Setup is something that gets a lot of attention from us in any Windows release. It needs to just work reliably across a huge number of variations of hardware and software. This is true whether you are upgrading your own laptop, or you’re an IT pro who is migrating 10,000 desktops in an enterprise using broad deployment tools. For Windows 7 our main focus was on improving successful install rates, and we did a lot of work to improve reliability and deal with many tough (but relatively rare) cases that had caused problems in setting up earlier versions of Windows. This work gave Windows 7 a more reliable setup experience than in any previous Windows release, as measured by lab testing, customer support incidents, and setup telemetry.

For Windows 8, our goal was to continue to improve reliability while also improving the installation experience and raw performance. Not only did we want it to be rock solid, but also faster and easier to use.

A big challenge

Although millions of people choose to upgrade their existing PCs, most people choose to get a new version of Windows preinstalled on a new PC. In the past that often had to do with increasing system requirements in new Windows releases, and the need to purchase new PCs with more power to run the new version. With Windows 7 however, we made a commitment to work on many more existing PCs by keeping system requirements low and maintaining compatibility. We’ve continued that commitment with Windows 8, so many of you with existing PCs can simply upgrade. Looking just at Windows 7 customers, there are currently more than 450 million PCs that will be able to run Windows 8, but we expect that many systems running Windows Vista and even Windows XP will also be eligible.

Support for these PCs running different Windows versions is a big challenge in terms of testing all possible upgrade paths, languages, service packs, architectures, and editions. When you think about it, it is a rather remarkable achievement that hardware designed for one OS can be supported on an OS that did not exist when the hardware was created, especially considering that connecting hardware to software is a fundamental role played by the OS.

There are always complexities involving hardware support. Sometimes PCs are equipped with peripherals that require updated drivers for Windows 8, and in other cases, for any number of reasons, a PC maker decides that a particular model or configuration is not supported on a new version of Windows. There are also complexities in getting software to work seamlessly upon upgrade, particularly utilities that hook into the lowest levels of Windows such as anti-virus, disk format and defrag, or virtualization. While we have a massive test and ecosystem effort, ultimately the final say on support on a new version of Windows for a PC, peripheral, or software package is determined by the maker of that product. Our commitment to keeping things running and bringing forward software is industry leading and continues with Windows 8. At one recent team meeting, a member of our team showed Windows 8 running Excel version 3.0, which is the 16-bit version of Excel from 1990!

Perceived as “difficult”

During planning for Windows 8, we wanted to hear from customers who chose not to upgrade to Windows 7 even though their PCs would run it. In 2010 we commissioned a study of how people make PC purchase decisions, and talked to customers in three global markets to find out more. While the list of reasons as to why a customer chose not to upgrade varied by market, we have received notable feedback that upgrading the PC was perceived as difficult. So even though many customers wanted to upgrade, the current setup experience might be something that just wasn’t easy enough to make them feel confident in doing so.

Different customer needs

Hearing that some customers think it is too difficult really highlights the fact that we have many different customer needs we need to fulfill with setup. Most customers who buy a Windows upgrade from a retailer just want it to be fast and easy, but a few also want to be able to do some more complex things, such as setting up in a multi-boot configuration. And of course, we also have the IT Pro customers, who need to take full control over configurations, install from network as well as media, and add customizations to the setup image. The advanced user’s needs are a lot like those of the IT Pro, both because they require more fine-tuned control and because it’s hard for us to predict exactly which controls they may want to manipulate. For this reason, we have not created a “super advanced setup” mode, but we encourage people who want to create unattended setup configurations for home or work to use our standalone deployment tools. In Windows 7, we provided a Windows Automated Installation Kit, and in Windows 8 we have enhanced that with additional tools in the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit, which is available for download to MSDN subscribers.

For this post, I’ll talk mostly about the interactive GUI setup experiences, since that’s where we have the most changes. We sought to maintain very high backwards compatibility with existing unattended installation configurations that IT Pros or advanced users have spent time on for Windows 7, so you can expect those to work consistently for Windows 8 as well, without having to start over. So rest assured that your custom deployments continue to be fully supported as before

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