Feature: Web-based Setup
Availability: Windows 8 Pro only

With Windows 8, Microsoft is taking the first steps towards making Windows a web-based service by providing a web-based Setup routine for Windows 8 Pro only that combines three previously-separate tools: Upgrade Advisor, Windows Setup, and Windows Easy Transfer.

The web-based Setup is only available for Windows 8 Pro, and it must be initially run from a previous version of Windows. If you wish to obtain Windows 8 “Core,” the base version of Windows 8, you must acquire it with a new PC or purchase the OEM/System Builder version and install from DVD media. Windows RT is only available with new devices.

Note: You can also install Windows 8 Pro via a traditional disc-based Setup routine by purchasing the retail version of the Windows 8 Pro Upgrade. This package costs $69.99 in the US, compared to $39.99 for the web-based Setup, a promotional price that is good through January 31, 2013.

Web-based Setup is used to perform a clean install, migration, or in-place upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. What capabilities you receive are based on which OS you’re coming from:

From Windows XP: You can perform a clean install or a migration where any documents and other files that are stored in the Users folder will be carried forward to the new install.

From Windows Vista: You can perform a clean install, a migration where any documents and other files that are stored in the Users folder will be carried forward to the new install, or a migration where documents and Windows settings are carried forward to the new install.

From Windows 7: This version of Windows gives you the most options. You can perform a clean install, an in-place upgrade (where most settings and applications and all of your documents and other data files are brought forward), or a migration where only documents are carried forward to the new install.

Note that the web-based Setup will only provide you with the same platform version—32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64)—of Windows with which you started. So if you run the web-based Setup from a 32-bit version of Windows 7, you will get a 32-bit version of Windows 8 Pro. Please refer to Windows 8 Upgrade: 32-bit to 64-bit for more information and some tips for overcoming this limitation.

For most users, however, web-based Setup is the way to go. It’s less expensive than the retail packing (for now) and offers a more seamless experience where the product key you purchase online is automatically applied into Setup so you don’t need to type it in yourself. This product key is associated with your Microsoft account, and can be used later to reinstall Windows 8 if required. (That said, you can usually use the faster and more efficient Push Button Reset functionality in Windows 8 to reinstall, and this process doesn’t require the product key.)

Here’s what it’s like to install Windows 8 using the web-based installer. In this walkthrough, I’ll use the most common scenario, an in-place upgrade from Windows 7.

The web-based installer is available at windows.com.

To initiate the web-based installer, navigate to DOWNLOAD & SHOP, Buy Windows 8, and then Download Pro for $39.99 ERP. This will trigger the download of the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant, which kicks off the setup process.

Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant first checks your installed applications and hardware devices to determine whether any are incompatible with Windows 8. When this check is complete, it will alert you whether any items will need to reviewed (and, in the case of certain applications, uninstalled) before Windows Setup can be run.

Next, you choose what to keep. The Upgrade Assistant provides different choices here depending on which Windows version you’re currently running. For Windows 7, you will see choices for Windows settings, personal files, and app[ications] (in-place upgrade), Just personal files (migration), and Nothing (clean install).

Next up, you need to purchase Windows 8 Pro. This occurs online, via a trusted online retailer selected by Microsoft. You can pay with a credit card or PayPal. And if you would like the Setup disc in DVD format mailed to you, you can choose that option for an additional $14.99 in the US.

Once your order is complete, Upgrade Assistant will display your 25-digit product key, though you won’t need to write this down or copy it elsewhere: The key will automatically be applied to Setup for you and you will receive an email receipt for the transaction that includes the key as well.

Now, Upgrade Assistant downloads the Windows 8 Setup image.

When the download is complete, Upgrade Assistant verifies that the downloaded image is uncorrupted and then presents the Install Windows 8 step, from which you can choose between three options.

Install now. Install Windows 8 immediately.

Install by creating media. This option will let you copy the Windows 8 Setup routine to a USB flash drive so you can install it later using that device. Or, you can download Setup in ISO format, which can be later burned to a DVD disc or, using the Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool, copied to a USB flash drive. I strongly recommend choosing the ISO file option the first time you use this tool so that you can have an offline copy of the Windows 8 Setup disc. Be sure to copy it to a USB drive or another off-PC location for safe keeping.

Install later from your desktop. This option creates a shortcut on your PC’s desktop so that you can install Windows 8 at a later time.

Regardless of which choice you make, you will eventually continue installing Windows 8. Upgrade Assistant will check for any updates and then present the Windows 8 Pro end user license agreement, or EULA. Once you accept the EULA, Upgrade Assistant will check to see whether it’s OK to trigger Setup. If you’re performing an in-place upgrade, however, as I am, chances are you have one or more applications that need attention before you can proceed. Generally, this will involve uninstalling applications that are not Windows 8 compatible, such as Microsoft Security Essentials.

This process could require a few reboots, but Upgrade Assistant will restart automatically each time you reboot the PC and prompt you to continue from where you left off. Once the offending applications and other issues are resolved, you are free to continue, now with Windows 8 Setup.

After confirming your previous choice about which items to keep, Setup runs. This is a full-screen experience that will trigger a number of reboots.

From here, Windows Setup proceeds normally, as it would if you ran the disc-based installer. Setup configures the hardware devices in and attached to the PC, and then uses Windows Easy Transfer to migrate your settings, documents, and applications to the new install.

Finally, you’re presented with the Out of Box Experience, or OOBE. Here, you choose a color scheme, connect to a wireless network if required, choose between Express and Custom settings, and then sign into your PC with your previously used local account. OOBE will then prompt you to sign in with a Microsoft account instead, which I recommend, and it will push everything from your old local account into the new Microsoft account. Verify your security settings and you’re presented with the Windows 8 Start screen.

I’ve used the web-based installer a number of times and have always had good luck with it. That said, I do recommend making a copy of the ISO-based installer just in case, as noted above. And you should of course backup any Windows PC before undergoing such a radical change. Better safe than sorry.