Windows 8.1 is available for free download today, and it promises to almost completely rid you of all those useless tiles. I upgraded my machine to Windows 8.1, and here’s my review.
The final version of Windows 8.1 became available on Thursday morning at 7 a.m. Eastern Time. To upgrade, click the tile labeled “Store” and the upgrade will proceed. While all of the files are downloading, you can continue working, but once it starts the actual install you’ll be dead in the water. It took me about an hour to complete the update.
It’s a good thing Microsoft isn’t making you pay for Windows 8.1, because at first glance, it’s hard to tell any difference between it and its predecessor. The first good reason to upgrade is the triumphant return of the Start Menu. It no longer has that familiar Start orb as its icon — now it’s a simple white Windows logo that turns red when you place your cursor over it.
Click on that Windows logo, and you’re back into what I call Tile Land, which I think has limited usefulness for desktop work. However, it is the only way to search for something on your PC — just like in Windows 8, all you have to do is start typing and your search results appear.
So the new Start button gives you exactly the same thing as placing your cursor on the lower left of the screen did in Windows 8. That in itself is a slight change that’s hardly worth mentioning, only benefiting those who didn’t realize you could get to Tile Land by simply pressing the Windows key on the keyboard, or placing the cursor on the lower left of the screen.
However, here’s why this new Start button gives you a good reason to upgrade: Right-click on it and it gives you a simple list of some of the most frequently needed functions in Windows. This will save people time and effort.
My favorite function of this crude-looking list: the ability to shut down, sign out or restart without having to deal with those goofy Windows 8 “Charms.” To reach the Charms still requires an awkward placement of your cursor on the top right or bottom right of your screen. Of course, you’ve always been able to reach those Charms by pressing the Windows key along with the letter C, but it always takes three clicks to shutdown or restart. Now with Windows 8.1, you can accomplish that in two clicks. This is the way it should have been in the beginning.
Even after this change, the inexplicably schizophrenic basis of this operating system is still lurking underneath. And some of it still feels unfinished. For instance, if you click that new Start button and then move your mouse away from it, it disappears, revealing only Tile Land. Of course, once you get used to Windows 8.1, you’ll know to place your cursor at the bottom left, where a different-sized Start button will appear to bring you back to your desktop. But why not just leave that Start button visible at the bottom left of the screen, even when it’s in Tile Land?
It still feels like Microsoft is trying to force you to accept an operating system that works on both touchscreens and desktop computers. But when I’m working on my desktop, I don’t care if my operating system will work with touchscreens. The dual-purpose operating system seems to be for Microsoft’s benefit instead of consumers, making it so the company only has to develop one version of Windows instead of two. I don’t see any benefit to this unification, which makes it more complicated, especially for new users.
A basic problem with Windows 8 is the idea of placing your cursor in a corner of the screen. It just doesn’t work well, especially when you’re using multiple monitors. I think Microsoft should completely abandon the idea of “hot corners,” as well as the overall concept of combining a touchscreen and desktop operating system. It’s just a useless, awkward and dumb idea that doesn’t really please anyone.
Let’s put aside the dumb for the smart, which brings us to the second good reason to upgrade to Windows 8.1. You can now boot straight to the desktop, eschewing Tile Land altogether. Hallelujah. Why didn’t Microsoft offer this feature in Windows 8.0, instead of trying to force everyone to start out in an alien interface?
In addition to the two most useful features (right-click Start menu and boot to desktop), Microsoft offers a few minor tweaks. If you love Tile Land, now you can change the size of those tiles, organize them into groups and right-click them for more features. Those apps represented by tiles are updated automatically, another feature I’m wondering why Microsoft didn’t include in the original Windows 8. Oh, and you can also play a slideshow in your lock screen. Eh.
Apart from than those meager additions, Windows 8.1 still boots up fast, has the best workflow and application compatibility in the world, and in my testing was completely crash-free.
Summing up, I’m a Windows user through and through, and have no use for all those tiles, so this upgrade to Windows 8.1 includes that wonderful feature that I’ve been waiting for: the ability to reject Microsoft’s schizophrenia for the most part, booting straight to my desktop and getting to work right away.
If you’re Windows 8 user, you certainly should upgrade, but if you’re still trying to decide whether to update your Windows 7 machine to Windows 8.1, it’s probably not worth the trouble.