Downgrading from Windows 8 to 7: What you need to know

It's time for some straight talk on how to downgrade from Windows 8 back to 7. Here is how and why to do it and the snags you might hit.

For all the talk about the advantages of Windows 8 over Windows 7for example, account sync, better multiple monitor support, and faster startup timessome people just can't get past Windows 8's radical shift in user interface. Some may even want to ditch Windows 8 altogether in favor of Windows 7 after spending a few days with the new OS.

In a Monday blog post, usability expert Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group explained in excruciating detail exactly why and how Windows 8 is difficult to use. It was a damning report that might have many questioning whether to take the Windows 8 plunge. The good news is you can buy a PC loaded with Windows 8 Pro, try out the new OS, and then downgrade to Windows 7. Unfortunately, however, the road back to Windows 7 can be confusing and full of twists.

Hewlett-Packard is typical: It does not support downgrades of consumer-grade Windows 8 PCs to Windows 7. But if you buy a machine loaded with Windows 8 Pro, you can make the jump. HP's policy is based on Microsoft's licensing terms, which support downgrade rights only to new PCs preloaded with Windows 8 Pro, the version of Windows designed for business.

[See related: 8 worst Windows 8 irritations (and how to fix them) ]

Unfortunately, machines loaded with Windows 8 Pro will demand a pricing premium over similarly spec'd Windows 8 systems. We ran a quick comparison survey of machines from HP, Dell, and Toshiba, and found that an upgrade to the Pro version of Windows 8 increased system prices anywhere between $35 and $100.

And even when the price delta is small enough to justify buying a Windows 8 Pro machine (complete with downgrade rights!), the downgrade process can still be difficult to figure out. When PCWorld researched this, sales and support reps for both Microsoft and major PC manufacturers told us two different stories.

A Dell representative said that to downgrade from Windows 8, you needed to buy a new, unused copy of Windows 7thus making the whole point of having downgrade rights pointless. Another representative said a Windows 7 disc image would be built into new Windows 8 Pro machines. This contradicts pretty much everything Microsoft has ever posted online about downgrade rights.

But after scouring Microsoft's online support pages, checking out real-world downgrade experiences on various forums, and then confirming the process with Microsoft's press team, we can now share the truth about how downgrades work for anyone with a PC running Windows 8 Pro.

But first: Why downgrade?

Microsoft offers a downgrade path mostly for enterprise and small business PC users who may not be ready to use the new version of Windows. Some businesses don't want to suffer the training costs associated with rolling out a new OS to employee workstations. Others are concerned about incompatibility issues with legacy software.

Consumers, on the other hand, usually want to dump Windows 8 because they simply don't like the new OS. The Nielsen Norman Group found consumers' main gripe with Windows 8 is the dual nature of the system, which combines desktop and touch-friendly environments in an oftentimes confusing melange. Not only is the user interface inconsistent, it also requires users to remember where to go for which features, and to waste time switching between interfaces.

[See Related: Windows 8 interface called 'disappointing' by usability expert ]

You need to really want it

If you already know that you're going to downgrade to Windows 7, you could save yourself some grief and buy a new Windows 7 PC. First, just because you have the right to downgrade a Windows 8 Pro machine to Windows 7 doesn't mean running the older OS on newer hardware will be problem-free. HP, for example, warns that it hasn't tested all of its Windows 8 hardware with Windows 7. So the company says there's no guarantee you'll be able to download the drivers you need to run your Windows 7 system properly.

Second, even though Microsoft and its partners are pushing Windows 8, you can still find Windows 7 machines for sale on Amazon, Best Buy, and Dell, to name a few locations. Amazon, for example, is selling a limited number of 15.6-inch Samsung laptops featuring a 2.4 GHz Intel Core i3-2370M processor, 6GB RAM, a 750 GB HDD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium for $500.

Best Buy has a 14-inch Asus laptop with a 2.3Ghz Intel Pentium processor, 4GB RAM, a 320GB HDD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium for $300. You can find comparable Windows 8 machines for around $100 to $200 more. So you will also save a bit of money if you purchase a Windows 7 machine instead of Windows 8. Also, if you buy a Windows 7 machine before January 31, 2013, you have until February 28 to purchase a Windows 8 upgrade for $15.

Here's the bottom line taking pricing and installation headaches into consideration: As long as Windows 7 is available on new PCs, buying a Windows 8 Pro machine with downgrade rights really only makes sense if you plan on returning to Windows 8 at a later date. That way, you'll have hardware built for the new version of Windows such as a convertible laptop or an all-in-one desktop PC with a touchscreen.

It's also important to note that you cannot downgrade to Windows 7 after buying a Windows 8 Pro upgrade for an old Vista or Windows XP machine. Your only possible downgrade path in that situation is to reinstall the original OS that came with your PC, as long as you still have your old system discs that is.

Next Up: What can Windows 8 Pro downgrade to?

What can Windows 8 Pro downgrade to?

If you bought a PC with Windows 8 Pro preinstalled you can downgrade to either Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business.

Also, in case you're wondering about the differences between Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, know that the Pro version offers several power user and enterprise-centric features such as BitLocker disk encryption and the ability to boot from a virtual hard drive (VHD). PCWorld detailed the features in each Windows 8 edition in April.

What do I need to downgrade?

To take advantage of your Windows 8 Pro downgrade rights, you need installation media (such as DVD or USB key) for Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business. You also need a valid product key for the older OS. Microsoft says it's fine to use a product key currently in use on another machine; you just need the old code to get past the product key request during installation.

Where can I get the installation media?

The tricky part is obtaining installation media for Windows 7 Professional and Vista Business because you are pretty much on your own for sourcing installation discs. You can try calling the manufacturer of your Windows 8 Pro PC to see if they will give you the Windows 7/Vista installation media you need, but don't get your hopes up. Posing as a regular customer looking to buy a Windows 8 Pro machine, PCWorld called the home and home office sales lines for Dell and HP. Both companies said they do not supply downgrade discs for free or at a nominal cost. Dell, however, will sell you a downloadable version of Windows 7 for about $290. You also won't get downgrade discs directly from Microsoft, and if you don't have the disc, you can't downgrade.

Again, downgrade rights are largely designed for businesses that may have Windows 7 installation discs on hand or have volume licensing agreements that provide access to older versions of Windows.

I have the right installation disc and a product key, now what?

If you have installation discs for Windows 7 Professional or Vista Business, you are almost ready to downgrade. As with any Windows installation, make sure any personal files already on your PC are backed up on a portable hard drive or an online backup solution. You should also make sure that you have Windows 8 installation media for when you want to move back to Windows 8. New PC owners should pay attention during first-time startup of a Windows 8 PC for a prompt to create system recovery discs. Otherwise, you can use Microsoft's built-in tools in Windows 8 to create a system image or recovery media .

TIP: PCWorld's sister publication Computerworld points out that you may have to disable the new Windows 8 secure boot feature in your Windows 8 machine's BIOS settings. To do this go to the Charms Bar in Windows 8 and select Settings > Change PC Settings > General > Advanced Start Up. On the next screen select Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > UEFI Firmware Settings (this option is available only on new Windows 8 machines).

Once you're set to downgrade, just pop in your Windows 7/Vista installation disc or USB drive and install the system as you normally would. When prompted for a product key, use the Windows 7/Vista key that came with the older OS' installation discs and not the newer Windows 8 key; however, you will need your Windows 8 key after Windows 7 is installed.

Post-installation

Regular online activation for Windows 7/Vista will fail because you used a product key that is already in use or was in use at a prior date on a different machine. So now you have to activate your Windows 7 downgrade installation by telephone.

Your computer should automatically alert you that online activation failed. If it doesn't you can manually activate your machine in Windows 7 by clicking Start > Control Panel. In the search box of the Control Panel window type activate and hit enter. Click the link to Activate Windows. When you try to activate online, the process will fail and you should see a window with a bunch of empty text entry boxes as well as a phone number for the Microsoft helpline.

During the helpline call you may have to speak with a customer representative. Just explain the situation and have your Windows 8 Pro product key available to prove your PC has downgrade rights. You will then be given a single-use activation code (usually it's annoyingly long) to enter into the activation window. Once the code is entered and confirmed, you're all done.

If you have more than one Windows 8 PC that you need to downgrade, Microsoft says you can just use the same Windows 7/Vista installation media on each machine.

Downgrading from Windows 8 Pro to Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business is not a simple process, but at least the option is there if you really need it.

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Tags Windows 8MicrosoftWindowssoftwareoperating systems

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