Start PageCredit: Julien ChambersRecently Microsoft announced the release of Windows 8.1 intended to correct some of the mistakes they made in assuming a one size fits all mentality was a pretty good idea. Since I wrote about Windows 8 I figured it is only fitting I write something about Windows 8.1 as a comparison. Once again I am installing the pre-release version on a virtual machine and will test it to see if it’s really enough to change my mind about Windows 8, or if it’s just a bit of smoke and mirrors by Microsoft to appease it’s customer base.

My first attempt at installing Windows 8.1 failed miserably. The virtual machine crashed before it even got the installer loaded so the first lesson here is that you can’t install the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 on a 32-bit machine. In my defence, my computer is a 64-bit machine, unfortunately I forgot the virtual machine I run is not. Twenty minutes later we have the 32-bit installation downloaded and we’re back in business.

The installation process was just as easy as I remember Windows 8 being, although one thing I didn’t appreciate much was the requirement to offer a valid email address to connect with Microsoft’s services. I can already hear the argument, “Well, Apple and Google do the same thing with their App Store and Google Play respectively”... true, but the key difference is Apple and Google don’t also require you to log into your device with that same email address, which is where my objection comes in. Other than that, the installation was pretty smooth. That said, we’re not here to discuss the installation, so let’s get to the meat of this project, how does Windows 8.1 compare with it’s predecessor?

As I stated in my last article, there are a few things going well for this new Windows. For starters it is faster and smoother. Installation is so simple a novice could walk through the steps and come out OK in the end. It’s definitely pretty, and I think it will work very well for tablets, smartphones, and other touch based devices.

Hidden MenuCredit: Julien ChambersWindows 8.1 has addressed a few issues from its earlier version. One thing I noticed straight
 off was a new horizontal scroll bar on the Start Menu. This made it easy to pull things hidden off-screen into view. They also added a little horizontal bar icon in the lower right corner that brings up the hidden menu, which can also be brought up by hovering your mouse over the upper right corner of the screen.This is a slight improvement because there wasn’t any indicator of the menu’s existence before. It isn’t terribly obvious what it is, and I actually discovered it by accident, but the new icon is at least a step in the right direction.

Start ButtonCredit: Julien ChambersIf you switch to the desktop app, you get the familiar Windows Desktop experience. Microsoft brought back the Windows icon Start Menu in the same place users will already be familiar with, which by itself is a much-needed improvement. Previously you had to hover your mouse in an invisible hot spot to get to the Start Menu which led to a great deal of frustration trying to not only find the exact spot with your mouse, but hold the mouse there long enough for it to register. I could see people with shaky hands having major trouble there, so the return of the Start Menu is a big deal.

Another nice change Microsoft made was to give users the ability to change the desktop so it looks like the traditional Windows Desktop. You can change the settings so the Desktop App is the default application that comes up when you first start Windows instead of the Start Menu. This gives users a similar look and feel they’re already used to and is a great idea for corporations trying to ease users into the new environment. Once signed in, users see their familiar desktop, complete with Start Menu and Taskbar. Some applications open with the same window layout people are already used to, including the ‘X’ icon in the corner of the window they’re used to using to close out of the application.

All of those things are huge improvements to the user experience, but I’m not convinced it’s enough. It is still hard to find things and I discovered that many apps open in a full screen instead of a windowed mode regardless of being launched from the Desktop app. I never did find any obvious way to close out of those full screen applications, making it very frustrating when I wanted to switch to a new application. Pressing the Windows key on the keyboard or clicking on the Windows icon on the hidden menu brought up the Start Menu, but pressing it a second time just sent you back to your application. Selecting another app from the menu opens the new app, but doesn’t close down the current one. I can see this being phenomenally bad as people start piling up open apps in the background, all of which eat up memory and other system resources while they continue running. There is no obvious way to close them, and I found myself relying on the ALT-F4 keystroke to get out of trouble.Hovering your mouse in the upper left corner brings up a hidden menu to switch between open applications much like ALT-TAB does in earlier versions of Windows, but again, it only switches between the applications, it does not close them down.

Customization OptionsCredit: Julien ChambersOverall I am sorry to say my opinion of Windows 8 hasn’t changed much with this update. While there have been some minor improvements for traditional users, it isn’t enough to get me excited about upgrading. It feels as if Microsoft slapped a Start Menu icon on the desktop, added a few minor nods to mouse and keyboard users, and went on their way. Since this is a pre-release version I’m evaluating I remain hopeful this is not the end of the changes to be made, but I held the same hope last time and that never materialized. Once again I find myself feeling that I will give Windows 8 a miss and see what the next desktop version of Windows has to offer..