Windows 8.1 is here to stay, so it might be time for small business owners to consider upgrading to Microsoft's latest operating system.
If you're already running Windows 8, upgrading to version 8.1 is a no-brainer. The new release resolves some of 8's most glaring shortcomings, and the upgrade is free.
Deciding which version of Windows to adopt is trickier for businesses still running Windows XP, particularly after Microsoft announced it will stop supporting the 12-year-old OS beginning in April 2014. Once support ends, machines running this OS will be left open to viruses and attacks.
But if you decide to have your business make the leap to Windows 8.1, not all users will be happy with the major changes Microsoft has made to the familiar Windows interface. Your less-tech-savvy employees might even feel like you've pulled the rug out from under them.
Read on for five steps you can take to upgrade your office to Windows 8.1 — and keep your employees happy in the process.
1. Consider your options
If your business runs on Windows 7, upgrading isn't essential. Since it launched in 2009, Windows 7 has proved itself to be a capable operating system, and unlike Windows XP, it will have ongoing support for years to come.
But Windows 8.1 has plenty of new features and tweaks that could make it an even better platform for business.
The OS is packed with performance enhancements. It boots up and shuts down in seconds, and is generally faster, more stable and more secure than Windows 7. According to Microsoft, computers running Windows 7 are about three times more likely to become infected with a virus than Windows 8 machines.
Windows 8 was built from the ground up, with touch screens in mind, so it works just as well on a tablet as on a desktop. That makes it a versatile option for bring-your-own-device offices.
The launch of Windows 8.1 adds NFC tap-to-pair printing, native broadband tethering, new security benefits (including support for fingerprint-scanning devices) and more.
And if your office is still running Windows XP? Sorry — an upgrade of some kind is virtually unavoidable.
2. Check your hardware
Before you upgrade, make sure your office's computers are up to snuff. Older PCs may not meet the necessary system requirements to run Windows 8.1.
Your computers will need a 1 GHz processor and either 16GB of RAM and 16GB of hard-disk space for the 32-bit version of the operating system, or 2GB of RAM and 20GB of hard-disk space for the 64-bit version.
But meeting the bare-minimum requirements may not be enough. A machine with 1GB of RAM will suffice for Web browsing and basic word processing, but heavy multitasking or other processor-intensive activities, like image editing, could slow it to a crawl.
If the last time you purchased PCs was when George W. Bush was in office, save yourself the trouble and buy new machines with Windows 8.1 preloaded.
Microsoft also offers a compatibility test so you can make sure your applications and peripherals are compatible with Windows 8.1 before you make the switch.
If you plan to transition to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7 or Windows 8, you're in luck. You can apply the upgrade directly over your existing OS without altering the files or applications on your PCs.
Upgrading from Windows XP, Windows Vista or the Windows 8.1 preview version, however, will require significantly more legwork. Windows 8.1 will do a clean install on a machine running those operating systems, so you'll have to reinstall your applications and transfer any necessary files manually.
In that case, make sure you still have the necessary installation media for critical software, as well as any corresponding activation keys, before you do anything.
You'll also need to back up any important files or documents, either through an online cloud backup service or to a physical external hard drive. Once the upgrade is complete, you can copy the data back onto your machines.
4. Guide your employees
Windows 8.1 is polarizing, thanks largely to a new full-screen menu that replaces the familiar Start menu in every prior iteration of the operating system.
The new Start screen was introduced to make Windows easier to use on tablets and touch-screen devices, but not every desktop user is happy relearning how to find programs and tweak system settings.
Uneasy employees might benefit from viewing Microsoft's Windows 8.1 tutorial videos, which guide new users through the basic changes. It may look different, but Windows 8.1 actually adheres closely to the functionality of prior Windows releases.
Once they clear a small learning curve, your employees might appreciate the smooth experience that Windows 8.1 can offer.
5. Make it familiar
What if you want the performance upgrades without all the hassle? With the right tweaks, you can make Windows 8.1 look and feel just like a snappier version of Windows 7.
BusinessNewsDaily's sister site, LaptopMag.com, has put together a comprehensive guide to help make Windows 8 or 8.1 more familiar.
Several free applications are available to download that will replace the new full-screen Start screen with a familiar pop-up menu.
You can even enable a Windows 7 visual theme, and disable unnecessary touch-centric features, like "hot corners" that trigger certain actions when you move your cursor near the corners of your screen.
Windows 8.1 also lets you boot straight to the desktop instead of the Start screen, so you and your employees can get straight to work without a struggle.