What you need to know about Windows 8.1 Preview, Build 9431

Windows 8.1 Milestone Preview (MP), due to hit Wednesday on first day of Build conference, comes with a host of gotchas

Rumors are swirling around the Internet that the final version of Windows 8.1 "Blue" Milestone Preview has already been posted online. While it's certain that several members of the press have had MP in hand for some time -- and tweets from the ground indicate that those checking in to the Build conference early may get their hands on the bits early -- Win 8.1 MP doesn't yet appear on any torrent lists or newsgroups that I can find.

If you want to go looking, Tom Warren at the Verge tweeted a few hours ago that the final Build is 9431.0.WINMAIN_BLUEMP.130615-1214.

Remarkably, Microsoft has already officially released Windows Server "Blue" -- Server 2012 R2 -- and you can download it right now from TechNet, if you have an account.

Windows Server "Blue" contains a number of changes that will almost certainly appear in Windows 8.1 "Blue." The Start button appears on the left edge of the desktop's taskbar, as widely expected. Click on the button and you go to the Metro Start screen. Right-click on the Start button and you see the "WinX" advanced user's menu that appears in Windows 8, with one interesting addition at the bottom: a "Shut down" menu entry that has two options, Shut down and restart. Thus, in Server 2012 R2 -- and presumably Win8.1 -- you will be able to restart or shut down the system from the old-fashioned desktop with a right-click and a left-click.

That's a long way from bringing back the Start menu, but it's certainly worthwhile.

All the rest of the obvious changes in Server 2012 R2 fall in line with what I anticipated three months ago, based on a leaked early build of Windows 8.1 Blue: Metro tiles of various new sizes; Metro Snap that's resizable (but still only vertical); more Metro Settings; and Internet Explorer 11. Oh, and the name "Computer" (formerly "My Computer") has morphed to "This PC." Ah, progress.

Before you charge out and install the beta, er, Milestone Preview, make sure you understand the ramifications.

It appears as if the Win8.1 beta will appear in two versions: a plain, old-fashioned ISO file; and a very different online upgrade mechanism. The ISO file should appear soon at a torrent site near you. If you want to install Win 8.1 directly in a VM, put it on a machine that has some OS other than Windows 8, or set up a dual-boot system, the ISO's for you. Installation is just like Windows 8, with a few minor changes.

The online upgrade, on the other hand, will rely on the Windows 8.1 Preview site: Go to the site with your Windows 8 machine, click on the appropriate link, wade through some caveats, install the downloaded file, and Win8.1 MP will magically appear as an update in the Windows Store. Apparently installing Win8.1 MP this way will require a Microsoft Account -- most commonly a Hotmail or Outlook.com or other Microsoft-registered email address. Go for the Windows Store upgrade, and you won't be able to use just any old local account.

My Digital Life forum member FaiKee has posted an extensive and detailed overview of the installation process, complete with what appear to be pages from a Q&A that will soon appear on the Windows 8.1 Preview page. There's no indication where he got those pages, but they certainly look like they're valid. According to FaiKee, you will be required to use a Microsoft Account if the computer being upgraded is attached to the Internet during the upgrade process. "If a customer is blocked at the Microsoft Account step you can go back one step in OOBE [English translation: the installation process] and disconnect the network connection. [The install sequence] provides an option to proceed with a local account when the PC is disconnected."

Finally, the most important warning of all: You can upgrade from Win8 to Win8.1 Blue MP and not lose anything. But when time comes for the final version of Windows 8.1, you will NOT be able to directly upgrade from the Win 8.1 MP to the final, shipping version of Win 8.1. Microsoft has made it amply clear that you'll have to re-install all of your desktop apps when making the move from Win 8.1 MP to Win 8.1 final.

Of course, Win 8.1 MP is beta software, and it'd be very foolish to stick it on your main production machine. And the usual admonitions apply about using software from sources you don't know. Until we get an SHA1 or MD5 crypto hash for the file, running just any old program that claims to be Windows 8.1 Build 9431 could be hazardous to your health.

This story, "What you need to know about Windows 8.1 Preview, Build 9431," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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