Wait a second: Did Vonnie just name this post: How to install Windows 8.1 from scratch using a Windows 8 product key? I thought I could do that already?
If you’re in a good mood, sit down, grab a drink and pop in some Bob Marley because what I’m about to tell you is unnerving.
If you’re running a legal copy of Windows 8 you can easily upgrade to Windows 8.1 for free by downloading the update from the Microsoft Store. Although this is convenient for most users it will certainly incense others.
I have a question:
What happens if you just want to implement the Windows 8.1 OS without any upgrading shenanigans? In other words, can you install a stand-alone copy of Windows 8.1 using a Windows 8 product key?
Your initial response might be yes; especially, when you consider that Microsoft already lets (and encourages) users to install the Windows 8.1 update for free from Windows 8 computers.
In addition, saving a clean copy of Windows 8.1 to a USB stick would be a boon to IT admins and people with multiple PCs because it would preclude the need to keep downloading the 4GB Windows 8.1 update from the Microsoft Store.
Unfortunately you can’t do this automatically; however, there’s no need to feel impotent by this mishap. I’m going to show you a neat trick that will have you going in about an hour.
First we need to realize that Microsoft will only give you the Windows 8.1 ISO if you have a Windows 8.1 Product Key. The Windows 8.1 product key is completely disparate from the Windows 8 product key. The problem is exacerbated when you realized that Microsoft doesn’t make it easy to use 8.0 and 8.1 keys interchangeably.
Microsoft essentially treats Windows 8.1 as a completely new iteration of the Windows operating system. From a product key perspective, Windows 8.1 is as different from Windows 8 as Windows XP is from Windows 7. But this is categorically stupid because Windows 8.1 isn’t a full product revision – it’s an update – just a beefy service pack.
What would happen if Microsoft proscribed Windows XP users from using Windows XP SP3 as a stand alone CD? Can you image having one product key for the Windows XP core and another for Windows XP SP3?
Today we almost have the same quandary except in the XP days there was no integrated Microsoft Store.
Microsoft really really wants you to use that Store to get apps and major updates. Clearly, the Microsoft Store is becoming the nexus of Microsoft’s software disseminating antics and there’s nothing we can do about that.
Okay, I’m done impugning Microsoft’s bad decisions and I’m ready you show you how to fix this blasted problem. Thanks for wading through my diatribe.
Getting Windows 8.1
Alright, so how do you download Windows 8.1 without going through the Microsoft store?
Visit the Upgrade Windows with only a product key page, scroll down to the bottom and click the blue Install Windows 8 button to download and open the Windows 8 Setup Assistant.
You’ll be prompted to insert your Windows 8 product key. Go ahead and paste it in here and click Next.
In about a minute you should see a screen prompting you to download the Windows product that matches your product key. Click Next.
If you see a rude message that says: We can’t connect right now. Check your internet connection and try again then relaunch the setup wizard but when it says Estimating Time… wait for the download screen to hit 2% and then click the Pause button in the bottom right corner of the window.
You can close the download Window after suspending the download process.
Now revisit the Upgrade Windows with only a Product Screen page but this time click the Install Windows 8.1 button.
When you double click the Windows 8.1 installer (WindowsSetupBox.exe), it obediently abstains from bothering you for a product key; it just downloads.
Once the download finishes you’ll have to wait 10 to 15 minutes for it to finish “Getting files ready”.
The installer is decompressing the downloaded archive and preparing it for use and since it’s several gigabytes in size it takes some time.
Change the installation option from Install now to Install by creating media then click Next.
You can create an ISO if you want but bootable USB drives are way cooler.
Make sure your USB stick has at least 3gigs of space, plug it in and click Next.
The installer will ask if you it’s okay to format your USB stick. Everything is getting nuked so make sure you’re okay sacrificing your thumb drive for the greater good.
It takes the installer a long, arduous, 30 minutes to finish formatting my 4GB USB drive.
Whew, now there’s an incipient rage stirring in my heart… I feel like this took way too long.
But I guess that’s my punishment for staring at boring percent values rather than nourishing my insipid afternoon with entertaining Youtube vids from David Blaine.
Anyway, when it’s done just click Finish and get ready for the last step: Hacking files.
Hacking the Installer
We’re almost there. We can’t quite use the installer yet because if you try to install Windows 8.1 from the USB stick it will invariably stall at the Product Key screen. It won’t budge until you give it a Windows 8.1 product key. Windows 8.0 keys are ignored.
In order to circumvent this vexing problem we need to create an Edition ID file in the installer that will force Windows 8.1 to use your Windows 8.0 key.
Press the Windows Key + e to pop open Windows Explorer then click on the Sources folder in your freshly formatted USB drive.
Right-click an empty spot in the folder, mouse over New and click Text Document from the context fly-out menu.
Name it ei.cfg (for Editions ID configuration) open it up and paste in the following code:
[EditionID] Core [Channel] Retail [VL] 0
If you’re using the Professional version of Windows like me then change the Core under [EditionID] to Professional.
Save the file but we’re not done yet.
Right now the file is named ei.cfg.txt but for this trick to work we need to make it just ei.cfg
So we need to view the file extensions so we can lop off the .txt part.
Press Alt + t + o (that’s an oh) and then click the View tab in the Folder Options box.
Uncheck Hide extensions for known file types and click OK to close the box.
Notice you can see the full name of the file now.
Now all you have to do is select the file, press F2 to rename it and delete the dot txt part.
Windows is going to bitch about making the file unusable just ignore that and click Yes.
You are on a roll.
Reboot the box, boot to the USB drive and install Windows normally. The little configuration hack we made earlier tells Windows to ignore the product key prompt until after the install finishes.
Then you can boldly enter your shiny Windows 8 product key and Windows 8.1 will eat it for lunch without barfing up some stupid error about going to the Microsoft Store.
The Bottom Line
Windows 8 upgrades to Windows 8.1 are free and keyless; however, installing the stand-alone version of Windows 8.1 requires a separate Windows 8.1 key.
Microsoft, in it’s infinite ingenuity, thought it was prudent to make users jump through more hoops than a lion at a circus.
Well that’s just plain stupid. The incorrigible optimism of Microsoft compels it to concoct new “solutions” for the world but I find that most of its ostensibly “bright” ideas are actually quite dim.
Here’s an idea:
Give your users a website where they can enter the Product Key and download the Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 ISO’s directly from the browser.
In closing, I believe it was William Golding of Lord of the Flies who said:
The greatest ideas are the simplest.
Perhaps Microsoft should consider the sage advice of Mr Golding…