Windows 8.1 is here: Can it win over skeptical PC buyers?

Windows 8.1 is here: Can it win over skeptical PC buyers?

Summary: Microsoft's ambitious Windows 8.1 release faces a daunting challenge: rehabilitating the tarnished image of its predecessor and convincing wary consumers and enterprise customers that new Windows-powered hardware is still a smart choice.

The new Windows 8.1 Start screen

If you could synthesize a year's worth of mixed reviews into just a few words, Windows 8 would probably boil down to these three: confusing, contradictory, and unfinished.

Today, almost exactly one year after shipping Windows 8, Microsoft released its successor. Windows 8.1 (a free update for Windows 8 users) now has the formidable challenge of rehabilitating its predecessor's tarnished image and convincing consumers and businesses that new Windows-powered hardware is a smart choice.

I've spent the past several months using the Windows 8.1 Preview and the final shipping code on a variety of devices: traditional desktop and notebook PCs, all-in-ones with touchscreens, and tablets and touch-enabled devices in many shapes and sizes.

Last week, as I was preparing to write this article, I rolled back a few of those machines to their original installation, and returned to Windows 8 for a few days. That experience was enough to confirm for me that the changes in Windows 8.1 are substantial and go a long way toward overcoming the objections that early adopters had to Windows 8.

The new features, new apps, and refinements in Windows 8.1 probably won't be enough to win over the diehard haters. If you think the Windows 8 design style was a sharp turn in the wrong direction, you should probably stop reading right now. But for anyone who thought Windows 8 was basically a good idea, poorly executed, Windows 8.1 is worth a serious look.

Windows 8.1 has the advantage of arriving in a far more welcoming ecosystem than its predecessor faced. When Windows 8 launched, most of the new touchscreen devices it was designed for were still on the drawing board. Those that were available for sale were typically priced too high. Today, there's a very broad selection of aggressively priced touchscreen notebooks, tablets, and all-in-ones from just about every PC OEM.

Today's public release—General Availability, or GA, in MicroSpeak—doesn't contain too many surprises. Most of the new features were already in the Windows 8.1 Preview, which has been publicly available for more than three months. A few extra features made their debut in the RTM code, which has been available for MSDN and TechNet subscribers and for Volume License customers since early September. (For details of the Preview release, see Hands-on with the Windows 8.1 preview. For an overview of what's in RTM, see Windows 8.1 RTM: What's new, what's next? and the accompanying gallery, What's changed in the Windows 8.1 RTM release?)

The real story today is the widespread availability of the update, which should roll out to every Windows 8 PC over the next 30 days or so. Along with that wide release, Microsoft is lighting up back-end services, including some improvements in the Windows Store and some additions to the new apps it's shipping with Windows 8.1.

In day-to-day use, Windows 8.1 feels far more refined than Windows 8. Most (but not all) of the rough edges of Windows 8 have been smoothed out. The unfinished bits are, for the most part, complete. Some (but not all) of the controversial decisions Microsoft made with Windows 8 have been reversed, most notably the decision to ditch the Start button and ship with no online tutorial to help new users get over that disorienting feeling.

In reality, though, the return of the Start button is only one small part of a much larger story. The design goals for Windows 8.1 are pretty much a case study in objection handling.

Consider these all-too-common Windows 8 objections.

The Windows 8 user experience is confusing, especially on non-touch hardware.

Windows 8.1's most obvious response to this objection is the return of the Start button, which restores a familiar element to the desktop. You'll also find a tutorial on the Start screen as well as some tips that appear at startup when you sign in with a new account for the first time.

In Windows 8.1 the Start screen gets a major redesign to make it easier to customize, with a wider range of tile sizes to accommodate more items on the Start screen. And of course there's a check box that lets you bypass the Start screen and go straight to the desktop.

What you won't find is a Start menu, at least not from Microsoft, which stuck to its guns and left that field open for third-party developers.

The transition between the new and old Windows experience is jarring.

One of the biggest unfinished pieces of Windows 8 was the PC Settings app, which covered a handful of high-profile settings but required a visit to the desktop Control Panel for most configuration tasks. In Windows 8.1 the list of options available in the touch-friendly PC Settings list is far more complete.

The result is you can usually choose which interface you want to use. On a PC where you have a full keyboard and a mouse or trackpad, you can use the desktop Control Panel. On a tablet or other touchscreen device, you can use the PC Settings option. The latter is often cleaner and easier to work with, even on a conventional PC, as this example shows.

The old and new Control Panel in Windows 8.1

There aren't enough apps.

You can't convince developers to build apps for a platform that isn't shipping, which explains why Microsoft had to ship Windows 8 with a weak assortment of third-party apps and then wait for developers to catch up.

They made the problem worse by shipping a weak collection of built-in apps, with Mail and Music especially egregious examples.


After a year of development, the third-party selection is much better, although still weak compared to the iPad's rich selection. But with Windows 8.1 the built-in apps are now of uniformly high quality. The Mail app, for example, is full-featured, with IMAP support and the ability to drag messages into folders. Both the Music and Video apps are greatly improved, and although they have strong hooks to the Xbox services they work well enough as standalone products.

And a slew of high-profile third-party apps are slated to ship around the same time as Windows 8.1. The long-awaited Facebook app, for example, arrived in the Windows Store a few hours ahead of the official Windows 8.1 launch. You'll see it prominently featured on the Start screen after an upgrade, now that the Windows Store includes support for live tiles.

What's in it for the enterprise?

Most of the early development efforts for Windows 8 focused on consumer devices. That's not surprising, because consumers tend to lead the market whereas enterprise customers are notoriously slow to change. But there are some interesting new enterprise features baked into Windows 8.1. The list includes a new feature called Workplace Join that allows personal devices (tablets and PCs) to be registered on a Windows Server 2012 network.

And the security story is also encouraging. Widespread adoption of UEFI and Secure Boot basically puts all current rootkits out of business, and it's hard to see how malware writers can work around that protection. Similarly, there's now fully integrated support for fingerprint logins. Windows has supported this technology for several versions, but Windows 8.1 adds a consistent user interface. The biometric technology is also reportedly more sophisticated than what Apple released with the iPhone 5S; we'll see if hackers are able to break into Windows 8.1 using a plastic copy of a fingerprint.

In fact, there's plenty of new stuff in Windows 8.1 that should be of interest to IT pros, enough material for me to write a 140-page ebook on the topic. If your job responsibilities include corporate network management, deployment, or BYOD management, you should take a look at Introducing Windows 8.1 for IT Professionals. (It's a free download in PDF format.)

Ultimately, though, Windows 8.1 will rise or fall on the strength of Microsoft's OEM partners. Intel's latest processors, 4th Generation Core (Haswell) and Atom (Bay Trail) offer dramatically better battery life than their predecessors, which is essential for mobile devices. Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo are all shipping good-looking 7- and 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets this fall, and Acer is about to release the Iconia W4, an 8.1-inch tablet thathas a much better CPU and screen than its weak first entry, the W3-810. And of course, Microsoft has refreshed versions of its Surface hardware coming out next week.

For anyone already running Windows 8, the update to Windows 8.1 is a must-have. The big question is whether new hardware and a spiffed-up Windows 8 can win over consumers and businesses.

Related Stories:

Topics: Windows 8, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, PCs

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
  • Windows 8.1 is just a gimmick

    We regret to state that Windows 8.1 seems to be just a gimmick as yet. We are yet to hear from the Tech experts how much lacuna it has got. However, it will surely increase the headache of the companies like appnext, adcolony, tapjoy, admob and others
    • Time for the Trolls

      Today is the day for trolls to come out in full force. The spew out massive amounts of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). They have very little direct experience and just repeat what others have said.

      I found Windows 8 with Office 365 to be much more stable than offerings under XP. I use Windows 8 on half of my computers. I look forward to Windows 8.1 and will probably upgrade the rest.
      • Good for you

        And you are a Microsoft fanboy. I'm glad you think so highly of 8. But don't go and down a great OS like XP. I doubt Windows 8 will be around 12 years.
        • Once Windows XP WAS great but compared to Windows 7/8/8.1 ...

          ... it is sluggish and insecure. It performs poorly on several fronts and will soon leaves it users vulnerable to attack.
          M Wagner
          • Windows 7 is still top dog.

            Windows 7 is still the best desktop user interface out there. Windows 8 desktop is a couple steps backward. Windows 8 Metro is just plain useless on a desktop computer. Windows 8.1 won't make any difference. It's still no Windows 7 Aero with gadgets.
          • Windows 7 is "the best"?

            I'm not sure about that. While I haven't used 8.1 extensively, from what I've seen I prefer Mac OS X with iWork and the web-based iWork for iCloud software (an Office365 competitor).

            The "What's new in Windows 8.1" slideshow was interesting, as I believe almost every feature described has a counterpart in OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) and iWork for iCloud.

            When OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) is released later this month - with reportedly 200 new features - things will change again.

            (I know. Excel macros! For heavy-duty number crunching, use Mathematica or a Perl scripts: both run rings around anything you can achieve with Excel macros.)
          • Expensive computer purchase for OS?

            OS X is fine. I would probably use it if I could put it on a non Apple product. I can't justify buying a $2000 machine just for an OS.
            Torrance Amie
          • Re: Windows 7.........................

            You said a couple of steps backwards. You should have said: "a couple of flights of steps backward" and that's being kind to MS!
            Win 8 was a pig and win 8.1 is a pig! Just because you give it lipstick and lip gloss,
            "IT'S STILL A PIG"! "A pig by any other name is STILL A PIG" to paraphrase the rose analogy!!!!!!
          • History again

            When we made the transition from pre-windows operating system and cursor keys to Windows and the mouse there were many comments like this. Now we go from mouse to touch. The same yelling and hollering is going on.
          • Transition from Windows 3.1 to Win 95/98/2000/XP/VISTA/7

            I cut my teeth on Windows 3.1. I remember the transition to Win 95 UI and love made sense and I found it easy to make the leap to Win 95 and never looked back at Win 3.1 UI. Same thing for all Windows UI updates all the way through Win 7. But Win 8 Metro/Desktop just did not make sense. I studied up on it and used the previews and still found it a pain. I have a friend that can't figure out the basics of Windows 7 who is in the market for a new laptop. I hate to think of all the around-the-clock calls I'll get if she gets one with Windows 8 (I'll take the phone off the hook/turn off the cell phone). And she's pretty typical of friends and family. I think many people here that love Windows 8.0/8.1 forget that there are a majority of average people out there that do not want to spend time relearning Windows, who aren't enthusiasts for whom the Windows 8 family is a non-starter.
          • yep (no text)

          • Maybe because we don't have or want touch screens

            I see absolutely no advantage of a touch screen on a large screen PC - it just gets in the way.
          • Once I added Start8

            Once I added Start8, Windows 8.1 became usable. Yes, I have used Win 8 and the 8.1 preview but still find the Metro UI drives me straight up the wall. Anything involving Metro just gets in my way. For me the update in 8.1 just didn't do enough to improve the Metro UI which is why I added Start8 (which I'd been using on Windows 8) to the 8.1 update. Glad it works for some people but I'm not going to apologize that I hate Metro with a passion.
          • Really?

            Why didnt you just use the Windows button on your keyboard?
            Maybe I'm just missing something?
          • Like Start8

            I too put Start8 on my new Win8 laptops and prefer the look of Win7 it gives you. I just upped to 8.1 and Start8 brought back the preferred start screen after all the waits reboot and more waits the free upgrade goes through.
          • Agreement here

            I can appreciate that Metro is likely great if you have a touch screen device, but otherwise it is awful on a large traditional screen. It is plain ugly and just complicates the use of the PC.
          • Gadgets in Win 8

            You can have gadgets in Win 8. I set them up with typical stuff you would need. Like calender, System monitor and stuff like that. What sucks about Win 8 is the constant work a rounds you have employ to do things you have done for years in other Win products. A Start button like old times is not much to ask. And "Metro" is just a bunch of bull on desktop and laptops. Screen touching is lame on any machine you have a physical mouse and keyboard. And with all that said. I like Win 8 for it's quickness period. Once you get to the "real" desktop It's not to bad.
            Torrance Amie
          • start Button

            I downloaded a stop button many months ago for desktops Win8, and it can be configured for either XP or Win7. I just downloaded 8.1, and it has retained the same stop buttons. People who are have problems with win 8, can just watch a couple of videos on Youtube. I did that when I first use win8, and after 30 minutes, I had no problems using the OS. I like using XP for data, and my laptop is dual boot with XP and Win7. I find XP treats the user as an Adult and is not so forgiving if you put any old software on it. Win 7 is bloated in comparison with its irating pop ups using data, but is excellent editing Video. Win 8.1 I am still playing with it. I never use Microsoft security, because I prefer other third party software, and while they support it I will continue to use XP on my laptops.
          • From a Developers View

            Actually XP was better than 7. W8 is actually closer to XP. With W7 Microsoft became enamored with color gradients or smooth changes in color. While they worked on some monitors, on many they were not smooth transitions but turned into colored lines. Lighting conditions could also change how the gradients looked.

            Analog VGA monitors sometimes really had a problem. Please remember that with VGA you are going from digital on the computer to analog for transmission and back to digital in the monitor. Things could get lost in all this conversion. It was amazing to look 2 identical monitors on the same computer, one with a VGA cable and one with an HDMI cable. The all digital HDMI made the gradients look so much better.

            You can imagine the customer complaints the gradients caused. Trying to turn off this feature was a real pain. Now with Windows 8 things are back to the solid color fields.
        • Perhaps you are too young

          to recall the outcry over Windows XP when it first came out - how people thought it was worse than Windows ME, how it would never be as good as Windows 95...