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Win 8.1 ISO USB Upgrade Is a No-Go

This will be my final installment on the subject of working around upgrade issues and problems regarding Windows 8.1. I’ve seen numerous sources that claim the combination of a bootable Windows 8 ISO-derived image, plus an edited edi.cfg file in …Windows\Sources enables installers to skip the Windows Store download of the free upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1. [See NOTE at end of story for another method]

Yesterday, I tried it myself, in several variations but found no way to accomplish all of these results in a single operation:

1. Work from the USB-based image of the Windows 8.1 installer and perform a free upgrade install
2. Use the original Windows 8 key as the key for Windows 8.1 during or immediately after install

In following the method I laid out in my December 4 blog post “Windows 8.1 Store Upgrade Snafu/Catch-22” I quickly observed that the installer did not present me with upgrading from the current Windows 8 installation on my son’s Dell XPS2710 unit. I was only presented with the options of preserving settings, store apps, and files, settings and files only, or nothing at all. Of course, I also wanted to preserve the desktop apps that had already been installed so that wasn’t really what I was after. If I simply went the clean install route, I couldn’t get my Windows 8 key to work as a valid Windows 8.1 key.

Gyrations completed, I opted to grind through the incredibly slow download and install from the Windows Store. I started this off at 2:15 PM in the afternoon, and it didn’t get all the way through that process until around 4:30 PM, where the bulk of the delay came from a 3.84 GB download whose bitrate often fell below 1 Mbps making the transfer, even though my Internet connection is capable of handling up to 20 Mbps in download speeds under optimal conditions, and 15-16 Mbps nearly all the time.

I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the results of the maneuver this time around, because:

1. Having updated all drivers to the most recent, 8.1-friendly versions recently on this machine, the 8.1 installer changed no drivers whatsoever during the install.
2. Other than an apparent stall between the “Getting Devices Ready” and “Getting Some More Things Ready” phases of the installation process, during which I had to cold-boot the machine (it was stuck with a black screen, showing no disk or other activity I could ascertain, so I pulled the power plug, plugged it back in, waited 10 seconds, then hit the start button), the process completed without any snags.
3. Start8 remained operational after 8.1 booted for the first time (I’ve had mixed luck in sometimes having to reinstall Start Menu replacements on 8.1, and sometimes not), though I did have to reinstall 8GadgetPack to get my desktop gadgets back.

All in all, though, things went about as well as they could have. And having ploughed through countless war stories from other IT pros who haven’t been so lucky with their Windows Store upgrades, I am both pleased and relieved to have the bulk of these upgrades entirely behind me. I still have to believe that MS will come up with a technical solution for the free upgrade from local media, rather than requiring everyone to sit through a sometimes interminable download from the Windows Store (and struggle through the occasional cases where this particular upgrade technique fails to complete as it should). It just doesn’t make sense to force small to medium sized operations that don’t have other means of accessing “no-cost” keys for upgrading from Windows 8 to 8.1 should be forced to perform one-at-a-time upgrades this way. Let’s hope that this technical solution becomes available sooner, rather than later.

And one more thing: I was able to ascertain that my Windows 8 before installation and my Windows 8.1 after installation on the XPS2710 did indeed share the same Windows key, thanks to Nir Sofer’s dandy ProduKey utility. So it is demonstrable that a Windows 8 key will also work as a valid Windows 8.1 key. But that apparently works only with the code and installer that gets downloaded from the Windows Store, NOT the ISO version so readily downloaded from MSDN.

[NOTE added  12/15/2013] There’s a 12/13 story by Paul Monckton from the PC Advisor entitled “How to create a bootable Windows 8.1 USB flash drive so you can install Windows 8″ whose subtitle is actually more important “Create a bootable USB flash drive from which you can install or upgrade Windows 8.1” (emphasis mine). He makes some changes to the ei.cfg file that make it version independent and describes how to get through the install without entering a key until activation time. This might actually do the trick for those who must make repeated installs, but it still doesn’t seem “automation-friendly” for larger scale deployments. That said, it’s definitely worth reading as another way to work around the Windows Store download and limitations inherent to the “free Windows 8.1 upgrade/update.”

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