Windows customers who purchased an upgrade of Windows in the past were able to install that update even on a PC where no previous version of Windows was installed on. This was convenient for customers, as they could install the operating system on new hard drives or PCs that they built without the need to install the older version of Windows first on the PC.
According to Microsoft Communication's Manager Brandon LeBlanc, this will no longer work with Windows 8 Upgrade Media. PC users who want to install Windows 8 using a Windows 8 Upgrade download or media can only do so on a PC that has a previous version of Windows installed. Previous version in this regard means any version of Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7.
To upgrade, a previous version of Windows (e.g. Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7) will need to be on that PC.
He adds later on in another comment that Windows 8 Release Preview users can also upgrade to Windows 8 Pro with the upgrade for $39.99. In that situation, only personal files can be migrated, while installed applications and settings won't be migrated. This is different from an upgrade from Windows 7, were installed applications, settings and personal files are included.
It is interesting to note that Windows 8 Release Preview users who have not purchased an earlier version of Windows can use the Upgrade to install the full version of Windows 8.
Brandon also mentioned that Windows 7 customers who purchased the Family Pack, a promotional version of Windows 7 that supported the installation on three different PCs with one license key, need to purchase an upgrade for each key individually.
Windows users who prefer to start with a clean operating system - in contrast to one that is upgrade - can select to format the hard drive during installation. This option is however only available when the upgrade is booted from USB or DVD.
The requirement to have XP, Vista, Windows 7 or the Windows 8 RP installed to run the upgrade is problematic when users need to reinstall their operating system. Instead of installing Windows 8 anew right away, they would first have to install an older version of the operating system, or the RP release provided that it is still available and valid, before they install the upgrade. Not the most user friendly solution. It is however likely that the operating system's refresh and reset options resolve most of the issues that users run into. (via Beatmaster and the Windows Team Blog comment section)
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