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.
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.
One thing that Microsoft took away when it launched Windows 8 is now back with Windows 8.1, and that’s the ability to pick your own default programs.
Windows 8.1 Upgrade Delivers Good and Bad News
Previously, you had no choice but to accept Internet Explorer 11 as your browser with Windows 8, for the simple reason that IE11 is no longer a separate application. It’s part of Windows 8 and now 8.1.
Even though you could install a different browser and use it as the default for opening links, IE was still there and handled a number of functions. Now you can turn Internet Explorer off completely, but it’s still there and some parts of Windows may still make use of it.
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.
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.
Getting the Windows 8.1 upgrade is fairly straightforward. If you already have Windows 8, it’ll show up in the Windows Store. Once you select the upgrade it’ll be installed automatically. It’s worth noting that your Windows 8 apps will be updated automatically once Windows 8.1 is installed.
If you don’t have Windows 8, or if you don’t want to install it from the Windows Store, Microsoft will also have .iso files available so that you can create a DVD or install it from a USB drive.
If you’re running Windows 7, you can update to Windows 8.1 and your information will be retained. But you’ll need to reinstall your applications. If you have an earlier version of Windows, you’ll need to perform a fresh installation. Going to Windows 8.1 from an earlier version of Windows isn’t free.
While the Windows 8.1 upgrade is theoretically available starting at 7 a.m. EST on Oct. 17, 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.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify the browser selection process in Windows 8.1.