Microsoft has always offered a variety of ways to buy and install new versions of Windows, with retail and electronic options, clean installs, upgrades, and migrations, and in-box ways of upgrading to higher-end Windows editions. In Windows 8, the ways in which we can acquire and install this OS have expanded yet again. And this time around, Microsoft offers the simplest way yet to do both.

It’s called the web-based installer. And aside from some niche requirements by enterprise IT organizations and those power users who can’t stand not doing things the hard way, it’s the best way for most individuals to acquire and install Windows 8.

Note: During this pre-release period, you can’t of course purchase Windows 8 electronically but this capability will be added when the OS is generally released later this year.

The Windows 8 web-based installer is better than other Windows install methods for a number of reasons. These include:

It works from any previous Windows. You can run the web-based installer from any previous version of Windows (XP with SP3 and newer) and, based on which OS you’re currently running, perform a clean install, upgrade, or migration.

Three-in-one functionality. The web-based installer combines three very useful and previously separate tools—Windows Setup, Upgrade Assistant (previously called the Upgrade Advisor), and Windows Easy Transfer—into a single experience, making the experience more seamless and error-free.

No more product key hassles. The web-based installer associates your Windows 8 product key with your Microsoft account, and automatically applies it to the install so you don’t need to keep track of it manually.

Speed. The web-based installer is faster than manually downloading an ISO, burning it to disc (or applying it to a bootable USB storage device) and then manually installing Windows 8 the old fashioned way.

Today, we run the Release Preview version of the web-based installer from preview.windows.com, and I suspect this experience is very similar to that of the coming, final web-based installer experience, minus of course the purchasing bit.

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The web-based installer differs from the normal, ISO- or disc-based Windows Setup in some key ways.

First, you’ll notice a Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant phase, which examines your current system to check for device and software compatibility. Any incompatible items will be flagged in a Compatibility Details report, which you can examine and save to disk.

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While some of the information in this report is informational—there’s a nice tip to deauthorize your PC in iTunes if that’s installed, for example—there may also be some items you need to act on before Setup will continue. (This occurs later in the web-based installer.)

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You’re given the ability to choose between different install options: Install now, by creating (USB or DVD) media, or by installing at a later time via desktop-based shortcut.

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And then you’re prompted to choose between a set of install types—what we used to call clean install, in-place upgrade, or migration—where the choices available will vary according to the Windows version you’re currently running. I wrote about these options recently in Windows 8 Tip: Upgrade From A Previous Windows Version.

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After that you will deal with items that do you need your attention, including incompatible applications that will need to be installed.

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And if you did choose an in-place upgrade or migration-type install—where you save some combination of Windows settings, personal files, and desktop applications—those items will be reapplied to the new Windows 8 install before you run through the normal out of box experience (OOBE) that is present in all Windows Setup versions.

Overall, the web-based installer is simplest way yet for individuals to install Windows 8 on their existing PCs, and that’s true no matter which type of install they intend to complete. I’m curious to see how Microsoft integrates the buying experience into the final version of this new solution.