The mosaic-like Windows 8 is a dramatic shift for Microsoft as it embraces the tablet and touchscreen era, creating a standard experience across phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. Eight months after the preview was made available, the genuine article is now sitting on Microsoft's servers, waiting for you to download it.
If you're currently running Windows 7, you're in the best position to upgrade to the newest operating system. While XP users have the option to keep their files, and Vista users can keep their files and Windows settings too, only Windows 7 users have the choice to keep files, settings and applications in place after the upgrade. As anyone who's upgraded Windows in the past will know, this makes life much easier than it has been in previous versions.
In the early hours of this morning, I took the new operating system for a spin and upgraded a Windows 7 system. What follows are the steps required and the process you'll have to go through to upgrade your own PC to Windows 8.
If you're running Windows 7 (or indeed XP/Vista) on your desktop or laptop computer, you can buy an upgrade to the Pro version of Windows 8 for a mere £24.99. This offer runs up until the end of January 2013.
Microsoft seems to be pushing all users towards the Pro edition, as the standard Windows 8 version (which doesn't include advanced tools like remote desktop and BitLocker encryption) isn't yet available to purchase. It's likely that this version will be more prominent on new Windows 8 PCs.
There's more though -- if you bought a Windows 7 machine since 2 June 2012, your upgrade price is £14.99 until 31 January 2013. If you're in this category, follow the instructions on the above link and you'll receive a promo code via email, which you can use during the installation process.
And finally, Windows 8 Pro users can get the Media Centre add-on for free by submitting an email address here. This gives you a product key you can use to add the Media Centre once Windows 8 is installed. Again, the offer runs until 31 January, after which you'll need to pay to add Media Centre to the operating system. Note that the Windows 8 Media Centre is only compatible with the Pro version of Windows 8.
Buying and downloading
Once you've decided you've had enough of Windows 7, and applied for all of the discounts and free offers you can get your hands on, point your browser here to take the plunge and purchase Windows 8.
Follow the Download Pro link and the Upgrade Assistant tool is downloaded to begin with -- this utility makes sure your system can run Windows 8 (which it should be able to), and checks for any compatibility issues with your installed hardware and software.
At this early stage in the life of Windows 8 it's likely that not all your programs can be switched over seamlessly, though I found very few problems. The Upgrade Assistant did display a warning about de-authorising my iTunes account, presumably because the Windows 8 installation will count as a new computer but it's reassuring to see the upgrade checker go into this level of detail.
The other warnings were mostly related to pre-installed utility software that came bundled with the PC, but it's important to note that any incompatible programs will have to be removed before the upgrade can proceed.
The next step is to decide how you'd like to install Windows 8. You can keep everything -- Windows settings, personal files and installed applications -- or just your personal files, or nothing at all (a clean install which wipes your hard drive and starts from scratch). The latter option gives you the opportunity to torch several years of collected clutter from your hard drive, but does come with the inconvenience of reinstalling your applications and personal files.
It goes without saying that you shouldn't go down the latter route unless you have all your documents and files safely backed up. During my upgrade I chose to keep everything, to see how well Windows 8 would handle the transition.
The final page of the Upgrade Assistant includes an Order button, enabling you to purchase the new operating system if you want to go ahead with the upgrade. It's here you'll need the promo code if you've signed up for the £10 discount. You're asked to supply the usual billing address, email and payment details, and the promo code can be entered on the final screen. The download clocks in at 2GB in size and took about half an hour on my standard home broadband connection.
Once the download is complete, you can get on with the upgrade in earnest. There are three options -- continue with the install, create a bootable DVD or USB drive, or leave a shortcut on the desktop to install at a later date. As Windows 7 includes its very own ISO burner, any of these options will work with the minimum of fuss, and I chose the 'Install now' option.
As you would expect, the utility checks for any updates before proceeding, and you'll need to confirm you have carefully read/briefly browsed the licence agreement.
Windows won't let you forget about those incompatible programs I mentioned earlier, which in my case included Microsoft Security Essentials (now replaced by a Windows 8-ready Microsoft Defender). The upgrade wizard will prompt you to uninstall all incompatible applications, and the installation won't proceed until you've done so.
This left me without the Bluetooth, WLAN and Intel USB 3.0 drivers supplied with my Dell PC, so you may well want to postpone installation until you have updates for all your key utilities, depending on what this screen turns up. Being a foolhardy tech journalist, I ploughed ahead with the installation, and at this point I was asked to restart my PC.
During the next stage of the installation there's nothing to look at but a mostly blank 'Installing Windows 8' screen. This part of the process took around 30-40 minutes on an i7-powered PC with a 2TB hard drive. Once you come out the other side, you'll be met with a setup wizard to help you get up and running. The first screen asks you to choose a colour for your Start page, and you are then asked to select and connect to a wireless network -- obviously one of the settings not remembered from Windows 7.
As the wizard progresses there's the option to accept an 'express' default settings configuration or customise them individually yourself. The default settings include automatically installing updates, allowing apps to use your Windows account name and picture and automatically connecting to other devices on the network. The Do Not Track feature in Internet Explorer is switched on by default too. Unless you want full control over how Windows works, the express settings are safe enough to accept.
If you've chosen the upgrade path I have, you'll be asked to sign in using the same admin account you had with Windows 7. If you've done a clean install, you'll need to create a new account. As you'll be aware if you've used the earlier Consumer or Release Preview versions of Windows 8, there's also the option to link your user account to a Windows ID so that services such as Outlook and SkyDrive can be synced seamlessly. This isn't compulsory and can be done at a later stage if you wish.
And with that, you're almost ready to go. There's a handy tutorial covering how to use your mouse and keyboard like a touchscreen (hint: move the cursor to the corners), and when everything is set up you'll be met with the new-look Start page. Welcome to the future, and remember to click the Desktop tile any time you start feeling dizzy.
I haven't yet spent an extensive amount of time exploring the new Windows 8 system, but most applications and files seem to have made the transition without any problems. The Windows wallpaper was reset back to the original (Dell) image, but this is the only small issue I have noticed so far.
Programs including Dropbox, Microsoft Office, Adobe CS6 and Google Chrome all carried on as if nothing had happened -- Chrome even remembered the last page I was using, though it had been usurped by Internet Explorer as the default browser during the upgrade process. iTunes also carried on from where it left off, right down to the track name, window position and size.
Your biggest headache is likely to be new Windows 8 drivers for your core components (such as the graphics card), but compared with upgrades of old, this one is very straightforward.