Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 8 Consumer Preview

This morning I did something monumentally stupid. Something that I wouldn’t recommend you do, something that I’ve written many times in the past that you should never do. I upgraded my main work laptop to a beta version of an operating system, namely Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

I’m not completely certifiable. I first installed it on an old (touchscreen) laptop kicking around the office to make sure there were no obvious showstopper bugs in the new release. And I took a full backup of my Windows 7 PC before I started, to make sure I wasn’t putting any data at risk. Nevertheless, it would have been a considerable pain in the rump had this gone horribly wrong.

But having toyed with Windows 8 on the test laptop, I'd swiftly concluded that the only way to properly road test the operating system was to put it to everyday use. I’m happy – and somewhat relieved – to report that the upgrade went smoothly. Here’s how I did it and what I’ve learnt so far.

I was faintly terrified of what might await me when the PC first booted into the Windows desktop

Choosing the right installer

The main reason that I was willing to risk my work PC with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview was that it’s possible to upgrade in place. All of your installed apps, data and settings can (theoretically, at least) be retained if you’re upgrading from Windows 7.

However, if you’re going to do this, you should use the EXE file provided by Microsoft on the Windows 8 download site. This is a small 5MB installer that checks your current PC has the right spec, and the compatibility of any applications you have pre-installed. In my case, it warned that iTunes would treat the upgraded PC as a new computer (meaning any iPads/iPhones/iPods would need to be reauthorised), and it forced me to uninstall Microsoft Security Essentials, as this is built into Windows 8 under the new guise of Windows Defender.

Once you’ve passed all the necessary checks, the installer then proceeds to download the operating system. Frustratingly, there's no option to simply point the installer at an ISO you've already spent two hours downloading. It must be downloaded afresh. Harumph.

Upgrade process

The upgrade process itself was relatively painless. It’s certainly not as fast as the 10-minute clean install I performed on the old touchscreen laptop last night, but after the download was completed (which took only 10 minutes or so on our speedy office connection), the rest of the upgrade installation took around 45 minutes to complete on an ageing Core 2 Duo laptop with a mere 2GB of RAM (it’s hard to believe I’m the editor of a computer magazine, isn’t it?).

The installer gives you the option to install over the top of your current hard disk partition or into a new partition. I chose to install over the top; whether the latter would have created a dual-boot PC that could start up in either Windows 7 or Windows 8, I’m not sure, but please let me know in comments below if you took that option.

The Windows 8 experience

I won’t lie to you: I was faintly terrified of what might await me when the PC first booted into Windows 8. But before I even reached that point, I had to plough through a few configuration screens, which allow you to set the Metro desktop background colour and so forth.

The wizard also asks you for you an email address for your Windows Live account, to help synchronise services such as SkyDrive and Xbox Live integration. Crazily, it wouldn’t allow me to use the Hotmail address that forms my login for those services. Instead, I was forced to create another Windows Live account. This is beyond stupidity.

Of course, this meant that when I finally arrived in the new Windows 8 desktop, all my services were tied to the wrong Windows Live account. None of my documents appeared in SkyDrive, none of the pictures saved in my Microsoft account appeared in the Photos app. Worse, there was no obvious way to change the Windows Live account associated with my Windows 8 login.

A cry for help on Twitter paid dividends, however, with the resourceful @adagis to thank for a workaround. Go to Settings | User and switch to a local account that is stored on your PC. Then switch back to a Microsoft account, using your Hotmail address, and everything is hunky dory.

Why Windows 8 didn’t let me sign in with that address in the first place is bewildering. Others have reported the same problem, but some claim to have activated with a Hotmail address first time round. Whatever the cause, Microsoft needs to get it fixed in time for the final release.

Smooth migration

Other than that snafu with my Windows Live account, the rest of the migration was peachy smooth. All of my applications and settings were carried over; saved browser passwords and settings were preserved; Windows Explorer favourites and Libraries were perfectly intact; and applications pinned to the old-school Windows desktop remained pinned (albeit with the sneaky addition of Internet Explorer once more).

I’ve not had any trouble with any of my pre-installed applications, including the Office apps, browsers, Paint.Net and TweetDeck. Documents, photos, music and other files all appear to be fine.

Interestingly, and probably wisely, Windows 8 doesn’t pin any of your pre-installed desktop apps to the Metro interface. You can do this manually, or simply start typing the name of the app you want to open and select it from the search screen.

The new Metro interface certainly takes a bit of getting used to, much more so on a dual-monitor desktop set-up than it did on the touchscreen laptop. There are new behaviours to be learnt, such as flinging the mouse up to the top-left corner of the Metro screen to get Android-style thumbnails of all the open apps, or up to the top-right to open the so-called “Charms” (Search, Share, Settings etc).

However, in next to no time, I was back working exactly as I was in Windows 7. The Metro interface can be largely ignored. The old-school Windows desktop can be extended across both screens – although curiously, the Taskbar icons are also duplicated across both – and it’s almost like Metro never existed. That is, until you go to look for the Start button, realise it’s not there, and are instead plunged back into Metro when you click in the bottom-left corner of the screen.

It certainly jars at first. But after a few hours, I’m getting used to it. And you can always just click on the Search Charm and get an almighty list of every app installed on your PC.

In short, I think Windows 8 is beginning to grow on me. There’s a lot more to the new OS that isn’t covered here, but we’ll be covering in much greater depth on the website and magazine in the coming weeks.

And remember: just because I’ve had a largely trouble-free upgrade, it doesn’t mean you will. This is a glorified beta. Proceed with caution, especially on mission-critical PCs.  Let me know below how you get on, but please don’t ring me for technical support if it goes belly-up.

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