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Most IT professionals recommend a clean new install when it comes to upgrading Windows. However, the Windows 8 upgrade process has been significantly streamlined—which is why Microsoft calls it, well, "Streamlined Setup." The questions are whether the new features of this Streamlined Setup will change the view of IT pros and whether direct upgrades from Windows 7 to Windows 8 will become the norm.
Windows 8 upgrade - Streamlined and Advanced Setup
Streamlined and Advanced Setup ^
Streamlined Setup comes in two flavors: DVD Setup and Web Setup. DVD Setup in this context means that you run the Windows 8 setup executable from a DVD on a Windows 7 or Windows Vista machine. Web Setup is new and I will describe it in more detail below.
Advanced Setup is the second type of Windows 8 upgrade that Microsoft supports. With this setup process, you boot up from a DVD or USB stick and perform a clean install.
Thus the question of which type of install (a clean install or an upgrade) is better is equivalent to the question of whether Streamlined Setup or Advanced Setup is the best way to upgrade to Windows 8.
Nothing major has changed with regard to clean installs, so we can focus on the new features of the Streamlined Setup to answer this question.
Windows 8 Web Setup ^
Web Setup is certainly the most interesting new feature of Streamlined Setup. It brings Windows one step closer to becoming a real cloud OS. As you already guessed, Web Setup allows you to upgrade to Windows 8 through the Internet. You can try this feature by just clicking "Get it now" on the Windows 8 Consumer Preview site. Your browser will then download the 5MB setup executable, which will guide you through the setup process.
Windows 8 upgrade - Get it now
What is cool here is that Microsoft integrated the Upgrade Advisor into the Windows 8 setup. This also applies for the Streamlined Setup from DVD. This was certainly a smart move and is one of the reasons why Windows 8 upgrade is indeed streamlined.
The integrated Upgrade Advisor will generate a compatibility report. If you are lucky, you can just continue with the setup process and take care of all compatibility issues after the Windows 8 upgrade. For instance, you might have to re-install some applications or download the latest drivers for some devices. If Windows 8 setup detected severe incompatibilities, you have to cancel the setup process, solve the problems, and then start from scratch.
Windows 8 upgrade - Compatibility report
After the compatibility scan, the setup program will download Windows 8. Depending on your bandwidth, this will take a few minutes, a few hours, a few weeks, or until Windows 9 is available. You can pause the download and then resume later, but you had better not shut down the PC in the meantime.
Windows 8 upgrade - Downloading Windows 8
After the download completes, you have to decide whether you want to upgrade to Windows 8 ("install now"), perform a clean install on another partition, or postpone the installation ("install later"). The last option allows you to create a bootable USB flash drive with Windows 8 setup or an ISO file that you can burn on a DVD. If you chose this route, you would install Windows 8 through the Advanced Setup later on.
Windows 8 upgrade - Ready to install Windows 8
"Install now" is the option for brave IT pros—that is, for you and me. In the next step, you have to "hang on" while setup elaborates the Windows 8 License Terms for you. Of course, this will take a while because we are now entering complex terrain. This part of the Streamlined Setup will probably take you a few hours until you have read and understand everything in the license terms. Maybe Microsoft should include an option here that allows you to send this contract to your lawyer in the cloud who can then approve it for you. This would certainly streamline the setup process significantly. 😉
Windows 8 upgrade - License terms
The next stop is comparably easy. You have to decide if you want to keep "Windows settings, personal files, and apps," "Just personal files," or "Nothing." "Just personal files" is a new function that formerly required Windows Easy Transfer. It copies everything in the User folder to the new system. Because many applications store their settings in this folder, it is not really a clean install. I recommend reading the "Help me decide" file because it contains valuable information.
Windows 8 upgrade - What do you want to keep
The next step was the most interesting one in my case. The Streamlined Setup essentially told me that the Windows 8 upgrade had failed. Setup detected that it needs at least 16GB of free space on drive C. It recommended using Disk Cleanup to free space, but that was useless because my virtual disk only had 20GB, and 10GB were already occupied with Windows 7. It is kind of funny that a setup program that is supposed to detect sophisticated software and hardware incompatibilities tells me at the very end of the setup process that I do not have enough disk space.
Windows 8 upgrade - What you need to do
If you are luckier, then Streamlined Setup would now upgrade Windows 8 and you are done. Notice that I didn't mention all of the steps in the setup process. I suppose that, as an admin, you have considerable experience with clicking Next buttons. However, it is noteworthy that at no point do you have to enter the product key. This "feature" will also be available with the RTM version of Web Setup.
Clean install or Windows 8 upgrade ^
The moral of the story is that, even though Microsoft significantly improved the upgrade procedure, a clean install is still the best option. It is not just that there are myriad reasons why the upgrade may fail. The main argument is that any upgrade process will leave garbage behind. This applies especially for third-party applications. And we are not just talking about files on the system drive; most problematic are the countless entries in the Windows registry that have accumulated over the years and can slow down a computer tremendously.
Hence, in my view, a clean install is always the safest option. I especially advise against upgrading Windows 7 to Windows 8 in a corporate network. I have upgraded Windows networks since Windows 3.11 and I always opted for clean installs. This ensures that you reset your network to a homogenous state and helps you get rid of terabytes of music files, videos, and games that have been stored on your corporate disks over the years. If you work with roaming user profiles, you don't even have to take care of user data. And user-installed applications don't belong in any modern IT infrastructure anyway.
The future of Windows upgrades ^
Nevertheless, I find this Web Setup concept quite interesting. Imagine that, in the future, hardware vendors would integrate the Web Setup client into the BIOS. This would allow bare-metal Windows installs through the Internet. Cloud backup service providers could allow you to store the latest image in the cloud and revive your PC after a virus devastated your system drive. And last but not least, service providers could offer Windows deployments for corporate networks through the Web.
So, what's your take? Clean install or upgrade?