
Desktop 1 17 4 22
Desktop 2 19 6 22
Desktop 3 9 2 17

I will happily provide configuration details on the machines included in the preceding table, should anyone be interested. But my primary observation is that while there are undoubtedly and indisputably many good reasons to perform a clean install for any new major Windows OS version, minimizing post-install driver tweaking surely isn’t one of them. In fact, I saw a profound tendency for the Windows 8.1 installer to replace newer (and valid) drivers for Intel network adapters and built-in HD graphics circuitry than for any other kinds of components, but also observed that chipset elements, storage (particularing SATA AHCI and RAID drivers) and USB (particulary USB 3.0 drivers) were likely to experience rollbacks as a result of clean Windows 8 installations.

Does this mean that IT should reverse its longstanding policies and beliefs that clean installs are generally preferable to upgrades? Not at all; not even a little bit. What it means is that it’s probably a good idea to take a representative machine through the process by hand, use it to identify and obtain the latest and greatest drivers for Windows 8.1 before performing any further installs. This could even lead to slipstreaming those drivers into a customized WinPE based Windows 8.1 install image, so that all the necessary drivers — as well as applications, utilities, policy updates, and so forth — could be integrated into the actual 8.1 image used to perform 8.1 clean installations in bulk.

In fact, the bigger the population of machines that need to go through the clean install, the easier it is to justify the extra one or two days of effort that will be required to put all the pieces together to enable them to proceed without requiring any post-install clean-up whatsoever. Ultimately, the time and effort that the necessary planning and preparation can save will overshadow the time spent planning and preparing for a large-scall rollout.

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