Microsoft’s Windows 8 is here and while the Windows Store bears a passing resemblance to tumbleweeds blowing across a desert landscape compared to its Android and iOS counterparts, the operating system still has some very good features that are worth trying out. However, with multiple versions available, starting from just $58, picking the right option for you might not be as simple as it looks.

Upgrade or full licence?

At the moment, all major retail stores are selling the upgrade version of Windows 8 Pro for just $58. If you want the full clean install licence, it looks like you’ll pay around $100 for the standard version of Windows 8 and up to $150 for the full licence of Windows 8 Pro.
So which version do you need? Officially, you need to have at least Windows XP running on the computer you plan to upgrade in order to qualify for the Windows 8 Pro upgrade price. Fresh system builds, by Microsoft’s End User License Agreement, need to have the full licence version.
However, for at least the last couple of Microsoft Windows releases, it’s been known that you could perform a fresh install of Windows — and activate it — using only the lower-cost upgrade media.
Reports are now suggesting that you can do likewise through the Windows 8 Pro upgrade. While it appears that activation initially fails after a fresh install using an upgrade disc, a simple workaround that reportedly works is to do the following.
  • Open up regedit and head to the key:
  • HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE/Software/Microsoft/Windows/CurrentVersion/Setup/OOBE/
  • Set the value forMediaBootInstallto0.
  • Open up the command prompt and launchslmgr /rearm.
  • Reboot Windows
  • Launch the activation utility and enter your product key.
Personally, I would never upgrade a previous Windows install to a new release. For every person I’ve heard the upgrade process go as smooth as butter, it’s been more like broken glass for someone else.
Regedit can be used to enable a clean install from Windows 8 Pro upgrade media.

Windows activation

Like previous versions of Windows, Windows 8 has a software licensing manager app calledslmgr and you get 30 days of free use before you need to activate. However, you can run the rearm command up to six times to boost the activation-free period up to 180 days. The ‘fresh install from upgrade’ trick here seems to be to reset Windows 8 back to its standard out-of-box experience in combination with rearming the activation period to convince it that it’s a legit fresh install.

Do I need the Pro Pack?

The first question you’ll probably ask yourself after deciding which version of the OS to aim for is whether you need the Pro Pack extender. It’s actually not a straightforward question — rather than sell Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate versions of Windows 8, Microsoft is selling just two: Windows 8 (standard) and Windows 8 Pro.
Next comes the upgrade packs: Windows 8 Pro Pack for $58 and Windows 8 Pro Media Center Pack, available online for $9.99. What’s annoying about this is if you buy just the standard non-Pro Windows 8 OS, you must first upgrade to Windows 8 Pro with the Pro Pack before you can grab the Windows Media Centre upgrade.
So basically, if you have the standard Windows 8 release, you can’t simply buy the Windows Media Center upgrade pack — you have to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro first. (Alternatively, if you can make the $58 Windows 8 Pro upgrade do what you need, you can go straight to the $9.99 Media Center upgrade.)
When Microsoft announced it was planning to split Windows Media Center into an optional upgrade pack, I wrote that my fear was we’d end up paying more for the whole operating system than we did with Windows 7. Unfortunately, it looks like I was right. Windows 7 Home Premium with Windows Media Center built in is still available as an OEM (home builder) pack for around $95 from most computer retailers. You need at least Windows 8 Pro to get the Windows Media Center add-on, which will set you back $149 as a home builder installation. Not exactly what you’d call ideal.

After install, what next?

The first thing to consider, particularly if you have a gaming desktop, is to head to Nvidia or AMD (whichever your choice of jungle juice) and download the latest graphics card driver software. As you install Windows 8, Microsoft will grab the latest WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs) certified driver from Windows Update and install it. But already for Nvidia, the current 306.97 driver is (unofficially) out of date.
If you’re happy to use Nvidia’s beta program, the  is offering significant performance gains on a range of games on GeForce 400/500/600-series graphics cards by as much as 11%. AMD’s official drivers have also been updated since Windows 8’s launch.

Multimedia fill-ins

By default, Windows 8 has MPEG-4/H.264 video compression support built in, so you’ll have no trouble playing YouTube clips or video captures from your smartphone or tablet. However, it has no TV support whatsoever — there’s no way to handle a digital TV tuner and no support for MPEG-2 video compression. You can play WMV and MPEG-4 videos with the included Windows Media Player, but anything more exotic than that gets fobbed off. I’ve used VLC Media Player to pretty decent effect to play DVD .VOB files and digital TV recordings. Grab it fromvideolan.org/vlc.

What about the ‘Start’ button?

Hopefully, the fact that Windows 8 is missing its ‘Start’ button won’t be something new to you. If it is, welcome to Microsoft’s brave new world. Actually, it doesn’t need to be like that. Just download our TechLife Fix Windows 8 Pack for free and it’ll install the latest version of the open-source Classic Start Menu and give you a Windows XP-style ‘Start’ button and menu.
Classic Start Menu can give you your ‘Start’ menu mojo back.

Security suites

Windows 8 marks the first time the software giant has included antivirus in a Windows release, with an update to Microsoft Defender. However, if you purchase a new laptop, there’s every chance Defender will have been replaced by some third-party trial suite.
Personally, I uninstall the trial versions as a matter of great haste. Windows Defender appears to be built around the same engine as Microsoft Security Essentials and according to tests by AV-TEST.org, it does a passable job.
If you want something a little stronger without spending any cash, try AVG AntiVirus Free 2013 oravast! Free Antivirus. Both have their relative strengths and weaknesses, but they should get you over the line in terms of decent overall web, email and general internet security.

The rest is up to you

Beyond that, you should be able to install your previous Windows 7 apps and find Windows 8 quite stable. I’ve been using the RTM (Release To Manufacture) version of Windows 8 every day since mid-August — along with Classic Start Menu — and it hasn’t crashed once.

Can I still buy Windows 7?

If you buy it at the same time as you buy other key upgrade components — like a CPU, motherboard and hard drive — you can pick up the OEM (home builder) version of Windows 7 Home Premium for as little as $93. If you want Windows Media Center, this is actually the cheapest way to get it now.