How to Avoid or Fix Windows 8.1 Upgrade Problems on Surface Tablets

As is too often the case with OS upgrades, things can go wrong.

So, it’s no surprise that there have been some folks who have had Windows upgrade problems. For example, some are reporting blue screens after the upgrade in the Microsoft Forums.

Fortunately for us Surface owners, it seems that there have been very few issues that have been affecting Surface Pro or Surface RT tablets. That doesn’t mean, however, that something couldn’t go wrong.

So, in this post, I’m going to tell you what steps you should take to make sure that you can smoothly upgrade your Surface RT/Pro to Windows 8.1. And if the worse happens, recover from a failed upgrade.

Let’s get started…

Avoid Windows 8.1 Upgrade Problems: Before you Begin

First thing first; ALWAYS protect yourself and create a copy of your Recovery Image on a USB stick. Fortunately, you know how to do that from my earlier post on Freeing up space on your Surface. Just follow the directions from that post and you will have a bootable recovery image available to you just in case the upgrade goes all pear-shaped and your Surface bricks.

 Note: If you don’t want to delete the recovery partition from your Surfaces’ built-in drive, you can simply skip the last 4 steps that talk about deleting the local recovery partition. The rest of the steps are still the same.

Alternatively, if you’re upgrading a Surface Pro, you can make a system image instead of a Recovery Image. This is a “full backup” of your Surface using the Windows 7 File Recovery tool; whereas the Recovery Image will just let you reload your Surface back to the factory install of Windows 8.0.

Unfortunately, the system image won’t work on a Surface RT. But for the Surface Pro here’s a write-up from Tech Republic on how to do it; if you want to go that route to make your backup. Since I want a procedure that works for both Surface Pro and RT tablets, I’m going to focus on the recovery image route for these instructions.

In addition to making a backup, you should also copy all of your data to a separate USB device (don’t use the one you just created your recovery image on) and/or SkyDrive, Dropbox, etc. This way, if the upgrade to 8.1 is successful but your data is missing, you can still get it back easily.

Finally, you might also want to make a list of the applications you have on your Surface and make sure you have installation media handy because you may have to re-install some of them.This is especially true if you’re running a Surface RT or installed the 8.1 preview version as both of them require you to re-install many of the apps after the upgrade.

Here’s a handy little pre-install checklist to help you

  • Backup Documents
  • Backup Music
  • Backup Videos
  • Backup Pictures
  • Backup Favorites (a lot of people forget these, gotta have your bookmarks)
  • Create a System Image or Recovery Image USB Stick
  • Make a list of all installed software (it’s easier than trying to remember what was installed after the fact)

Once you’re confident you have everything, go ahead and start the upgrade.

Windows 8.1 Upgrade Problems: Upgrade Walk-through

The Windows 8.1 upgrade is pretty straight forward. Just make sure you’re logged in with admin rights and that your Surface is attached to power. The upgrade can take quite a while (>1 hour if you need updates) and though you have backed up everything, it’s best to not tempt fate.

  • Attach the Surface to power.
  • Log in with Admin rights.
  • Bring up the Search Charm by swiping in from the right side of the screen and search for “Windows updates”.

  • Tap Check for Updates.
  • Tap Check Now.
  • Make sure all available updates are installed. If not, tap Install and Restart.

  • If you haven’t been keeping your machine updated (like the one I used for the screen grab), it could take quite a while. Be patient. It will restart after it finishes downloading the updates.

  • After the machine restarts, make sure you log back in with admin rights and tap on Store.
  • Tap on Update to Windows 8.1 for free.

  • Next, you’ll get the screen below, tap Download.

  • It will take a while for the required files to download. Double-check that your Surface is plugged in and give it some time.

  • After it finishes downloading the required files, if you’re running a the Windows 8.1 preview version, you’ll get a warning that your applications will need to be re-installed.

  • Otherwise, you’ll get the Restart Required warning.

  • After the restart, your Surface will begin the upgrade process.

  • Again, be patient. When the process completes you’ll have to accept the license agreement. Tap I Accept.

  • After that, you’ll be asked to choose your settings. In general, I recommend that you Use Express Settings.

  • Next, You’ll need to log into your Surface. I’m assuming you have a Microsoft account, so enter the information as appropriate.

  • You might be asked for a security code. You can skip this step for now or, if you have access to your email via another computer, enter it.
  • Next, it will tell you that it wants to automatically backup your settings, documents and photos to SkyDrive. Your call but, I left it on. Make your choice and tap Next.
  • It will now finalize your settings and finish installing apps.

Congratulations, if you made it this far, your Windows 8.1 install was probably successful. Go ahead and start playing with it. You can reference our quick-start guide to help you get started.

Hopefully, you can stop reading here 😉

Windows 8.1 Upgrade Problems: If the Worst Happens

Oh Crap! Oh Crap! Oh Crap! It’s bricked! Now what?

OK, the worst happened. Your Surface is somehow messed up. Doesn’t matter, we can deal with it.

If you went the System Image route, you can find the instructions to do the restore of the system image on the page we referenced above. If you went with the recovery Image option, just follow the procedure below to reset your Surface back to a clean version of Windows 8.0.

Be aware that the procedure I’m outlining below is almost guaranteed to get your Surface working again if something goes horribly wrong (up to and including a corrupted operating system) but, it is really heavy handed. As a result. you will lose your files and settings as a byproduct of this procedure (which is partly why we made copies earlier).

So if your Surface is mostly working after the upgrade you might want to consider trying to fix any individual issues separately or copying data from the backups we made to see if you can get it working before trying this approach.

Recover OS from Recovery Image:

(I apologize for the lack of illustrations but I couldn’t get any screen grabs and the pics I took from my phone were kind of  poor so, I’ll just be extra descriptive with the bullets below)

  • Make sure your Surface is powered off but plugged into power.
  • Plug your recovery USB stick into the USB port on your Surface.
  • Hold the Volume Down button and press the Power button at the same time. This will tell your Surface to boot from USB.
  • When you see the “Surface” logo appear on the screen you can let go of the buttons.
  • It will take it a bit but eventually you will be presented with a screen titled “Choose the language“. Choose an appropriate language.
  • Next, you’ll be asked to choose your keyboard layout. Again, pick the appropriate choice.
  • Now, at the :”Choose an option” screen. Tap on Troubleshoot.
  • On the “Troubleshoot” screen, tap Reset your PC.
  • The “Reset your PC” screen will warn you that all of your files will be lost. That’s OK, you backed them up, remember? Tap Next.
  • Next, you’ll be asked to “Choose a target operating system“. On your Surface, you should only have one choice.
  • Now you’ll get a “Please wait” prompt.
  • After that, you might be asked to re-partition the drives. If your upgrade was unsuccessful, you’ll probably want to do so to avoid any weirdness for later attempts. It’s your call, though.
  • Next, you’ll be asked if you want to remove your files or fully clean the drive. Cleaning your drive can take a long time so choose Just remove my files.
  • The next screen will tell you that it’s ready to go. Tap Next to kickoff the recovery.

That’s it, your Surface is now going to wipe the drive and re-install Windows 8.0. It will be exactly like it was when you took it out of the box for the first time.

You can then either stick with Windows 8 or try the upgrade again.

I hope you found this post helpful. As always, please let me know if you have any questions.


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