Upgrading to Windows 8? Here’s how not to do it

Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal wrote a head-scratching post today. “Windows 8: Not for Old-at-Heart PCs.”

Here’s how it starts:

If you’re thinking of upgrading your PC to the new Windows 8, be prepared for hassles and disappointment, especially if the computer is more than a year or two old — even if it technically meets the basic requirements to run the new version. 

I know this, because I’ve spent big chunks of the past week trying to upgrade to Windows 8 two big-name, well-regarded PCs — a 2008 Lenovo laptop and a 2009 Hewlett-Packard touchscreen desktop. The process was painful, and it resulted in lost capabilities, even though both PCs ran Windows 7 quite well and met the minimum requirements for running Windows 8.

But as we journalists say, Walt buried the lede. Here’s where he should have started:

Part of this problem was my fault, I guess. If I had thought to burrow through the Lenovo or HP websites, I might have found that my models weren’t considered by their own makers to be fit for upgrading.

For instance, HP’s information page, at http://bit.ly/SdTCVp, said this about my TouchSmart, after I located and entered its obscure, official product number: “HP has not tested this PC. For this reason, HP is unable to provide upgrade instructions or Windows 8 drivers. You may lose basic functionality & stability if you try to upgrade.” Alas, I learned this only after I had upgraded.

And even though the post leads with an illustration of the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant, Walt admits he didn’t run that useful tool:

Microsoft does offer Upgrade Assistant software that might have warned me of the problems, available at http://bit.ly/SdUxFo. But the box for the Windows 8 Pro DVD I was using only suggested running this utility and checking with the manufacturer’s website, in tiny type at the bottom of its back cover.

We’ll never know if the Upgrade Assistant would have spared the hassles that Walt writes about with what seems to be almost glee. But I can tell you how to decrease the likelihood that you’ll have headaches:

  1. Backup first. If you’re moving from Windows 7 to Windows 8, you can use an external USB hard drive to create an image backup of your current PC configuration. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can restore your current working configuration without losing a thing. The word backup does not appear anywhere in Walt’s writeup.
  2. Do your homework, starting by checking for support at your PC maker’s website. Pro tip: If you think the model number for your PC is an obscure detail, maybe you shouldn’t be upgrading your operating system. If Walt had done this, he would have found this page that specifically says “HP Linkup, HP Application Assistant, HP TouchSmart Magic Canvas and all other HP TouchSmart applications are not compatible with Windows 8 and must be uninstalled before upgrading.” [emphasis added] Then he wouldn’t have had to write that he “lost dozens of programs, such as HP’s touch software suite…”
  3. Be especially diligent with notebooks, which are tricky because they often contain custom buttons or require specialized drivers for chipsets, trackpads, and embedded components such as graphics and storage controllers. As Walt discovered, the trackpads on older notebooks are less likely to support Windows 8 multitouch gestures, although they should work the same as they do with Windows 7.
  4. If you are one of the few people who bought a Windows 7 touchscreen PC, don’t expect that it will work on Windows 8. The Building Windows 8 team actually devoted an entire blog post to this topic. It includes a list of Windows 7-era touchscreen PCs they tested (the HP TouchSmart Walt tried to upgrade wasn’t on the list).
  5. Before you begin upgrading, run the Upgrade Assistant. It will warn you about incompatible software and drivers and even help you uninstall things that will cause problems. It also gives you a very handy checklist of stuff you need to do after the upgrade is complete.
  6. See item 1.

And if you start to run into problems, consider it a message from the upgrade gods:

Also, I had problems with the installer itself. On the HP, it wouldn’t work with either the DVDs or a downloaded version of Windows 8. So I had to transfer the downloaded version to a 4 gigabyte USB flash drive to get it to work. (It requires at least a 3 gigabyte drive.)

Frankly, running Windows 8 on a four- or five-year-old PC seems like an exercise in problem-creating to me. The machines were originally designed for Windows Vista. Walt says both PCs were running Windows 7 quite well. So what is the point in upgrading to a new operating system designed for modern touch hardware?

14 thoughts on “Upgrading to Windows 8? Here’s how not to do it

  1. A-men to this.

    His story is the equivalent of “I saw a commercial for Quaker State, and decided to change my own oil. It was a pain in the butt.”

    No duh.

  2. Re: what is the point in upgrading to a new operating system designed for modern touch hardware?

    I can suggest several reasons that you have cited on occasion: enhanced security potential, updated system performance benefits, compatibility with newer accessories and future software applications.

    Besides, the addition of a multi-touch enabled trackpad (I have used the Logitech product) will effectively allow the benefits of touch gestures Windows 8 incorporates.

    Those reasons are independent from the consequences of upgrading to incompatible or obsolete hardware.

  3. Ed, let me add an item that I think that should go at or near the head of the list:

    Know why you want to upgrade your machine. Do an elementary cost/benefit calculation of how new features will make your work more effective, efficient or pleasant, and compare it against the extra costs. Those costs will include, although may not be limited to:

    a unique full backup;
    some time validating model numbers against manufacturer’s support site;
    running the installation assistant;
    time and energy to find upgraded drivers for important hardware such as printers and mice;
    confirming with your software developers that your version will work fine under Win8;
    shopping time & cost for the new OS; and, of course,
    actual effort to run the upgrade.

    Double-check the math above. For many, it’d be better to spend after-tax income on a new machine with Win8 pre-installed, than to spend the time trying to upgrade.

    Yes, this only differs in emphasis from what you wrote. But given how many people have been conditioned to think that their phones should just upgrade, maybe with a glitch, so their PCs should be easier, I think too many will ignore your advice without that push. Oh, and you might give time estimates. Even rough SWAGs would be a help if I were to try.

  4. Walt Mossburg really surprises me. Sometimes he writes some really good stuff. Then he writes something like a 3rd grader. Not in writing quality, but in technical knowledge. No wait, I’ve seen some 3rd graders that know more…

    What reallly kills me is that one person has a problem with one machine, and they write off the whole OS as worthless for everyone. Sigh….

  5. Why did Mr Mossberg (try to) use the more expensive updater, by the way? That seems strange. Perhaps he expects his audience to buy boxes rather than download.

    My upgrades went well, on a Dell Studio 540 tower from mid-Vista (running Win 7) and a Sony VPC CW 13FX laptop from early Win 7.

    But I had the advantage of having run (dual boot) the whole preview sequence plus RTM on the Dell and Consumer preview and later including RTM on the Sony. On the Sony, I knew I would have trouble with Bluetooth (it has worked–some of the time–in some previews, but not in the real release. Also, I continually had to revert the video driver to what was at Sony (the Microsoft class driver gives me 1360×768 (six tiny pixels shy of Snap). The old Sony driver makes it 1366×768 (as it was under 7).

    I had two current images of the Dell going in as I wanted to upgrade the Win 7 (most of my data was in SkyDrive, which makes this stuff lots less scary). For the Sony, my image was somewhat old but I didn’t care about anything in either partition–the plan was to use the installer to nuke the partitioning and start fresh, which worked fine. (And I had the Sony DVDs for starting over from factory if needed.)

  6. What amazed me is that he not only actively chose to not run the Upgrade Assistant three times but he actually chose to avoid running after not one but two upgrade attempts had failed.

    You have to wonder about that level of intentional ignorance.

    I just kept picturing Walt Mosspuppet (http://www.mosspuppet.tv/) having the conversation:

    Setup> Do you want to run the Upgrade Assistant to see if there are any devices or programs that might not upgrade successfully?
    Mosspuppet> I’m Walt Mossberg. Shut Up!

  7. “Pro tip: If you think the model number for your PC is an obscure detail, maybe you shouldn’t be upgrading your operating system.”

    Best advice ever. Wonderfully snarky too, of course, as used here, but truly great advice for everyone.

    — Tim

  8. I’ve actually updated a few “older” PCs to Windows 8, with one being a Gateway CX-120 convertible (an XP-era machine with upgraded hard drive and RAM). I must say that Windows 8 is the best thing I ever put on that machine, even if Win 8 doesn’t support multi-touch. Can’t believe Mossburg blew off the Upgrade Assistant. His problem if things didn’t’ work out then.

  9. Running W8 on a Dell Desktop I bought in 2006 or 2007. All I’ve done is upgrade to 4gb of ram. The upgrade was brainless and the machine boots W8 faster than it booted Vista the day it came out of the box.

    Unfortunately, I will add that Mossberg’s level of journalism isn’t much different than some of Ed’s colleagues on ZDNET and their feelings regarding anything MSFT.

  10. I replaced the Windows 7 Ultimate with Windows 8 Pro in my TouchSmart PC too. I did not need to look for most drivers. I installed the Windows 7 audio driver and newer graphic driver. Other drivers were being installed automatically. I installed Windows 8 Pro from an external DVD drive. I deliberately chose the path of “clean install” as I booted from DVD. I did not miss the built-in TouchSmart software at all. Touch Screen works fine although my desktop PC only has two touch-points, compared with my Sony Vaio Duo 11 that has 10 touch points. Microsoft tried to make upgrade process as seamless as possible. While I appreciated its effort, bear in mind that although PC can be used to fulfill simple needs, it also has complex functionalities thus requiring more technical knowledge that are not available in devices such as iPad or smartphones.
    If you are not technical enough, the best way to get the new OS is to let others do it for you, i.e. buy a new PC or hire / ask somebody else to handle the technical stuffs. The diversity of PC ecosystem also means that troubleshooting can become tricky at times. The upgrade process can be highly subjective, even when the machine being tested is the same, as the experience is highly dependable on the person who handles the upgrade.
    Microsoft has made upgrade cheapest and easiest ever. However, predictably, such an effort would not change sales of Windows 8 licenses and adoption of Windows 8. There may be billions of PC users but how many of them can be considered power users? Enthusiasts and power users remain a minority group going forward. There is a misconception that people are getting increasingly tech-savvy in recent years. The truth is far more complex. While technology is certainly pervasive in the lives of many people, being tech-savvy is more than following the trend to own the new toys and gadgets but to actually understand how technology works and what good / bad it would bring to our lives.
    Devices such as iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab in some ways are dumb devices, i.e. they are meant for those who have simple computing needs or do not know much about IT in general. There are those who suggested PCs are too complex to be used and those dumb devices can be used for replacement, despite the fact that the functionality is indeed very different in many ways. Windows 8 tablet / laptop hybrid has dual-personality, i.e. as a simple device and productivity tool, or in Microsoft’s words, “no-compromise” experience, even though mobile device is always a compromise for the sake of mobility.
    The opinion on the upgrade process of existing Windows 7 PCs makes sense when we take the background of the users into consideration. I may have little troubles to change the operating system of PCs but I cannot say the same for the others.

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