Upgrading to 8.1: Under the Surface

I’ve been having quite the time of it for the last couple of days, attempting to get my Surface Pro upgraded to Windows 8.1.  Things were complicated by the fact that I had installed the 8.1 Preview on it (which broke my live tiles, not delighting this customer). Turns out you can’t just do an upgrade if you have the preview version. In fact, I couldn’t even try that, because the Windows 8.1 upgrade didn’t appear in the Windows Store on my Pro. 

I thought maybe rolling back to Windows 8 by doing a PC refresh would fix that. I ran the refresh (which, by the way, was quick and easy). The Preview watermark disappeared from the desktop, the System info said I was running plain old Windows 8, and by all appearances it worked fine. Except that Windows 8 still didn’t appear in the Store. I researched on the web, found an article that purported to have a link to the Windows 8.1 download from Verge for those who couldn’t find it in the Store – but that link was a “Page Not Found.”  My guess is that Microsoft made them take it down, but I don’t know. I read that you have to have all updates installed before you can install 8.1. I had Auto Update enabled, but I scanned for updates anyway, and it found a firmware update and installed it.  Rebooted after trying each new thing. None of it helped; 8.1 was still nowhere to be found.

Anyway, I was feeling pretty stuck and frustrated, until my friend Donovan Colbert shared his chat with a Surface support team member at Microsoft with the unlikely name of Conan. Turns out the solution to my problem was two-fold: 1) All the updates hadn’t installed when I ran Windows Update; you need to check again after the installation to make sure there are none left, and 2) if Windows 8.1 still doesn’t appear in the Store (and it didn’t), you can get to it by running the command ms-windows-store:windowsupdate.  That worked, and after the slowest download ever (Conan had mentioned that the Microsoft servers were getting hit hard since it was the second day after the Windows 8.1 release), I was finally able to install the OS update on my Surface Pro. Donovan is going to be writing an article for TechRepublic that goes into detail about his experience, and I’ll add the link here when it’s published.

Meanwhile, in the process of reinstalling programs, I came across another interesting little secret tip. When I tried to install a downloaded ISO of Office 2013, I got a message that said, “Sorry, there was a problem mounting the file.” Well, that’s really informative. I thought maybe the download was corrupt, and downloaded it again (which took forever each time) but got the same error.  A deeper web search came up with the solution – one I would not have guessed in a million years. Someone on one of the forums explained that Windows 8 has a problem mounting ISOs if you have an SD card mounted, and said you need to rename the SD card’s drive letter to a letter high in the alphabet.

I was dubious, but figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. I went into Disk Manager and changed the drive letter for the microSD card from E to Z; that’s about as high in the alphabet as you can go. Went back to my Office setup file (didn’t even reboot) and lo and behold – now it ran just fine and my Surface Pro has Office, so I’m in business.

Interestingly, this morning, while researching a completely different issue, I ran across a message on the Microsoft community web page announcing that the Windows 8.1 update for RT has been removed due to “a situation affecting a limited number of users.” (See screenshot).

problem mounting file

I wonder if it was this “Windows isn’t in the Store” problem that I and several others I’ve talked to have been having. Running that command is easy for any power user, but not so much for the not-so-tech-savvy consumers who make up the bulk of the market that the RT version of Surface is aimed at.

In any event, I’m glad the problems were relatively simple to fix (once you know the secrets) but the update experience really ought to be smoother than this.  One could argue that the average consumer wouldn’t have installed the Preview, and that might have prevented this situation. However, I know quite a few people who don’t really know much about technology but will try out every beta or preview they come across, just because they can’t stand not having the latest and greatest.

Kudos to Conan and Microsoft Support for knowing exactly what to do (and Microsoft did update their online instructions for updating the Preview to the Windows 8.1 final release to include the Run command) but consumers see it as a failure of the product if they have to call the support line to get it to work. Perhaps a little more testing before release would have been a good thing.


deb@shinder.net    www.debshinder.com

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Ten-year Microsoft MVP. More about me: www.debshinder.com
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