I took my time kicking the tires of the public preview build of Windows 8.1. I thought that after the Windows 8 fiasco surely Microsoft would get it right the second time around but I wanted to make sure.
Don’t get me wrong, Windows 8.1 is better than Windows 8. But that's not saying much. In my opinion, Windows XP was--and is--better than Windows 8.
What’s my conclusion? Windows 8.1 is still inferior to Windows 7 for serious desktop users.
First, the good news.
Microsoft has integrated SkyDrive cloud storage even deeper into the operating system. If you trust the cloud with your files, the 7GBs of free storage is handy.
Of course, other personal cloud storage services, such as Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox, and Box also work well with Windows 8.1. None of these work with it hand-in-glove the way SkyDrive does, or the way Ubuntu One does with Ubuntu, or Google Drive with Chrome OS.
Still, I think building SkyDrive into Windows 8.1 is the single most significant improvement Microsoft has brought to this new version of Windows.
One real user-interface improvement is the down-arrow at the bottom of the Metro screen that takes you to the Apps view. It's not as easy as getting to your programs from the old Start menu, but it certainly makes it easier to access applications.
Windows 8.1 also gives you much more power to easily customize the desktop. In particular, it's much simpler to rearrange and customize tiles on the Metro interface. I'm still not sure why you'd want to be using Metro as your PC interface, but that's another matter.
The Windows Store has been vastly improved. What was once an almost unusable mess now has a clean, efficient design.
Many of the built-in apps, such as the horrible Xbox Music and the decent but unexciting Photo app have undergone major repairs. Xbox Music is now a useful music player and Photo now includes helpful basic editing tools.
Internet Connection sharing (ICS) is a handy feature that enables you to share your Internet connection. It went missing in Windows 8. It's back now in Windows 8.1.
So much for the happy news.
Did you notice what these changes have in common? Except for SkyDrive, all of these are minor, cosmetic adjustments.
Does it make Windows 8.1 better than Windows 8? You bet it does. If I were using Windows 8 today in the office, I'd be switching over. If I didn't own a Windows 8 PC, and I was convinced that Windows 8 was the way to go, I'd wait until Windows 8.1 was available.
But... as Harry McCracken recently wrote, "Windows 8 can’t live without a killer app forever. And even though Windows 8.1 is a thoughtful, meaty update, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be its own killer app."
After a long, hard look at Windows 8.1, I don't see any killer app or any compelling reason to switch to it on the desktop.
Maybe that's because, as Ed Bott suggests, Microsoft is aiming Windows 8.1 squarely at mobile users. Considering how Apple iOS and Google Android own the smartphone and tablet markets, I think it’s wishful thinking on Microsoft's part, but I'm here to focus on the desktop.
Windows 8.1 is still a two-headed monster. On one side is the tile-based Metro, aka Modern, interface. On the other is the desktop interface, which is, kind of, sort of, like Windows 7's Aero interface, but not quite.
You're faced once more with two different ways of doing the same jobs. It's not only annoying, it's confusing.
Microsoft still would prefer you to use Metro, and the Metro screen is what you first see when you start Windows 8.1. Microsoft finally has made it possible to start from the desktop. But that don't make it easy.
From the Metro screen you must get to the Control Panel. Once there, head to Taskbar and Navigation. In this window click on Navigation and look for the setting "Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in," then check the neighboring box. After that, it's good-bye Metro and hello desktop.
It's still not the same old desktop. Everyone wanted the Start button back and it looks like Windows 8.1 gives it to you, but not really. Clicking on it only takes you to the Metro screen. This is not a win.
If you right-click on the Start button, you get something that looks more like the old Start menu, but it's not as fully functioned as the one you know from XP and 7. Stardock's Start8 Windows 8's Start menu replacement will keep selling for years to come.
I found some other annoying oddities. For example, while it's nice that you can search both your local resources and the Internet from one Bing-powered interface, the display also showed me three Web results per screen. This is unacceptable.
Here's the bottom line: Windows 8.1's dual interfaces get in the way of getting work done. Worse, much of what you've learned about using Windows since XP arrived over a decade ago is now obsolete.
Windows 8, and now 8.1, asks you to learn new ways of doing the same old things, and it doesn't reward you for learning them. There’s little point in this other than to make you buy new Windows licenses.
For desktop users, Windows 8.1, like Windows 8, before it, is more trouble than it's worth. If I were a full-time Windows user, I'd stick with Windows 7 until Microsoft pried it from my cold, dead hands.