The Windows 8.1 retail media isn't much changed from that of Windows 8. This time around, we get fewer color schemes, but a useful new "Welcome to Windows" guide that is a bit more expansive than the one-page pamphlet Microsoft provided last time around.
To better understand what's happening with this version's retail media to that of Windows 8, please refer to my post Windows 8 Pro Retail Box from last year.
But here's a rundown of how they compare.
Full version. One big change, of course, is that Windows 8.1 is available only in the so-called Full version, where Windows 8 was only available in Upgrade form. But this doesn't mean you can't use this product to upgrade, though it only makes sense to do so in Windows 7 (since the Windows 8 to 8.1 upgrade is free). And even then, you can't perform a "full" in-place upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1 with this media: All you get is a basic migration option in which you can bring your personal files forward, but not settings or installed applications.
No special pricing. One downside to this year's product is that there's no special promotional pricing, so you'll pay full price for a retail version of Windows 8.1: That's $119.99 for Windows 8.1 "Core" and $199.99 for Windows 8.1 Pro. With Windows 8, you may recall, Microsoft offered special promotional pricing of $69.99 for Windows 8 Pro at retail, through January 31, 2013. You could do even better if you purchased the product electronically: that version was just $39.99.
New design. It's not a big deal, but where Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro came in colorful boxes—the Pro version offered five different designs at retail—Microsoft has gone conservative with Windows 8.1. The "Core" box I bought—and I only got one because of the exorbitant pricing—is a flat purple and white design, while Pro comes with blue and white.
32-bit and 64-bit. As with the Windows 8 retail media, Windows 8.1 includes separate install discs for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the product.
Product key card. As with Windows 8, there's only one product key, so you can only install it once, on one PC. When you think about it, this is what you're really paying $119.99 or $199.99 for: The product key.
Welcome to Windows. With Windows 8, Microsoft included a laughable, tiny and single-page Welcome sheet that offered only very basic instructions for "Getting Started" and "Getting Around." There wasn't even a single screenshot showing what the system looked like. With Windows 8.1, a new Welcome to Windows guide opens up into a nicely-designed three panel booklet with an introduction to the Start screen and more expansive "Getting Started" and "Getting Around" instructions. Still, it's not competition for the Windows 8.1 Book that Rafael and I are currently writing.
Basically, no surprises.