You can still get Windows 8 even if you don't want to splash out on a new PC or a new laptop. Here's how…

Updated: 22nd October 2012

When it comes to moving to Microsoft's latest operating system, most people will do so when they buy a new desktop PC, laptop or even tablet. Following the horror stories of upgrading underspecced Windows XP PCs to the much-maligned Vista, even hardened tech upgraders have been fighting shy of 'upgrading' their computer's operating system. After all, a PC can be the third biggest investment you ever make, after your house and car, and the operating system is its blood supply. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.) See also: How to install Windows 8.

But Windows 8 is different. You could make a good case for upgrading a Windows 7 PC at least, for two simple reasons. First, it's the most radical change in Microsoft PC computing since Windows 3.0 made way for Windows 95. And, perhaps more pertinently in this case, the system requirements are just the same as they are for Windows 7. Indeed, if your system can run Vista, it will handle Windows 8 with aplomb. And, some would argue the upgrade may make your computing experience smoother.

Things can go wrong, however, and upgrading a PC is nothing like trying out Windows 8 on a separate partition of your hard disk. So before you do anything at all, be sure to back up to a separate storage device any files, photos, music and video that you want to keep. It's important also to note the distinction between upgrading to Windows 8 from Vista or Windows 7; and upgrading to Windows 8 from XP:

  • Windows 7 - you can perform an in-place upgrade to Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro that will allow you to retain all your files, settings and compatible applications
  • Vista -  If you have Vista Service Pack 1 installed, you will be able to keep personal files and system settings, but you'll have to reinstall applications. If you don't have SP1 installed, only personal files will be retained.
  • XP - Upgrading from XP is possible without a clean installation if you have Service Pack 3 installed, but even then, only personal files will be kept.

We cover how to install a dual-boot version of Windows in another story, and explain in detail how to Install Windows 8.  But here is a general guide on how to prepare for an in-place upgrade installation.

If you buy a PC or laptop running Windows 7 Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate between June 2nd 2012 and January 31st 2013, you'll qualify for the Windows 8 upgrade offer. This allows you to install Windows 8 Pro on your computer for £14.99. You'll need to visit the link and register your purchase in order to get hold of the necessary code and download link for Windows 8.

You'll need to download around 2GB of data, which you can then install directly on the computer, or create a bootable DVD or USB flash drive. For extra cost, it's also possible to order Windows 8 on DVD.

Windows 8 upgrade: Getting started

Although in theory the upgrade process should run smoothly, you should still make a backup of any important files you can't afford to lose. The easiest way to do this is to connect an external hard drive and simply copy your documents, music, pictures and videos folders to it. If you keep files in other locations, say Downloads, or on the desktop, be sure to copy these too.

If you think you might need to restore your computer to Windows 7 at some point, create an image of your entire hard disk using a disk imaging program such as Acronis True Image.

Windows 8 launches on October 26th, and you'll be able to buy it directly from Microsoft's website. Alternatively, you can pre-order it from another retailer such as Amazon. Microsoft hasn't yet announced pricing, but we'll update this article as soon as we have more information.

On the same date, you'll be able to run the Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant (this may be released as a separate tool to download from Microsoft's website - we'll provide more specific information on the day). This will tell you if there's any incompatible hardware or software on your computer that won't work with Windows 8.

Windows 8 upgrade: Installation

1. Insert the disc and it should auto-run. You should see an option to upgrade Windows, so click this. On the next screen, tick the option to 'Go online and install updates now' and click Next.

 Upgrade to Windows 8

2. Enter your product key and accept the licence terms. You can then choose what to keep, and most people should choose the Keep Windows settings, personal files and applications option.

Upgrade to Windows 8 choose what to keep

3. Windows 8 will then check your system for any incompatible hardware and software, and let you know if it finds anything. We had to uninstall a Bluetooth driver.

Upgrade to Windows 8 What needs your attention

4. Once you've uninstalled anything incompatible with Windows 8 you're ready to install it. On the recap screen, click the Install button and sit back while your computer is upgraded. Note that you won't be able to use it while this Is happening.

Upgrade to Windows 8 Ready to install

Once Window 8 is installed, you'll be walked through the initial configuration, including setting up a Microsoft account if you don't already have one (a Windows Live account can be used). You can use an existing email address if you don't want a new Microsoft address.

Windows 8 Start screen

After a few final configuration settings, you'll be presented with the new Windows 8 Start screen. This is pretty straightforward to use with a touchscreen, but if you're using a mouse (or touchpad) and keyboard the following shortcuts will come in handy:

  • Windows key + D: switch to the traditional Windows desktop
  • Windows key + C: open the Charms bar
  • Windows key + Q: open the search charm for apps
  • Windows key + F: open the search charm for files

If you took the precaution of backing up files before the install, now is the time to check that everything is shipshape, and replace any missing files.

Visit Windows 8 Advisor for expert reviews of Windows 8, Windows 8 tips and tricks, as well as expert advice on how to get the most from Windows 8. Buy The Complete Guide To Windows 8.