How Windows 8.1 Update magnified my confusion

Keeping the names straight, finding out what you are actually running, and figuring out if you will get future Windows updates is not easy.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

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. 

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