I start with a brief introduction into Window licensing and have put together my recommended mechanisms for downloading Windows installation media and activating your product depending on your license type.
There are some more in depth notes which explain in more detail how to determine your license type and explain how the activation mechanisms and if necessary workarounds work.
For all intents and purposes Windows 8.0 Service Pack 1 is Windows 8.1 so anything mentioned below that applies to Windows 8.1 also applies to Windows 8.0 unless specifically differentiated.
The older revision of this page got extremely popular due to previous issues where I compiled a working convoluted set of workarounds that are no longer necessary, Microsoft have simplified their Windows Deployment and hence made installation of Windows 8.1 far easier.
Brief Introduction – Windows Licensing
Microsoft Windows 8.1 is sold via many different channels and there are a number of different activation mechanisms for Windows 8.1 depending on the type of license you are utilising.
There are 5 different license types:
- Major OEM License – Windows came licensed with your Dell, HP, …
- Retail License – You Bought a Full Windows 8.1 License
- Retail “Upgrade Only” License – You Bought a Full Windows 8.0 Upgrade License
- OEM System Builder License – You Bought a Windows OEM System Builders License
- Volume License – You are using your organisations Volume Licensing and you should contact your IT department.
In Depth – Windows Licensing
- Major OEM License
- Retail License and Retail “Upgrade Only” License
- OEM System Builder License
- Volume License
Major OEM License
The Windows 8.1 OEM license should be eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10 for a promotional period of 1 year after its final release.
Because no installation media is provided for Windows 8.1 RT (a crippled version of Windows 8.1 essentially equivalent in functionality to Windows Phone) and Windows 8.1 with Bing or Windows 8.1 SL with Bing. I do not recommend purchase of any of these devices.
The Microsoft Windows 8.1 OEM licenses uses OEM 3.0 system locked preinstallation keys for activation. OEM 3.0 SLP activation inputs a unique 25 digit product key into the systems UEFI BIOS and hence has no need for a COA which have been removed due to piracy issues and due to the multiple problems users had when they peeled off or faded.
This part mainly concerns OEM product keys as there are more Editions and the product key (SLP key) resides in the UEFI BIOS. Many that will advise you on Windows installation on Microsoft Answers will say the choice is very easy and that there are only two "Editions" to choose from in accordance to your sticker and are wrong… there are actually 8 OEM editions users have made me aware of…
Unfortunately there is no way for the user to distinguish between some of these Editions and it should be stressed that are not interchangeable:
Windows 8.1 (Core/Home) ≠ Windows 8.1 N (Core/Home) ≠ Windows 8.1 SL (Core/Home) ≠ Windows 8.1 with Bing ≠ Windows 8.1 with Bing SL ≠ Windows 8.1 Professional ≠ Windows 8.1 Professional N
If you have this sticker which says "Windows 8" you likely have one of the following three editions:
- Windows 8.1 Most Common
- Windows 8.1 Single Language Common
- Windows 8.1 N Rare
In the vast majority of cases the "Home Edition" is "Windows 8.1" or "Windows 8.1 Single Language". If your system has this sticker try downloading these two .isos and if one of the .isos takes you to the license agreement during installation you have the correct "Edition".
The "N" Editions are rare so try these only if the regular .isos don't work.
Home with Bing Editions
I had a look at a few shops BestBuy, PC World, Staples in the US, CA and in the UK. I checked the sticker at the base of the system and compared this with the Edition in system properties. I was looking in particular for a difference in the with Bing systems. Although all the systems have a sticker which just says "Windows 8" similar to the other 3 Editions which the Media Creation Tool Supports it was a different sticker.
If you have this sticker which looks like the following you likely have one of the with Bing Editions which are unfortunately not supported by the Microsoft Windows 8.1 Media Creation Tool:
- Windows 8.1 with Bing Most Common
- Windows 8.1 Single Language with Bing Common
If you have this sticker you likely have one of the following 2 editions:
- Windows 8.1 Pro Most Common
- Windows 8.1 ProN Rare
In the vast majority of cases the "Professional Edition" is "Windows 8.1 Pro". If your system has this sticker try downloading this .iso and if the .iso takes you to the license agreement during installation you have the correct "Edition".
The "N" Editions are rare so try these only if the regular .isos don't work.
If you have this sticker you have Windows RT:
A Windows RT device has hardware in particular a processor that is non-Intel/AMD using instead Arm processors. These devices were made to compete with Chrome Books as budget devices and prolonged battery life.
However in reality Arm processors do not scratch the potential of Intel/AMD processors because of the magnitude of third party applications written using either the Intel x86 or AMD x64 architectures (Intel and AMD have an agreement – Intel use AMD x64 and AMD use Intel x86).
These means the overwhelming majority of third party applications will run fine on Windows 8 but not on Windows RT. This gives Windows RT essentially the capabilities of Windows Phone…
This Edition was terribly marketed and sold often by shops as Windows 8. As a consequence of being sold and marketed as a broken variant of Windows 8 with the end user seeing it as a device with Windows 8 but with nothing working, Windows RT was highly unpopular. In turn as it was unpopular, developers never felt the urge to write programs which would run on Windows RT therefore making it redundant.
Windows RT is unfortunately unsupported by the Windows 8.1 Media Creation Tool and you have to procure installation media from Dell.
Determining Edition from System
If your system is working you can determine your Windows Edition and the easiest way of determining what edition your product key is for is by right clicking the start button (or pressing [Windows] and [x]) and then selecting system:
Your Windows 8.1 Edition will be listed at the top.
Determining your UEFI OEM SLP Product Key
The product key can be obtained using RWEverything but this is unecessary if the correct installation .iso is utilised from the Windows 8.1 Media Creation utility:
- RW-Everything: http://rweverything.com/download/
To find out the OEM BIOS Embedded System locked Product Key select ACPI Tables and the MSDM tab, copy down your product key.
Note RW-Everything is the preferred utility to obtain your BIOS embedded product key because it will give you the product key regardless what version of Windows is installed. Other utilities can give bogus keys from the Windows registry.
For example this can be important if you have downgraded to Windows 7 and wish to migrate to Windows 8.1.
Legacy Issues with Installation Media
Important note, in the past Microsoft had a substandard deployment of both Windows 8.0 and 8.1 but listened to user feedback. Older installation media had the following problems and even if you have procured them from Dell I recommend never using them:
- Discrimination between Windows 8.0 and Windows 8.1 Product Keys
- Windows 8.1 media rejected 8.0 keys
- Windows 8.0 media rejected 8.1 keys
- Could be bypassed by use of Generic Keys and Change Key after installation.
- Windows 8.0 involved a convoluted forced upgrade to Windows 8.1 via the Microsoft Store. This was problematic at best. The download is practically the same size as the full .iso.
- Windows 8.1 media with this fault did not contain update 1. The update to update 1 was also problematic.
Use the Windows 8.1 Media Creation Utility to get Windows 8.1 with Update 1 Media.
Retail and Retail Upgrade
The Windows 8.1 Retail licenses should be eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10 for a promotional period of 1 year after its final release. This is not applicable to Vista or XP licenses.
If you purchased Windows separately from your computer:
- Windows 8.0 is "Upgrade Only"
- Windows 8.1 is "Full"
However Windows 8.0 → Windows 8.1.
These licenses will come with a unique 25 digit product key affixed to the box with the installation media or were sent to you via email. Its recommended to email yourself a copy of the 25 digit product key in case you misplace the boxed media.
The Full version of the license can be installed and transferred from one computer to the other without any problems provided that it is only installed on one computer at a time.
“Upgrade Only” installation media as the name suggests only lets you install on top of an old Windows version. There are two main problems with this:
- This method of installation always leads to detrimental performance
- Many users have lost their installation media for their old license or didn’t get installation media for their old license if its OEM.
- The OEM will be unable to ship installation media for the original Windows XP license as its reached End of Life.
- The cost of procuring media for an out of Windows Vista system is higher than a new license.
It is therefore recommended you toss any Windows 8.0 installation DVDs in the bin. You may download a Windows 8.1 .iso using the Windows 8.1 media Creation Tool and this does not discriminate between Windows 8.0 and 8.1.
For the Retail Full licenses input your product key during installation and it should automatically activate online.
The Retail license is supported by Microsoft and not Dell. Dell may therefore not provide drivers for systems users have upgraded themselves but Windows 7 drivers will suffice in most cases. I have some additional notes mentioned here regarding system drivers:
Windows 8.1 retail can be evaluated by use of generic product keys:
- Core/Home N=6NPQ8-PK64X-W4WMM-MF84V-RGB89
- Core/Home Single Language=Y9NXP-XT8MV-PT9TG-97CT3-9D6TC
- Professional N=JRBBN-4Q997-H4RM2-H3B7W-Q68KC
- Professional with Media Centre=GBFNG-2X3TC-8R27F-RMKYB-JK7QT
OEM System Builder License
This is easily the most understood license because Microsoft’s intended use of the license was different to the bulk number of cases where the license was used.
This license is designed for smaller system builders to sell e.g. for local computer shops to purchase that build custom systems and sell them on to the end user with preinstalled Windows and installation media. Because such shops only sell a low volume of systems (compared to Dell or HP) there is no custom BIOS to include the markers for OEM SLP activation. The computer shop are meant to be the ones to support the license and since they can only support their own configuration there is the same OEM inability to transfer the license; it is tied to the original mainboard. The installation and activation for this license type is therefore more similar to a retail license. Phone activation may be required if Retail media is used for installation however.
In reality however it is seen by the end user as a cheap “Retail” license and users purchased it as it was significantly cheaper than the Retail Full or Retail “Upgrade Only” licenses. Experienced end users accepted that they got the license for cheaper and their only limitation was that they couldn’t transfer the license or get Microsoft support. Naturally less experienced users also followed this trend and didn’t understand the limitations.
The Volume License is essentially a volume “Upgrade Only” License although it can be utilised for clean installation.
The point is organisations purchase maybe >25 or more systems with OEM licenses from Dell. IT departments will struggle deploying custom Windows installations on possibility 100’s or 1000’s of systems with OEM licenses.
The Volume License gives them the flexibility to deploy Windows throughout their entire organisation without having to waste time phoning Microsoft to activate every system or separately clean install each system with a Dell Windows 7 OEM Reinstallation DVD.
If you are the end user, you likely have a dedicated IT department handling this. If you are the dedicated IT department and want to know more about it, then contact Microsoft who will give you a custom quote: