Moving up to Windows 8.1 without an MS account

Susan Bradley

Microsoft makes it difficult — but not impossible — to run Windows 8.1 without a Microsoft account.

There are ways around Redmond’s demands, but only if you know the right path. Plus, solving other problems with the Win8.1 upgrade.

As anyone who has upgraded to Windows 8 — and now Windows 8.1 — knows, Microsoft really wants you to have a Microsoft account. There are, of course, good reasons to sign in to Windows 8/8.1 with a Microsoft account. It can, for example, automatically sign you in to SkyDrive, Mail, the Windows Store, and other online accounts. And there are less obvious but still important reasons.

For example, I recently had to refresh a Dell tablet running Windows 8.1 RT. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the machine had Windows’ BitLocker encryption enabled. I also didn’t know initially that Microsoft had automatically saved the BitLocker key to SkyDrive. Simply signing in with my Microsoft account let me safely refresh the system and keep all my files. I did not have to disable BitLocker, as recommended in various blogs such as Felipe Binotto’s post, “Refreshing a BitLocker enabled computer.”

On the other hand, there are times when you want to run Windows without a Microsoft account — for example, when you want to ensure that users save their files locally or limit access to cloud-based services. You might also have concerns about privacy. When you sign in with an MS account, Microsoft can track searches on your PC. (See the section, “Some Windows 8.1 ‘features’ best avoided,” in the Sept. 19 Top Story.)

For whatever reason, you can create a local account that doesn’t require an MS account username and password.

In Windows 8, Microsoft made the process of setting up and using local accounts somewhat obtuse and complicated. It’s especially confusing when upgrading from Win8 to Version 8.1; you must agree to set up an MS account, even though you want to keep your existing local account.

Upgrading to Win8.1 without an MS account

Just getting the Windows 8.1 upgrade can be daunting. To start, you must have most — if not all — Windows 8 updates installed before Win8.1 is offered in the Windows Store. (Upgrading to Win8.1 via the Windows Store is primarily for OEM systems and retail versions of Windows 8. If you acquired Win8 through MSDN or TechNet, you can get the upgrade either through the Store or as an ISO, depending on the version of Windows 8 you’re using for testing.) On my systems, I had to add the otherwise optional rollup update, KB 2883201.

Note: If you set Windows 8 to automatically sign you in (as detailed in a How-To Geek post), I recommend you disable this option before starting the Win8.1 upgrade process. I know of one Windows user who had auto sign-in turned on and ended up locked out of his admin account after upgrading to Win8.1.

Once the Win8.1 update shows up in the Windows Store (see Figure 1), the actual upgrade process is mostly automatic. For the most part, you simply accept the update and let it download. When that’s done, the installer will warn you that it needs to reboot your system. A Microsoft online tutorial provides more details on the process. (Among other things, it recommends turning off your anti-malware app during the upgrade process.)

Windows 8.1 in Store

Figure 1. The Windows 8.1 upgrade will show up in the Windows Store only when your system is ready for it.

After the restart, the Win8.1 installer asks whether you want to Use express settings or Customize your settings. I recommend that you click Customize and review your options.

Those options start by asking whether you’re connected to a home or work network or to a public network. (I’ll assume you’re upgrading a home/work system.) Click Yes.

Next, you’ll be asked to choose how Windows should handle updates for Windows and applications. In the installer’s Metro interface, your choices are “Automatically install important and recommended updates,” “Automatically install important updates,” or “Don’t set up Windows Update.” Assuming you want to keep the preferred “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them” option you’ve set in Windows 8, select the last option — Don’t set up Windows Update. For more privacy, I also recommend keeping Internet Explorer’s SmartScreen filter and Do Not Track option turned on.

Another set of questions determines how much information Windows can send to Microsoft — such as system errors and how you work with your PC. Among other things, Microsoft uses this data to improve future versions of Windows. It’s your call, but if you don’t participate, Microsoft has to base its decisions on a smaller pool of Windows users. The company states that it does not collect personal information — it’s simply analyzing patterns of Windows use.

Finally, you have the option of choosing what personal information is used by Microsoft and third parties. That information includes your name, account picture, advertising ID (bet you didn’t know you have an ad ID), browsing history, and location.

Now comes the confusing part. The installer will ask you to Sign in to your Microsoft account. If you’re using a local account, enter your username and password.

Next, the installer really wants you to set up a Microsoft account and connect it to your existing local account. Whether you set up a new MS account or continue using your local account, you must click the Create a new account link, shown in Figure 2. (The “Don’t have an account?” link simply takes you to an MS account pitch.)

Create a new account

Figure 2. If you want to use your existing local account, you must still click the Create a new account link, highlighted in yellow.

If you want to stick with your local account, look for and click Continue using my existing account at the bottom of the Create a Microsoft account window (see Figure 3).

Retain local account

Figure 3. To retain your local account, look for the Continue using my existing account link.

I know several Windows 8.1 upgraders who have been caught by this convoluted process. I’m still investigating how to get one user back into his local account; his original password no longer works.

Once you’ve completed the sign-in account section, the installer loads apps you purchased through the Windows Store and displays the Windows 8.1 Start screen. Your upgrade is now complete.

Because you chose Don’t set up Windows Update during the Win8.1 installation process, you should now open the traditional Windows Control Panel and select Windows Update. Next, click the Change settings link and confirm that you’ve selected Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them or Download updates but let me choose whether to install them. Either choice still gives you control over Windows updates.

A few bumps on the road to Windows 8.1

As mentioned above, Microsoft recommends disabling anti-malware apps during the upgrade process. I take that a step further. There are reports that some upgraders who had McAfee Antivirus installed on their systems could not complete the upgrade to Win8.1. As a precaution, I recommend temporarily removing all third-party AV antivirus software — even if you know it supports Windows 8.1.

A few unlucky souls have run into an unanticipated problem with the Win8.1 update. Although their PCs had no difficulty running 64-bit Windows 8, upgrading to 64-bit Win8.1 failed. Apparently, some older CPUs are no longer supported by Microsoft. For example, a Neowin blog thread notes Win8.1 incompatibilities with some classic AMD processors.

The Win8.1 system requirements page states: “To install a 64-bit OS on a 64-bit PC, your processor needs to support CMPXCHG16b, PrefetchW, and LAHF/SAHF.” If your CPU is among those not supported by Win8.1, Microsoft recommends upgrading to a new PC. But you might also try downgrading to the 32-bit version of the OS (which will, of course, force you to forego the extra RAM support provided by the 64-bit architecture).

Users who’ve moved their data folders from Windows’ default location (typically from the C: partition; more info) will also be unable to complete a Win8.1 upgrade. If you’ve placed your data on another partition to increase usable disk space, the upgrade process will stop and display the message, “Sorry, it looks like this PC can’t run Windows 8.1.” This problem generated a slew of complaints and comments in a Microsoft Community forum. At this time, the only solution is to move your folders back to the default locations and try again.

If you receive the error message shown in Figure 4, “Something happened and the install of Windows 8.1 can’t be completed,” and clicking Try again doesn’t help, a Microsoft TechNet blog post might provide a solution: resetting Windows Update so it downloads a new copy of the Win8.1 installation files.

Win8.1 upgrade error

Figure 4. Unlucky Win8.1 upgraders could run into various error messages such as this one.

Other upgrading issues are noted in Microsoft Community forums. For example, one post discusses the need to update to the latest drivers; another post recommends running Windows’ System File Checker (command sfc/scannow) to fix corrupted system files.

Your Windows future is tied to the Store

Some Windows users might assume that Microsoft will offer the Win8.1 upgrade as a service pack through Windows Update, bypassing the Windows Store. For OEM and retail versions of Windows, that’s not going to happen. For the foreseeable future, the Windows Store is the only way to upgrade to Version 8.1.

Businesses that use volume licensing will have to acquire Windows 8.1 Enterprise through Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Service Center, as noted in a Windows Springboard Series Blog post. The post lists several techniques for upgrading current corporate Win8 systems.

Officially, Microsoft says there’ll be no ISO version of the Win8.1 update for general distribution. But in a Microsoft Community post, you’ll find a back-door approach for acquiring and loading Win8.1 from an ISO file.

Windows 8 is on a two-year countdown

If at this point you’re dubious about moving to Windows 8.1, keep in mind that you have two years to install the upgrade. According to Microsoft’s Win8 product lifecycle page, “Windows 8.1 will remain under the same lifecycle policy as Windows 8 with support ending 1/10/2023. Windows 8 customers will have 24 months to move to Windows 8.1 after the General Availability of the Windows 8.1 update in order to remain supported.”

In other words, upgrading to Windows 8.1 does not reset the MS support clock. And if you haven’t updated to Version 8.1 by Nov. 2015, you will officially no longer have support from Microsoft. (You could, I suppose, gamble that Windows 9x will be out by that time, allowing you to bypass Version 8.1 altogether.)

Bottom line: You should upgrade, but you have the time to do so slowly and carefully, ensuring your PC is ready. Again, that could include disabling or uninstalling AV apps. It could also include removing system cleaners such as TuneUp and CCleaner and/or uninstalling any other similar type of third-party software that might interfere with the upgrade installation.

If Win8.1 still won’t load, dig out the upgrade log files (as described in a German blog translated into English) and post them to the Windows Secrets Lounge, using the link below. We’ll see whether we can find a solution.

We’re taking an entirely new road — and facing new challenges — in our journey with Windows. Tread carefully.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-11-07:

Susan Bradley

About Susan Bradley

Susan Bradley is a Small Business Server and Security MVP, a title awarded by Microsoft to independent experts who do not work for the company. She's also a partner in a California CPA firm.