Windows 8 is fast. It installs fast, it boots fast, it transfers files fast, it wakes up from sleep nearly instantly. It’s significantly faster than Windows 7 at all those chores, and Windows 7 was itself light years ahead of Windows XP.

Here’s an example of what that means.

Last week Microsoft released Windows 8.1 to developers and to Microsoft partners. It will be available to purchase on new computers in the middle of October, and it will be sent through the Automatic Updates system to all Windows 8 computers at about the same time.

I downloaded the Windows 8.1 installation file, a .ISO file that can be burned on a DVD or used to create a bootable USB stick. I used the Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool (which works fine on Windows 8) to create a bootable USB flash drive.

After backing up data, I booted my laptop from the USB drive and chose to delete all the existing partitions on the drive, leaving the drive unformatted. Then I hit the Next button to start the installation.

It took six minutes to install Windows 8.1 on an unformatted hard drive. At the end of six minutes I was at the screen where the computer is given a name and the background color is chosen.

The install program brings the wireless adapter to life and gets an Internet connection, plus a couple more details – user name, Microsoft account, license agreement – and then does some work finishing the installation.

In three more minutes I was at the Windows 8.1 Start screen.

My laptop needed a handful of additional drivers for devices that weren’t recognized. It was otherwise ready to go. Total elapsed time from the moment I hit the power button: about fifteen minutes.

The next day I repeated the process on my desktop computer, and had exactly the same experience – six minutes to prepare the hard drive and install the OS, an additional three minutes to finish setting up hardware and apps, finished in less than fifteen minutes. No extra cleanup was needed – all hardware device drivers were installed on the desktop computer. (Here’s some information on the tweaks that Microsoft made to speed up Windows 8 installations.)

Granted, both my computers have super-fast solid-state hard drives; the process would be slightly slower on conventional hard drives. More importantly, this particular burst of speed is only possible for a clean install on an empty hard drive. The upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 will take longer because you’ll be downloading the install bits and the installation program will be moving files from place to place to preserve your data and programs.

Still, it gives you an idea of one of the core principles of Windows 8 which is carried forward in Windows 8.1: speed things up, make the OS lighter and faster, and make it run better on the same hardware. My Thinkpad X1 Carbon wakes up from sleep almost before I can finish lifting the lid. Programs are popping into place faster than ever before.

The speedy install will actually directly affect the way I approach a typical problem. Until now it’s been hard to recommend wiping existing computers and reinstalling Windows because it’s so wildly time-consuming. Frequently it’s been more economical to just buy a new computer when a hard drive fails or malware takes down a drive.

I got a dramatic lesson about that last week when a new client had a Windows 7 computer that had not been receiving updates for Windows or Office since it was unboxed. I started installing updates at 11am, and finished the last one at midnight, thirteen hours later. It was mind-numbing, arduous work. Yesterday I spent an hour and a half installing updates on a brand new Windows 7 computer straight out of the Dell box.

It changes the numbers if I can install Windows in fifteen minutes, especially in the early days of Windows 8.1 before updates begin to accumulate. I’ll be more likely to recommend giving computers a makeover if the hardware is sound.

Incidentally, I don’t want to minimize the work it then takes to finish setting up a computer. Programs have to be installed and data has to be restored. Fortunately, many of those processes are also speeded up by Windows 8. My computers received synced information about my setup during the installation, as soon as I put in my Microsoft Account credentials. When I fired up Internet Explorer for the first time on Windows 8.1, I saw Bruceb Favorites as my home page, because that’s one of the synced settings. My documents and pictures were immediately available because they’re all stored in Skydrive, which was also set up automatically during installation.

Microsoft uses amazing new technology to speed up installation of Office 2013 from an Office 365 subscription – it takes a tiny fraction of the time it would take to do an installation of Office 2010 from DVD. Installing Adobe products from Creative Cloud took a few clicks instead of the old arduous process of downloading, installing and updating each program individually.

Cool stuff! You really, really don’t want to get hit with malware or have a hard drive fail. But if something happens, I might not be quite so quick to declare that your old computer should be recycled.

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