Windows 8.1 – First thoughts

Introduction

Windows 8.1 is the most eagerly anticipated update to windows since… probably ever. Maybe it’s a surprise that Microsoft didn’t make more of it like they have with the launches of Windows 95, XP, Vista or Windows 8 itself. I suppose the reason is fairly obvious, most people really didn’t like Windows 8.

While Microsoft may have some validity in claiming that most of the criticisms of Windows 8 come from people who hadn’t upgraded yet but just didn’t like the look of the new interface, many users of Windows 8 that I know do not like it very much either. As a user for the past 7 or 8 months myself, I have to admit that I am one of those who don’t enjoy using Windows 8 in either Metro or Desktop mode which might explain why I updated my laptop as soon as 8.1 was available.

So, has Microsoft fixed its broken Windows? While I might update this once I’ve had more time to explore it, here are my first thoughts:

Update process.

Getting to the Windows 8.1 download is fairly easy. I just went to the Windows App Store and the first option I was presented with was ‘Get Windows 8.1.’ It’s also easy to find using popular search engines like google, yahoo and bing. The file itself is a pretty big download: 3.6 gigabytes. This made me quite hopeful that there would be a lot of changes to both the front and back ends of the OS.

The installation was very straight forward. Once selected, the update downloaded and installed itself automatically. It took about 15 minutes to download and start the update process on my laptop, before I had to restart and wait for another 10 minutes for the update to finish doing its stuff. My laptop is an i7 3330QM with 8GB of RAM and I have a (supposedly) 100Mbps fibre optic internet connection, so depending on your computer’s specs and internet speed it might take longer or shorter than my time of 25 minutes.

Finally I had to agree to the license and sign in again using my normal credentials. After another minute or two of preparing itself, I was ready to start using Windows 8.1. The entire process took less than 10 clicks so there isn’t much user interaction required throughout the update.

In terms of making the update process simple, there’s nothing more than Microsoft could have done so for this part I have to award them 10/10.

New interface

Like most Windows 8 users, the first thing I did once the odious Metro Start screen appeared was to click on the desktop app. The good news is that the Start button is back.

Many years ago I bumped into this really cool friend that I used to have whose band had been signed up by a major record company a couple of years earlier. When I asked him what he was up to he told me that he’d given up music to become a statistician for the marketing department of a small distribution company in Fife. I tell you this because until recently this was the example I would use as an event that had left me feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. From now on I will tell people about the first time I clicked on the Windows 8.1 start button only to find that it took me straight back to the Metro Start screen. I’ve been able to do that – not that I’ve ever really wanted to – with the windows button on my keyboard since Windows 8 came out, why would I need an icon on the screen to do it?

But fortunately there is a rather thin silver lining to the new start button. Right clicking on the start button now brings up a list of at least some of the things you’ve used the Start button for previously, including finding programs, running searches, opening file explorer, shutting down, and a few others. The real question has to be asked ‘Why do I have to right click on it instead of left click like before?’ I’m sure there is a reason for this however I doubt very much that I would consider it a good one.

Most of the other changes appear to be to the Metro interface. I’m not convinced that many people are interested in changing the tile size on the Metro Start screen. For me, the purpose of Windows is to make it easy for me to get into the programs I actually want to use, I’m not really that bothered about whether I click on a rectangle or a square. I have never spent much time customising my desktop appearance on any version of Windows so most of these changes are unnecessary window dressing as far as I can see.

For that reason, I am going to give the new interface a generous score of 2.5/10. If left clicking on the Start button had given me the options I get by right clicking, it would have been 4 or maybe 5/10 but it doesn’t so 2.5/10 is all I’m willing to give.

New features

Microsoft will tell you that Internet Explorer 11 is the best new feature, but take it from me the best one is without a doubt ‘Boot to desktop’ option. This means that you don’t have to see the Metro screen if you don’t want to, as long as you remember not to left-click on the Start button or the windows key on your keyboard.

Internet Explorer 11 has a few new features but looks and feels so similar to IE 10 that most people won’t even notice that it’s a different version. One of the ‘best’ features of IE 11 is that all my favourites and settings will automatically be synced across all my Windows 8.1 devices, although there are two immediate problems I see with that feature. The first is that I currently only have one such device, and the second is that I am far from sure that I would want to have any more. It seems like Microsoft are trying to tell me that buying more of a product that I am not entirely sure about will make it better. I’m far from convinced about that.

Other features that I’ve noticed are Wi-Fi direct printing which I’m sure is very useful for a tablet and equally sure is completely pointless for a desktop PC.

I like the Lockdown feature which only allows access to certain programs and I think would be excellent for parental control purposes, or at least it would if it was available on the Home/Home Premium versions – unfortunately it’s currently only on RT, Pro and Enterprise versions.

The improvements to the VPN and remote features are good. I particularly like the Work Folders feature which automatically syncs folders with the remote network. Again, I think this feature is unavailable on the non-business versions of Windows 8, although in this case most home users probably wouldn’t have a use for it.

It seems as if there has at least been some thought put into making Windows 8.1 more business friendly than Windows 8. For that reason I will give the new features 6/10.

Summary

Windows 8.1 is an essential download for anyone already using Windows 8 but I can’t recommend it for anyone still using Windows 7 or XP. It might be, as has been claimed, the most complete and most innovative software Microsoft have ever produced, but it’s just not that good to use and that’s what most people – including me – will judge it on.

Microsoft have taken a step or two in the right direction, but it doesn’t address many of the fundamental underlying problems that Windows 8 has. It’s still trying to be all things to all types of user on all types of device and for that reason it still doesn’t really work for me. I am reminded of a quote from Bill Cosby which I think sums up the problems that this version of Windows suffers from very succinctly.

“I do not know what the key to success is, however the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Microsoft should take note.

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