Had enough of our Windows 8 Consumer Preview coverage, and want to boldly install the downloadable public beta for yourself? Believe it or not, it's a pretty easy thing to do. You don't need to look up an arcane command to access your BIOS, you don't need to partition a drive, and you don't need a blank DVD, a second PC or even a USB thumbdrive... unless that's how you roll. With just an internet connection, you can perform the entire operation on any existing Windows 7 machine without any outside help, just so long as it fulfills the minimum requirements.
We've installed the new Windows 8 Consumer Preview on just about every type of machine and in every possible combination, and we agree with Microsoft that the best way to go about getting the beta onto your computer is to use the setup tool. The tool will hold your hand while it downloads the necessary files, checks the integrity of those files, and formats your install media. Here's some step-by-step instructions (with pictures):
- Go to Microsoft's site and click "Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview." A small EXE file will be saved to your downloads folder.
- Open the downloaded file, and the setup tool will begin.
- The tool will start by checking to see that software on your computer is compatible with the Consumer Preview. It will take a few minutes for the check to complete.
- Once it's completed, the tool will tell you if it expects any software issues. If you're installing on a new partition, it won't matter if there are any incompatibilities, so long as you meet the minimum hardware requirements, but if you're going to do an in-place upgrade, you might want to take note. Click next.
- The tool will say that it's ready to download Windows, and it will grab a product key. Be sure to write it down somewhere just in case you need it later. Click next.
- The Consumer Preview will now be downloaded to your computer. On our speedy office connection, the download took us less than ten minutes to complete. You can also click the pause bottom in the bottom right corner if you want to take a break from downloading.
- You're just about ready to install. Before we continue, it's time to make a difficult decision. Skip down to "Upgrade, replace, or dual boot?" below.
If you're more comfortable with disk images than a dedicated install tool, Microsoft's got you covered there, too: you'll find 32-bit and 64-bit ISOs in five different languages right here, though you'll need to set aside roughly 3.3GB (for 64-bit) or 2.5GB (for 32-bit) for the ISO file before you burn it to a DVD or USB thumbdrive.
- Download your ISO of choice from this link.
- Find a 4GB (or greater) USB thumbdrive, or a DVD burner and blank DVD disc.
- Burn — don't copy — the ISO to your media of choice. Go to step 4 for USB, or skip to step 5 for the optical drive.
- For USB, since you won't have Microsoft's handy setup tool, you'll need an app that can create bootable thumbdrives. Microsoft's got a tool that should do the trick for you, and you can download it right here.
- For DVD, if you're running Windows 7, it's as easy as using the built-in Disk Image Burner. Just right-click on the ISO and select "Burn disc image." Third-party ISO burning software should also do the trick.
- Pull your freshly burned media out of your machine, and pop it back in.
Upgrade, replace, or dual-boot?
Once you run the installer, you've got an important decision to make. Will you format your drive, dual-boot from a new partition, or install Windows 8 as an upgrade over the existing OS? As long as you're not risking your daily driver, the last choice is actually pretty painless, and is by far the easiest way to get Windows 8 up and running.
If you're using the Setup Tool, simply choose Install Now and follow the prompts. If you're installing from ISO, just run the setup.exe file on the disk you burned from within your existing Windows OS. Choose to keep "Windows settings, personal files, and apps" when prompted if you want to retain most of your Windows 7 settings.
After a whole host of reboots and a few simple pages of setting sliders that let you determine just how much control you want to let Microsoft have over your privacy and Windows experience, you'll be booted into an operating system that (underneath the funky new Metro UI) looks much like the one you left behind. You're done!
You'll have a fairly hefty Windows.old directory taking up gigabytes of storage in your system (you can remove it from the Disk Cleanup utility) but don't be fooled: you won't be able to downgrade back to your previous OS without a full reinstall.
Here's where things get tricky, but also quite useful: if you partition your drive, you can have both Windows 7 and Windows 8 installed on the same disk, and pick which one you want to use every time you boot up the system. Of course, you'll want to be careful not to erase existing partitions.
From the Setup Tool:
- Select "Install on another partition," and click next.
- Now you'll need to chose if you want to install using a 3GB or greater USB flash drive or a DVD. We're going to use a flash drive, so select that option, plug in your drive, and click next.
- Now you'll get to choose which flash drive you want to use. Make sure you've backed up anything on your flash drive that you need (everything will be deleted during the installation process), select which one you'd like to use, click next, and confirm that you want to continue by clicking "yes".
- The setup tool will now format your USB flash drive. It'll take a few minutes to complete, and once it's done, click "finish," and the setup will close.
- Now we need to make a new partition on your computer's hard drive to install Windows 8 to. Press the Start button and search for "partition." Click the "Create and format hard disk partitions" option, and Windows' built-in disk management tool will open.
- This interface will show you all available drives and partitions on your computer. Usually you want to make a partition from your C drive if you're on a laptop and only have one drive. Right click the C drive and click "shrink volume."
- It will take a minute to scan your drive, and then you'll be able to choose how much you want to shink the partition. However much space you shrink is how much we're going to be using for Windows 8, so we'd recommend quite a bit, but particularly if you want to store any files on your Windows 8 partition. The size is read out in MB, so if you want to make a 150GB partition, enter 150000 in the box. Once you've done that, click shrink.
- Once that's finished, you'll see that your C drive is now smaller in size, and that you now have "unallocated" space on your drive. Right click the unallocated part, and click "new simple volume."
- A new setup tool will open to help you format the new partition. Click next, and then choose how large you want the partition to be (typically you'd leave this at default, the entire size of the unallocated space), and then click next.
- Now you'll assign a drive letter (again, you'd usually leave this unchanged), and then click next. At the next screen are some formatting options. The only thing you want to change here — unless you know what you're doing — is the volume label. Rename it something that you'll recognize, like "win8." Once you do that, click next.
- The formatting wizard will ask you to confirm your changes, and then you'll see that you now have two large formatted partitions on your drive. Now that we're finished partitioning the drive, we're ready to install Windows 8.
- Shut down your computer, turn it back on, and see what key it tells you to press to enter the BIOS or choose startup options. On our HP it told us to press the escape key, which we did, and then we selected "boot device options." From there we chose to boot from our USB flash drive. It's different on every PC, but the options should be similarly named.
- The Windows 8 setup will load (it takes just a minute) and ask you to select your language, time, and keyboard language options. Click next.
- Click "Install Now."
- Remember that product key you wrote down earlier? Grab that scrap of paper and punch in the numbers and letters. Then click next.
- Now you'll be asked to accept the license terms. Do so, and click next.
- The setup will now ask you what kind of installation we want. We're going to install Windows 8 on a new partition, so click "Custom."
- You'll be asked where you'd like to install Windows. You want to find the partition that we made earlier and select it. Click next.
- Finally, Windows 8 will start installing on your computer. The system will restart several times during this process — you'll notice when it does that a new boot screen shows up that lets you choose between your Windows 7 and Windows 8 partitions. Don't click anything for now — just let the installation run its course. Once we've got the OS set up, you'll be presented with this option every time you restart your computer: stable and boring Windows 7 or cutting-edge Windows 8 beta?
- You'll know you're finished when your computer waits at a screen called "Personalize." It'll ask you to choose your background color and give your PC a name. From here it's all smooth sailing — you'll connect to a wireless network, change some sharing, customization, and update settings, and you'll sign in with a Microsoft account (the new name for Windows Live accounts). Eventually you'll see the new Metro start screen, and you're ready to start enjoying the Consumer Preview.
From the ISO:
- Since you've already got a ready-made install disc, all you need to do is partition the drive, so follow steps 5-20 above with one minor deviation:
- When you get to the CD-key prompt in step 15, simply use this pre-approved Microsoft one: NF32V-Q9P3W-7DR7Y-JGWRW-JFCK8
- Enjoy a first-hand look at Windows 8!