Install Windows 8.1 Preview in a dual-boot configuration using a VHD

When you use a VHD in a dual-boot configuration, you really get the best environment on which to experiment with the Windows 8.1 Preview.

Are you interested in taking a look at the Windows 8.1 Preview? If so, then you'll want to know that when it comes to experimenting with Beta software, the best approach is to install it on your Windows 8 system in a dual-boot configuration using a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk).

When you use a VHD in a dual-boot configuration, you really get the best environment on which to experiment with the Windows 8.1 Preview. First, you will not have to mess with repartitioning your hard disk because the VHD exists as a file. Second, even though the hard disk is virtualized, you will get full benefit of your physical hardware such as the video card, USB connections, and amount of RAM. Third, when you are done experimenting with the operating system, undoing the dual-boot configuration as easy as deleting the boot entry and the VHD file.

In order to install the Windows 8.1 Preview on a VHD, you'll first need to download the ISO image and burn it to a DVD. Next, you'll create a VHD using the Disk Management tool. Then, you'll install the Windows 8.1 Preview onto the VHD.

In this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I'll show you how to perform each one of these operations so that you can safely experiment with the Windows 8.1 Preview. I'll then show you how easy it is the undo the dual-boot configuration.

Note: Keep in mind that while I am going to show you how to perform this procedure in Windows 8, you can essentially follow the same set of steps if you are using Windows 7.

This blog post is also available as a TechRepublic Screenshot Gallery.

Creating a System Image

Now, even though installing Windows 8.1 Preview in a dual-boot configuration using a VHD is a very easy and safe procedure, there's no sense in throwing caution to the wind. Therefore, I recommend that the first thing that you do is create a complete backup image of your hard disk using Windows 8's Windows 7 File Recovery tool. That way, if anything out of the ordinary were to occur as you follow the steps for creating a dual-boot system, you will be able to return to your current configuration using the System Image Recovery procedure.

To launch the Windows 7 File Recovery tool, use the [Windows] + W keystroke to access the Search Settings page. Then, type Windows 7 File in the text box and click Windows 7 File Recovery in the results panel, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Accessing the Windows 7 File Recovery tool from the Start screen is easy.
In a moment, you'll see the Windows 7 File Recovery user interface and you should select the Create a system image command on the left side of the screen to launch the creation tool. On the first screen you will need to choose where you are going to create a system image. For example, you can create the system image on a set of DVD discs, as illustrated in Figure B.

Figure B

You can create the system image on a set of DVD discs.
When you click Next, you will be prompted to confirm your backup settings. When you are ready, just click the Start backup button and Windows will begin preparing for the operation. As it does, you will be prompted to label and insert the first DVD disc. This process is illustrated in Figure C.

Figure C

When you click the Start backup button, you'll be prompted to insert a blank DVD disc.
Once you insert the blank disc, you'll be prompted to format it before the backup actually begins. Then, once the backup operation gets under way, you'll see progress indicators letting you know the status of the operation. When the System Image creation procedure is complete, you'll be prompted to create a System Repair disc, as shown in Figure D. However, as you may remember, a System Repair disc is the same as the Recovery Drive and if you have already created a Recovery Drive, you can just click No and you will be notified that the backup completed successfully.

Figure D

In Windows 8, the System Repair disc is the same as the Recovery Drive.

Download the ISO

With your system image backup tucked way, the next step is to download the Windows 8.1 Preview ISO. Go to the Download Windows 8.1 Preview page and click the Windows 8.1 Preview ISO files link. When you arrive at the Windows 8.1 Preview ISO files page, scroll down until you see the ISO files section and then select the download that you want, as shown in Figure E. Keep in mind that the download can take several hours to complete.

Figure E

From the Download Windows 8.1 Preview page, select the ISO you want to download.
Note: To install the Windows 8.1 Preview that you download as an ISO, you'll use the Product Key shown on this page. For your convenience, I'll post the product hey here:


Once the download is complete, use File Explorer to locate and select the ISO file. Then, select the Manage tab and click the Burn icon. When you see the Windows Disc Image Burner window, insert a blank DVD and click the Burn button. These steps are illustrated in Figure F.

Figure F

Use Windows Disc Image Burner to create a Windows 8.1 Preview DVD.

Create the VHD

Once you have a Windows 8.1 Preview DVD, the next step is to create the VHD using the Disk Management tool. To launch Disk Management, press [Windows]+X to bring up the WinX menu and select Disk Management. When the tool launches, pull down the Action menu and select the Create VHD command, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

You'll select the Create VHD command from the Action menu.
When you see the Create and Attach Virtual Hard Disk dialog box, click the Browse button and use the Browse dialog box to create a folder and specify a name for your VHD file. As you can see in Figure H, I have created a folder called VHDs in the root directory and named the VHD file Win81P.vhd. You will then specify a disk size and disk format. I have specified the size as 80GB and set it up as a Fixed size. You can use whatever size you want and choose Dynamically expanding format if you wish, just be sure that you have enough room on the physical hard disk to accommodate your VHD. (Make note of the folder name and VHD file name you use as you will need to know them later on in the procedure.)

Figure H

For my example VHD I choose an 80GB Fixed disk.
When you click OK, Disk Management will go to work creating the new VHD file. As it does, you will see the progress in the Status bar, as shown in Figure I.

Figure I

Disk Management displays the VHD creation progress in the Status bar.
It will take a few minutes to create a Fixed size VHD file, but when the VHD is complete, you will see the new disk in Disk Management, as shown in Figure J. Here you can see that my 80GB VHD is listed as Disk 1 and will notice that it is also marked as Unallocated. Don't worry; we'll take care of establishing the disk during the Windows 8.1 Preview installation procedure. At this point, you can close Disk Management.

Figure J

Unallocated 80GB VHD

Installing Windows 8.1 Preview

Now that you have created your VHD, installing Windows 8.1 Preview in a dual-boot configuration should be a pretty straightforward operation. Let's take a closer look.

To begin, insert the Windows 8.1 Preview DVD into your optical disc drive and restart your system. After a few minutes, you'll see the new colorful Betta Fish logo, as shown in Figure K, which will remain on screen for a couple of minutes while preparations are made behind the scenes.

Figure K

The Betta fish logo will remain on the screen for several minutes.
You'll then see the Windows Setup screen shown in Figure L and will specify your language settings before clicking Next.

Figure L

The first step in the installation is to specify your language settings.
Once the initial steps are taken care of, you'll see the Windows Setup screen shown in Figure M and will click the Install Now button. However, keep in mind that we aren't exactly ready to install Windows just yet; you must first access your VHD.

Figure M

While you will click the Install Now button, you're not quite ready to install the Windows 8.1 Preview.
When you see the next Windows Setup screen, you will immediately press Shift +F10 to open an Administrator Command Prompt window as shown in Figure N.

Figure N

When you press Shift-F10, you'll see an Administrator Command Prompt window.

To prepare your VHD for the Windows 8.1 Preview installation procedure, you'll use the Diskpart utility. Follow these steps:

  • 1. Type the command:
  • 2. Once the Diskpart environment is ready, you'll use the select command to instruct Diskpart to access your VHD file as follows:
select vdisk file=d:\VHDs\Win81P.vhd
  • 3. After you have selected the VHD file, you'll use the attach command to essentially connect the VHD to your system as follows:
attach vdisk
This entire procedure is illustrated in Figure O. You'll notice that when you launch the Command Prompt window that the default drive letter is X: and that I found the root directory on drive D: on my example system. The default drive letter will always be X:, but the root directory on your system may be different letter depending on how many drives you have connected to your system.

Figure O

After each command, you should see a success message.
Once you are done, you can type exit to leave the Diskpart environment and then click the Close button the close the Administrator Command Prompt window. When you return to the Windows Setup screen, you'll select the Custom option, as shown in Figure P.

Figure P

Make sure that you select the Custom Install Windows only option.

At this point, Windows Setup will prompt you to choose the location to which you want to install Windows 8.1 Preview and you can now select your VHD, which will be designated as Unallocated Space and be the size that you specified.

As you can see in Figure Q, I have selected my 80GB VHD. Keep in mind that when you select the VHD, you'll see a Warning message that says that Windows cannot be installed to this disk. Even though Windows Setup displays this warning message, you can ignore it as the procedure does indeed function correctly. In fact, the installation procedure will progress quite rapidly and restart several times as it completes the installation on the VHD - just like it would on a normal hard disk.

Figure Q

Select your VHD drive, ignore the warning message, and click Next.
As soon as you click Next, the installation will begin, as shown in Figure R.

Figure R

As soon as you click Next, Windows Setup will begin copying files to the new partition.

Dual-booting Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 Preview

When the installation is complete, Windows Setup will restart your system one final time and you will then see the new Windows 8 style dual-boot screen shown in Figure S. As you can see, Windows 8.1 Preview will automatically launch in 30 seconds if you don't choose Windows 8.

Figure S

The new Windows 8 style boot screen display for 30 seconds before launching Windows 8.

If you want to configure Windows 8 to be the default operating system or alter the countdown time, you can click the Change defaults or choose other options at the bottom of the screen.

Remove the dual-boot

When you no longer want to experiment with the Windows 8.1 Preview, you can delete the boot entry and then delete the VHD file. To delete the boot entry you'll use the System Configuration tool.

To begin, boot into Windows 8 and then launch the System Configuration tool by pressing [Windows]+R to access the Run dialog box. Then type msconfig in the Open box and click OK.

When you see the System Configuration window, select the Boot tab and make sure that the Windows 8 is listed as the Default OS. Select the Windows 8 entry and click the Set as default button. When you do, you'll see that Windows 8 is listed as both the Current OS and the Default OS. To continue, select the Windows 8.1 Preview entry, as shown in Figure T, and then click the Delete button. As soon as you do, the Windows 8.1 Preview entry will be removed. You can then click OK and you'll be prompted to restart your computer.

Figure T

Once you select the Windows 8.1 Preview entry, just click the Delete button.

When your system restarts, launch File Explorer, locate the VHD file, and delete it. Once you do, all traces of the beta software will have been removed from your system.

What's your take?

Will you use this technique to experiment with the Windows 8.1 Preview? What do you think about Windows 8.1? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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