Windows 8.1: A service pack or a new OS?

Is Windows 8.1 an update for Windows 8 or an upgrade? In other words, is it a service pack or is it a new version of Windows?

Windows 8.0 in comparison to Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.0 in comparison to Windows 8.1.

Let’s find out.

Feature set

Verdict: New version of Windows

New versions of Windows often come with a slew of (sometimes controversial) new features that can easily be spotted. The features that service packs are mostly fundamental changes such as support for new technologies or new APIs. The most apparent changes in the service pack history of Windows are brought by Windows XP Service Pack 2, which added Windows Security Center and Windows Firewall. Also, starting with Windows Visa, Windows service packs no longer include newer versions of Internet Explorer, Windows PowerShell or .NET Framework.

The sheer volume of new features in Windows 8.1 is unprecedented for a service pack. In addition, Windows 8.1 discontinues features, which service packs almost never do. True, Windows XP SP3 did remove the address bar from taskbar after some legal dispute but Windows 8.1 removed almost every editing feature in Photos app plus its Facebook and Flickr support, removed a good chunk of Windows Backup and removed Windows Experience Index.


Verdict: Well, this is new…

Service packs have always been free of direct charges, although indirect charges such as Internet bill or shipping charge for a physical disc may apply. New versions of Windows, however, have always been expensive, sometimes more expensive than PC hardware. A customer could either pay upfront for each copy, or get a subscription or volume licensing contract and in exchange for annual payments, receive new copies of Windows whenever they were released. These contracts are/were the only way to purchase Enterprise editions of Windows 8.1, 8, 7, Vista or XP.

Windows 8.1 is a unique creature, however, in that consumers who have bought a copy of Windows RT, Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro from a retail channel or had it bundled with their new PCs would receive Windows 8.1 for free. Others must obtain Windows 8.1 the way they always obtained newer versions of Windows: Their subscription or contract must be valid.


Verdict: New version of Windows

Service packs are available from Windows Update or Microsoft Download Center. The former allows a relatively small package to be downloaded for one computer and installed. The latter allows a relatively larger package to be downloaded; this package can then be used to install service pack on as many computers as possible. Traditionally, new versions of Windows have been available on physical discs. Starting with Windows Vista, Microsoft launched electronic stores: Windows Marketplace, Microsoft Store and finally Windows Store. A huge package containing a whole Windows installation source can be purchased and downloaded from these stores, which is only good for one computer and must be burnt to a disc or properly copied to USB flash drive before use. Subscribers and volume licensing customers have access to additional physical or download-based venues for obtaining a slightly different version of the said huge package that can service multiple computers.

Windows 8.1 is exactly like that: Even consumers eligible for the free upgrade must obtain it from Windows Store. A huge package (2.5–3 GB in size) is downloaded, which is only good for one computer. There is a slight difference: Officially, it cannot be kept and reused later for a reinstallation, should the OS become corrupt. (Unofficially, there are things that can be done.)

Product key

Verdict: New version of Windows

Every copy of Windows needs a unique product key for each installation and users do not change their product keys unless they install a different version of Windows. That means service packs do not bother product keys, at least not on a legitimate user’s computer.

Windows 8.1 does not work with Window 8’s product key. It needs a new product key. (Forget everything you have heard so far about making Window 8.1 work with a Windows 8 key, including those nonsense about null keys and activation using DISM. If you act upon them, it is only a matter of 180 days until you realize they have been wrong.) Those who upgrade from Windows Store automatically receive a new product key without themselves knowing.

Support policy

Verdict: Service pack

According to Microsoft support policy, every version of Windows receives ten years of support: Five years of mainstream support and five years of extended support. However, customers are eligible to receive this support only if they install the latest service pack. A copy of Windows without the latest service pack loses support within 24 month. This support policy applies independetly to each version of Windows and release of a next version has never before curtailed or extended the support period.

Windows 8’s support lifecycle started on 31 October 2012 and was supposed to continue until 10 January 2023. (That’s 40 days more than the 10 year period, but I don’t complian.) It did not. With the start of Windows 8.1 support lifecycle on 13 November 2013, Windows 8’s support was curtailed to 12 January 2016 (25 month after 13 November 2013) and Windows 8.1 inherited Window 8’s original support time table… as if Windows 8.1 was a service pack.

Upgrade vector

Verdict: New version of Windows

Each version of Windows usually supports upgrading from at least one previous version while keeping system settings, installed programs and personal files. This called an in-place upgrade because under perfect circumstances, the only thing that changes in the affected computer is its operating system. Service packs do not change that. A disc containing a copy of Windows 7 can be used to upgrade a computer running Windows Vista to Windows 7; does not matter which service pack is integrated into the disc or installed on the computer.

Although Windows 8 supports in-place upgrade from Windows 7, Windows 8.1 does not.


Verdict: New version of Windows

There are two aspects of Windows identity that service packs never touch: The name and significant portions of the version string. Service packs may or may not increment the build number by one.

New versions of Windows, however, change the name, increment the major or minor version number by one and dramatically increase the build number, at least by 100. Here is a table of client versions of Windows for comparison. Green numbers in parantheses show increase amount of each number in comparison to the same number in the preceding version.

Name Major
Windows 2000 5 (+1) 0 2195 (+815)
Windows XP 5 1 (+1) 2600 (+405)
Windows Vista 6 (+1) 0 6000 (+3400)
Windows Vista SP1 6 0 6001 (+1)
Windows Vista SP2 6 0 6002 (+1)
Windows 7 6 1 (+1) 7600 (+1600±2)
Windows 7 SP1 6 1 7601 (+1)
Windows 8 6 2 (+1) 9200 (+1600±1)
Windows 8.1 6 3 (+1) 9600 (+400)

As you can see, Windows 8.1 had its minor version number increased by 1 and its build number by 400.


Although in terms of support policy, Windows 8.1 is treated like a service pack, in every other respect, it is a new version of Windows. Whether it is worth upgrading to or not… I don’t discuss.


Posted on 3 June 2014, in Software Review and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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