Windows 8.1: Close, but no cigar

Windows 8.1: Close, but no cigar

Summary: Will Windows 8.1 be better than Windows 8? Yes. Better than Windows 7? No, not really.


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. 

Windows 8.1's Metro interface is less annoying, but that's not saying much.

It didn't.

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.

Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview (Gallery)

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.

We still need a good desktop operating system. I believe that the best desktop operating systems, such as Mint and Ubuntu are based on Linux, but I can see why people like Windows 7 and XP.

The best new desktop today: Linux Mint 15 (Gallery)

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.

Microsoft has finally made it possible to avoid Metro when you boot your PC.

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.

Related Stories:

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, PCs, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Window 8.1

    Windows 8.1 start screen is a million times better that Windows 7 start screen and Global search with integrated Bing, even 3 year old could figure out Windows 8.1 is way better that Windows 7. Bloggers are trying too hard to throw mud at Win 8.1 as well, but they are not going to succeed.
    • The art of ...

      ... yellow journalism, deception and misleading is what the bloggers like Steven good at doing. However, the reality is Windows 8 has sold out sold Linux and Windows 8.1 will consign your beloved OS to the oblivion.

      As Windows 8 user, I would not even want the Start button take space on my taskbar. I had already binned one of my favourite productivity application.

      If people like do want Windows, then please do not write about it and mention it. Focus on your rarely seen OS.
      • Deception?

        It is comments such as yours (or meaningless comments about 3 years olds with a total lack of any supporting arguments, as per the OP's post) that keep me from considering the opinions of the pro Windows 8 crowd seriously. It is truly deceptive to imply Windows 8 is so great because it outsells Linux without making reference to Windows 8's poor sales in comparison to Windows 7 (let alone setting out any arguments about why Windows 8 is better than Linux, sales aside). It is also highly deceptive to accuse a journalist of deception while failing to provide any evidence that any of his statements are deceptive. Come back when you can argue in favour of Windows 8 or 8.1 on their merits without resorting to name-calling and meaningless, undetailed advertising style blurbs.
        • The young person an the computer

          Here you, HMMM, err as I have seen young, under 7, have incredible computer knowledge and skills.
        • And...

          " It is truly deceptive to imply Windows 8 is so great because it outsells Linux "

          Especially when one considers that MOST Linux installs are freeware, and not purchased at all, which makes this comparison flawed.
          Lightning Joe
          • And...

            When you consider that most Linux installs are on servers.
            And no, Android does not count.
      • Help Feed Steven !!

        Hey do what i do...log in once a week and get your
        Booo Microsoft
        Hip Hip Horey Linux!!

        fix for the week

        I log in just to support him financially and keep his article analytics hits and advertisement displays high.... Steven has to feed his family!

          Yeah streaky88 you tell them! Why would anyone want to use a stable O/S such as Linux when they can pay hard earned cash to keep Billy boy wealthy and laughing at you.
          Joey Ginolfi
      • mamaar007 as long as you don't count android as linux.

        and since it has the linux kernel it's linux so no, win8 has not outsold linux.
    • If it weren't for honest unbiased commentators like yourself...

      ...MS would have gone bankrupt years ago.
      John L. Ries
      • Ms has made some serious blunders

        over the years and have lost markets.
        Zune, Win CE (and all the renamings) lost it in the mp3 player and early tablet market. If they had come up with something innovative years ago, rather than try to overlay windows inappropriately on a small device, they would own the tablet market today.

        Yeah, they happen to have one cash cow - and did well with the XBox, for awhile, but a large part of that is inertia.
    • Owl... I hear you but ..

      Not seeing it.
      My ASUS UL went back to Win7. 8 was just too limiting even if it did a lot of things faster.
      My Surface needs all the help it can get. Software. The hardware is very nice. Bing. It sucks. Then again I am a long time power user and Bing can't do what I need. Google can. (Don't ask for details. If you don't know, I won't be ale to convince you..)

      Saddest aspect is I find I can do more of my daily tasks on my Transformer setup than m Surface setup. It's all in the software. Hoping 8.1 helps but I have not seen anything enlightening yet. Sigh......

      For now, Win7 is my pc goto, Android is my tablet /phone goto. It looks more and more like MS is so missing the portable boat.
      • To Limiting?

        HOW! I do ever thing on my Win 8 desktop machine the same as before, but now I can do extra things with Metro.
        Maybe you failed to learn Win 8 properly as I've found less limits than Win 7!
        Maybe it's hard for young ones to adjust! ;-)
        • Re: Maybe you failed to learn Win 8 properly

          Whose fault is that?
          • @ldo17

            May be the poster's fault? Without learning to use something properly, you will always find fault with it for sure.

            However, I still think Windows 8 needed a lot more updates. I may switch to it completely when, say, 8.5, released.
          • Re: Without learning to use something properly

            Windows is supposed to be all about familiarity. I mean, if they want to learn something new, they might as well switch to Linux, and gain the benefit of the greater power that offers. What is the point of driving away loyal Windows users?
          • "they might as well switch to Linux..."

            Yeah, then they can learn something new that doesn't apply to 90% of the machines they will encounter in the rest of the world and doesn't run any of the software he has come to know either. That makes way more sense...

            BRB, dropping my spanish courses so I can learn the far more efficient and flexible language of the klingons.
          • I think it is easier

            to use Open office or Libre office than the MS windows productivity suite.

            Not sure what the problem would be, when switching to Linux. That you can't use IE11 :P

            I guess for home those who like games a lot will have issue, but I can tell you if I switched at my home - added firefox, Chrome and Open office, no-one would know the difference. I should try it some day.
          • Re: 90% of the machines they will encounter

            Windows only runs on 20% of today's computers. Much of the rest are running Linux.
          • sarcasm duly noted, but...

            your 90% figure I assume refers to MS Windows market share of the desktop OS market. Whether the desktop has a future longterm is debated regularly but it seems
            Windows will be on the outside looking in if the desktop disappears, or even if it is greatly reduced. In the meantime millions of Linux users have discovered that they can communicate nicely with Windows users using open source software for which they paid $0. Yes, Open Office is not 100% compatible with MS Office. But living in a "good enough" world, Libre/Open Office work well enough. And if need be one can even run "the real Office" on a Linux desktop via WINE. I've managed to do all this and more and never even learned a word of Klingon.