2 hours with Windows 8.1 Preview: A cautionary tale

The next big update to Windows is out in a beta form and it's not ready for every system yet. I found that out the hard way.

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Image credit: Ed Bott/ZDNet

Microsoft has released Windows 8.1 in a preview form to get as many Windows 8.0 users as possible to try it out. It brings a lot of nice features to the table but it is definitely still a beta version to be used with caution. Installing it on the ThinkPad Tablet 2 was a challenge, and the preview had so many issues it only lasted on the PC for a couple of hours.

I have been quite taken with the ThinkPad Tablet 2 and I proclaimed it to be the " best Windows tablet ". All contributing factors aside, the Tablet 2 is tailor-made for Windows 8 and runs it superbly. 

One of the reasons for buying the Tablet 2 was to give the Windows 8.1 Preview a good test. The ThinkPad would let me fully test 8.1 with touch operation, using it with a keyboard, and with pen use. Windows 8 supports those methods of operation well and I wanted to test the 8.1 Preview with them all.

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The Windows 8.1 Preview is just a beta which means it's not ready for full release. This is important to understand before installing it as problems are to be expected. I'd heard good things on the internet about how stable it is so I set aside a few hours to install it on the Tablet 2. Unfortunately a few hours was not enough.

The first thing I did was create a system image on the ThinkPad to give me a path to get back to Windows 8.0 in the event something went wrong. Lenovo includes a nice utility for building the system image and I used it to create an image on a USB flash stick.

Once I had the image safely tucked away I went to the Windows 8.1 Preview web site and started the upgrade process. It installed a small app that when run made the Preview appear in the Microsoft Store for download and installation.

It took several tries as the download kept crashing. Finally a lengthy download (1.65GB) got started and the fun began. 

The installation was straightforward and once completed (a couple of hours later) the Tablet 2 had been upgraded to a stock system running Windows 8.1 Preview. The OS looked very similar to the Windows 8.0 system with minor improvements including the now famous Windows start button.

I immediately started having problems with the Preview as wi-fi on the Tablet 2 kept dropping the connection. Sometimes it would reconnect automatically and sometimes it would require a reboot. It made exploring the Preview difficult, but it's just a beta so such issues are to be expected.

Just as problematic, the system would constantly drop the Bluetooth connection with the Lenovo keyboard. This always required a reboot to get reconnected so it kept interrupting the testing of Windows 8.1 Preview. At one point the Bluetooth category disappeared from the settings menu indicating that the Bluetooth hardware was not recognized by the system.

That quickly became frustrating as I was already seeing nice things in the update to Windows 8. The famous snap view improvements alone made the update worth it. Having flexible windows side-by-side is awesome and the way Windows 8 should have been from the beginning. I saw enough to make me desperately want the final 8.1 update to get rolled out in a hurry.

Sadly I didn't get to test the 8.1 Preview very long as the wireless connectivity problems got in the way. I was rebooting the system every few minutes and after a couple of hours I had to throw in the towel. There was no way to properly give the Windows 8.1 Preview a test run so I had to roll back to stock Windows 8.0. I could have visited the Lenovo web site to see if other hardware drivers would have addressed the wi-fi and Bluetooth issues but at this point it was the wee hours in the morning and I nixed that idea. I might have created additional problems doing so anyway.

It turns out restoring the system to Windows 8.0 wasn't easy as I couldn't get the system to recognize the system image I carefully created before installing the Preview. It was there on the flash drive but the system wouldn't let me restore using it.

I ended up doing a factory reset to Windows 8.0 which worked as expected. That meant I spent hours updating Windows and the Tablet 2 after the restore, so out of the 10 hours of the Windows 8.1 Preview experiment only two were spent actually running the beta. Most of that time was spent watching the system restart screen.

I suspect the wireless connectivity issues I had with the Preview were due to driver problems. Windows 8.1 is a beta and OEMs like Lenovo are no doubt scrambling to get all hardware drivers updated for the new OS. I wasn't surprised to have such driver problems; other PCs may work with the Preview just fine but ThinkPad Tablet 2 owners should be aware things might not upgrade smoothly.

My brief foray into the Windows 8.1 Preview jungle was enough to convince me how important 8.1 will be. I am already anxious to see Microsoft get the final update rolled out. Please get everybody working on that, OK Microsoft?

Update: It's been pointed out that there is a workaround to the problem of my system image not working. Windows 8.0 and 8.1 have a setting that allows accessing the UEFI firmware to activate legacy BIOS operation. This will allow booting from an external source such as my USB flash drive. Once the system image is restored then resetting to UEFI mode gets back to normal operation.

I'm also hearing that my connectivity issues are noted in a Microsoft support forum as a driver problem as I suspected. Right-clicking on the hardware adapter and updating the driver is noted as the solution to the connectivity problems.

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