How Windows 8.1 Update magnified my confusion

How Windows 8.1 Update magnified my confusion

Summary: Keeping the names straight, finding out what you are actually running, and figuring out if you will get future Windows updates is not easy.

TOPICS: Windows 8

Let's start with a 'fair warning' notice: this is a minor whine from a dedicated Linux person about Windows 8. So if that doesn't interest you, now is the time to bail out.

I have recently updated four Windows 8 systems. I would like to say exactly what I updated from and to, but I can't figure out the correct terminology for that — and that is part of the reason for this post.

First, here are the four systems that I updated:

  • Acer Aspire One 725, purchased about a year ago with Windows 8
  • HP Pavilion dm1-4310ez, purchased about a year ago with Windows 8
  • HP/Compaq 15, purchased a month or so ago with Windows 8.1
  • ASUS R%13CL, purchased a few weeks ago with Windows 8

I had initially ignored the Windows 8.1 'upgrade' for the two older laptops. This was primarily because it was distributed through the App Store: if it is an upgrade, why the heck doesn't it come through the normal Windows update channel, like everything else? Why should I have to go to the App Store to get it? The whole arrangement seems contrived and silly to me, and the only justification I can think of for it is that Microsoft is trying to force its users to the app store, where they might then generate some new (paying) business.

When I got the Compaq with Windows 8.1, I was even more convinced that I didn't want or need the upgrade for the others. But when I read Mary Jo Foley's excellent description of the recent Windows 8.1 Update, and in particular I saw that systems which were already running 8.1 would no longer get updates unless they installed this, I had to change my plans.

This is yet another decision by Microsoft that totally escapes me. It will continue to update Windows 8 systems, but not Windows 8.1 (non-update) systems.

So, I booted up Windows 8 on the Compaq, and let it install updates. Sure enough, just as Foley described, the major change after the update was installed was that when I rebooted, it went directly to the desktop, rather than the Windows Phone screen. Well, that's good at least.

Based on this experience, I decided to go ahead and see what it was like to update the newer ASUS system. First I installed all available Windows Updates, but as expected that did not get it to 8.1. Then I went to the App Store, and after a minor struggle to convince it that I did not want to register in the store, I got it to download and install the update.

The update download is massive — of the order of 3.5GB — so it takes a good long while to download. One positive comment about the updater: it was smart enough to see that there was not enough free space in the Windows C: filesystem for it to install. I had reduced this to a minimum size to make space for Linux partitions. Once I changed that around and gave it back enough space, it installed okay.

The upgrade took quite a long time to download, and another long time to install, but in the end it all went through without problems. When I rebooted, it came up to the desktop, so I assumed that it not only upgraded to 8.1, but it also went all the way to Windows 8.1 Update — but it never actually said anything about that, and as I mentioned above, the Windows Info screen only says "Windows 8.1" for the operating system.

I figured if it was going to work this way, I would give it a shot on the two older systems. To my great surprise, it worked perfectly on both.

They both also booted to the Windows desktop after upgrading. But now I was starting to wonder, other than this obvious "side effect", how the heck should I know that these systems were running 8.1 Update, and thus would get future updates from Microsoft? You should be able to tell exactly what version of the operating system you are running, right? Especially when the difference between running one version or the other is that the older one will no longer get updates after some (relatively soon) date, right? Am I expecting too much here?

But no, that's not the way it works. If you go to Settings / PC Info under Windows Edition it will say Windows 8.1 in both cases. So here's a tip for Microsoft: this is a big deal. Your customers are going to find it confusing, to say the least. Would it really be such a huge deal to make the System Info screen say Windows 8.1 Update? 

If you had not already changed your Windows 8.1 system to boot directly to the desktop, you will get a pretty strong indication that you have updated when this happens, as I did. But I learned long ago that depending on a "side effect" like this is never a good idea, especially when the "side effect" is actually not unique to the condition you are trying to identify, and will often come back to bite you at some later time. 

If you were already booting to the desktop, you won't know from this; or if you are looking at someone else's computer, and you don't know how they had it set up, you can't tell from this.

After some rooting around on the Microsoft website, I finally found something that explained how to identify Windows 8.1 Update. In fact, if you go to that link on a Windows system, it will actually tell you right there what version you are running. Except it can't tell the difference between 8.1 and 8.1 Update.

Of course, there is a way to tell. You're not going to like it, but there is a way. Go to the Start Screen. Look at the top right corner, where your name is displayed. If there is a magnifying glass there, for the Search function, then it is Windows 8.1 Update. No magnifying glass, no update. 

That's it — and so far, that is the only way I have found to differentiate them.

Well my goodness, isn't that just perfectly obvious, even to the casual observer? Anyway, it's not like this is a really significant update, or that it might be really important, maybe even crucial, to know whether a system has the update or not, and thus whether it will continue to get updates or not...

PS: Here is the icing on the cake. I was sure that I had installed Windows 8.1 Update on all of my systems. I checked them all, with the "magnifying glass" check described above, and they all had it. But as I was writing this, I needed to check something so I booted up the HP Pavilion dm1. 

Before shutting down, I manually told it to check for updates. It found one. The description says "Windows 8.1 Update", and the accompanying text says the stuff about you must install this update to ensure that your computer can continue to receive future updates. So, was my HP updated or not? According to the test described by Microsoft, it was; but according to the Windows Update that is waiting to install, it was not.

Which is correct? Beats me. How do you tell for sure? Beats me. 

Further reading

Topic: Windows 8

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Schrödinger's cat

    You can't tell until you update...

    Of course, if you update, it may not work...

    And if it works, you won't know if it updated...
    • Same applies to all operating systems.

      Ubuntu sometimes breaks after updates as well.

      You shouldn't be singling this out on a Windows article.
      • same applies...

        It's certainly true that Ubuntu occasionally breaks after updates. (This is part of the reason why Linux Mint hides certain updates in its own update utility, something that is poorly understood and a little controversial).

        But Jamie says right up front that this particular article is on the Windows update. And in my opinion, as someone still running Windows in a dual-boot, his annoyance/confusion is justifiable. Windows STILL runs over 80% of home computers and Microsoft really should make things as clear and unambiguous as possible.
        Thomas Gellhaus
        • Well Said Also The Author Sounds Illiterate

          Okay so let's break down these points J. A. Watson is making - I'm skipping his rant of why Windows 8.1 has to be downloaded via the Windows Store. Like it or not that's just the way they chose to distribute Windows 8.1 to Windows 8 systems. Yes normally you would expect the updates to come from Windows Update or Microsoft Update as they now call it but they change the way updates are delivered if they choose to do so. Apple also delivers software updates on Mac OS X Lion and above via the Mac App Store. Before that you used Apple Software Update.

          Windows 8.1 Update 1 is actually a series of updates. Some users got Windows 8.1 Update 1 in advance because Microsoft accidentally leaked it to the public before it was ready and some individuals downloaded and re-uploaded the update files to mirror sites so when Microsoft removed the ability to get the updates in advance from Microsoft's Update site users still interested in getting the pre-release copies could still do so. Here's the link to the article which explained how to get Windows 8.1 Update 1 early and it links to the mirrored downloads I mention. It says you have to pick your platform (X86 for 32 bit Windows 8/Win8.1), X64 for 64 bit Windows 8/8.1, and ARM for Windows RT based devices. Whatever platform architecture you have it is important to install the updates in the order specified.

          This link was for users installing the leaked updates before Microsoft officially launched to public and it says Windows 8.1 Update 1 is a big update which requires different patches to be installed. Windows 8.1 Update 1 is more of a service pack than a OS upgrade. Whereas Microsoft has issued product keys for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 systems the reason it does not say in System you are running Windows 8.1 Update 1 is because it is not a major OS upgrade requiring activating a new product key.
    • You won't know if it update?????

      If you haven't used the 1st version of windows 8.1 you naturally wouldn't know if it updated. However, for everyone else that used the 1st release of Windows 8.1 the update is obvious because of the different features. So what is your point?
      • Identification through Side Effects

        My point is that creating a significant update, giving it a specific name, and then not bothering to include that name in the identification of the software on a system after it has been installed is not good. Identifying it by means of side-effects is lazy, careless and/or amateurish.

  • Do you even know who is Schrödinger?

    Get some science lessons
    • Actually, yes, I do know.

      And perhaps you should learn some computer science first.

      Have you ever heard of the "Heisenbug"?
    • Schrödinger

      Sure. He's the kid that plays piano in Peanuts.
  • OS X and Linux...

    Going to the App Store for an Upgrade? You have to do that in OS X as well. Also, look at it the other way, updates come through the update service, Upgrades have always come through purchasing new versions from a retail STORE (be it physical or online).

    As to 8 getting further updates and 8.1 not, look at it like Ubuntu (or most other Linux distributions). There you have Ubuntu LTS (Windows 8 in this case) and the latest release being replaced by a new one (Windows 8.1 to 8.1 Update in this case).
    • Good Points

      The comparison to OS X and Ubuntu LTS releases are good ones - in particular the LTS is very good, if Microsoft would have just explained it this way. Unfortunately, without any other explanation what it ends up looking like is that those who are too stubborn, dense, lazy or otherwise "hanging on" to Windows 8 are still getting updates, while those who update to 81. risk being left behind. Seems strange.

      As for getting the update from the App Store, your reference to updates and upgrades is good, and it is actually something that I kept having to correct myself about while writing this. But I think the confusion here comes from the weird change in naming that Microsoft has chosen for this release. There was no "Windows 7.1" (or Vista.1 , or XP.1), those were always called "Service Packs", so we had Windows 7/Vista/XP SP1/SP2/SP3 and so on. The "Service Packs came through the normal update channels. Does this new process imply that there will be no "Service Packs" for Windows 8 (or 8.1, or 8.x whatever)?

      I see what you are saying, and it helps my understanding quite a bit, but I'm still confused.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • But...

        We did have Windows 3.0, 3.1 and 3.11, NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51, 4.0. The service packs were always on top of that.

        I would say that Update is equivalent to SP2 on Windows XP - a roll up of all fixes plus some new functionality.
        • Right about 3.x and 4.x

          Agreed, you are right about Windows 3.1 and 4.1 - I have killed too many brain cells over the years, and those didn't come to mind. But wait, what about 3.11, where does it fit into this? Never mind...

          But I disagree about XP SP2, because it came through normal update channels, and what we are discussing here is why 8.1 Update.whatever didn't.

          Thanks again.

          • Very confusing world this is

            Are you referring to Windows 8.1 Update that brings you from 8 to 8.1, or the Windows 8.1 Update that brings you from 8.1 to "8.1 Update" ?

            I know, gets confusing... they should have simply call the latest one SP1 instead of Update (or Update 1 as I've seen in some places) and at least have something in the This PC property page which indicates that it is indeed 8.1 Update 1 and not just 8.1.
          • I think MS changed the naming because service packs

            tended to be released less frequently then these updates. SP's seemed to be least 2 years apart. It looks like MS changed the naming to updates because they are going to be released more frequently.

            If you go buy WIndows 8.1 now the store update is on the DVD and will be there when you install Windows. When you do the updates update 1 will be installed. MS never distributed software through their store before but lie was said before .X's are just like service packs and will be on the install media or downloaded and the updates will be part of the monthly updates.
        • What about going command line?

          Is there any difference when trying VER from the command line?

          BTW never mind that Windows 7 shows as 6.2, and Windows 8 shows as 6.3. It's all the minor version part that perhaps holds clues to how updated a given system is.

          I gave up entirely on Microsoft 8 months ago after seeing enough writing on the wall. Have been deeply involved with their product line for over 30 years. (Actually still have their very first product, Altair BASIC 4K -- the thing that was written in the dorm room.)

          Now I'm a Mac person, and the effort was worth-it, to get to a usable and reliable OS. I do love where Microsoft took computing, but their relevance is swiftly coming to a close in the marketplace.
          • Virtual machines is the way to go

            I have always used Windows as well as Macs because both are tools. Apple hardware is generally of higher quality than what you get in the Windows world. Hardware these days is fast enough to run multiple virtual machines. I run Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8.1 as virtual machines under Mac OS 10.9 with no problem. Each succeeding version of Windows sucks the battery on the laptop down faster than the one before. Windows 8.1 is a horrible battery hog but Windows 7 does not require much more power than XP. There is very little work that can be accomplished with Windows 7 that cannot be done on XP and I have not yet found *any* work that Windows 8.1 will do that Windows 7 won’t. Only Mac OS 10.9 and Windows 8.1 are ever connected to the Internet.
  • how to tell them apart

    "That's it - and so far, that is the only way I have found to differentiate them."

    Another good way to tell them apart is to look for any of the new features of Windows 8.1 Update and see if they are there.

    - Open Metro applications show up in taskbar.
    - Taskbar is visible in metro applications (e.g. the store), if you move mouse to the bottom of the screen and then move it down again.
    - Black bar with close and minimize buttons on the top of the screen if you move the mouse to the top of a metro application.
    - Traditional right click menu in start menu
    • re: how to tell them apart

      Also you will find the store app already pinned to the taskbar
  • Future Updates...

    "Anyway, it's not like this is a really significant update, or that it might be really important, maybe even crucial, to know whether a system has the update or not, and thus whether it will continue to get updates or not..."

    Well, you will notice that the Windows 8.1 Update (and prior, not installed updates) is the only update offered in the future, if you haven't already installed it.

    I agree, it is a bit silly, that they don't show that the update is installed in the System Info window.