Windows 8.1 brings some much needed improvements, but doesn’t fix everything, says Wayne Rash
Relief is finally at hand. The strange, intractable problems that have plagued Windows 8 since it was first shipped a year ago are being addressed and, in some cases, fixed. Or perhaps I should say that most of them have been addressed, but for reasons that remain unknown, there are features of Windows 8.1 that you will still need but aren’t there.
On the other hand, the upgrade process is fairly simple for most users, and even better, it’s probably going to be free, but the discount price for upgrading from a previous version of Windows is gone.
Everyone will pay the same whether it’s for an entirely new version of Windows or an upgrade from a previous version. In addition, the only previous version from which you can upgrade is Windows 7. If you have Windows XP or Vista, you’re out of luck.
Return of the start button… sort of
The good news is that Microsoft has worked to ease the learning curve with Windows 8.1. There’s a lot of new context-sensitive help and a new app aimed at providing hints and tips that make it easier to figure out what you want the new version of Windows to do. You get prompts for features such as the active corners, so that when you move your mouse in the direction of the lower right, for example, you get told that the Start button is there.
But that’s not to suggest that the old-and-yearned-for Windows 7 Start button is back. This Start button will allow you to launch some applications, but the old ability to launch programs that you use a lot still hasn’t returned. But if you right-click on the new Start button, you’ll get a menu with most of what you want.
Other things that users have asked for have appeared in Windows 8.1. For example, you no longer need to boot the computer into the Start Screen with its tiles and apps. Instead you can boot into the desktop, just like you could with earlier versions of Windows.
This is a good thing, because even though apps may show up on the tiles of the Start Screen, you’ll find that most of them still drop you into the desktop before the app is launched. So if you’re going to run, for example, Microsoft Word anyway, you might as well start at the desktop.
Not by default
Previously, you had no choice but to accept Internet Explorer as your default browser, for example. Now you can decide what you want your defaults to be, just as you could with previous versions.
While it’s hard to believe sometimes that people actually missed the old Windows interface, apparently they do. With the new update to Windows, you don’t really have to look at the tiles on the Start Screen again.
Death to live tiles
However one thing that some people really disliked about Windows 8, in whatever incarnation, was the use of live tiles on the Start Screen. I’ve heard complaints about how distracting the live tiles were from people starting with the first Windows Phone 8 release. With larger screens, live tiles became even more distracting. Now you can turn off the live information. You can also resize and relocate those tiles.
Unfortunately, some things weren’t fixed. The biggest disappointment is the support for POP3 in the mail program. While the standard mail program has been extensively reworked, and it’s got a lot of nice features, you still can’t use POP3. The only solution is to use Outlook.com to access your POP services, or to install Outlook, whether as part of Microsoft Office or as part of Office 365. Of course, you can always use a third-party mail app.
While the Windows 8.1 upgrade is available now, you might want to wait until later in the day, or maybe even until the next day, to download Windows. You can assume that the servers around the world will be clogged.
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Originally published on eWeek.