As much as I respect my colleagues Michael Muchmore and Sascha Segan, I must at least partially disagree with their assessments of Windows 8.1. (Michael wrote our official review, and Sascha wrote a column entitled Windows 8.1: A course correction for Microsoft along the lines of Windows 3.1).
From my perspective, this update to Microsoft's operating system patches some shameful holes in the original shaky release, but doesn't do enough to be worth the trouble for traditional desktop users.
Yes, I admit wholeheartedly that I'm old fashioned; the kind of guy who prefers a keyboard and mouse for interaction and relies on moving files and text between six, seven, or even ten windows at a time. Windows 8 was designed for the new breed of tablet lover, the person who can be satisfied with using one app on the screen at a time and has little regular need for external typing or pointing devices. And despite my earnest attempts to understand Windows 8's charms when it came out a year ago – and several times since – I have been unable to find any way to integrate it into my computing life.
My hopes were high for Windows 8.1, and I discovered upon finally spending some quality time with the refreshed OS that it does indeed transform Windows 8 into what Microsoft should have unleashed when it decided to go this route. Abandoning multiple window multitasking in its newly designed Start environment was lunacy, as much because of the history of the OS and standard usage model as because of its name. Now you can once again look at several windows of content at once.
The new tutorials that simplify this wildly different method of PC interaction, and refined settings that better articulate the differences between Desktop and Start, are welcome additions that will help incoming and experienced users from feeling lost at C:\.
And who could complain about the speed increases or updated apps? Most of the other changes – such as lock screen refinements and the ability to use desktop wallpaper and more sizes of tiles on the Start screen – are strictly cosmetic.
But the fact remains that Microsoft has thrown one and only one bone to Desktop lovers like me: The ability to boot directly to that environment instead of having to go through the Start screen first. This is, for Windows veterans, far and away the most important change in Windows 8.1. If you're a writer or a gamer, or you do any of a million jobs that involve sitting at a desk and not using a touchscreen, you've never had a use for Start, and it's good that Microsoft has finally admitted as much.
Everyone should be thrilled at being able to avoid Start if they want to, but the idea that something this elemental, this important, was grudgingly stuck in a point release only demonstrates how off base Microsoft was the first time. Even so, it's not enough to warrant a move.
What about the Start button that's been added back to the Desktop, you may be asking? It's useless. All it does is shunt you to the Start environment you already hate if you're a Desktop diehard. It doesn't bring up the Start Menu, with its hierarchical, at-a-glance organisation of programs and folders – and that is what people miss, not the button itself. In fact, I find the "new" Start button rather condescending, as though our OS overlords in the Ivory Tower of Redmond think we'll be so thrilled by its existence that we won't notice it doesn't give us the actual functionality that we never wanted to lose in the first place.
All this means that the Desktop in Windows 8.1 isn't easier to use, it's just easier to get to. So why bother?
I have already resigned myself to someday having to move to a either a touchscreen display or an out-and-out touch PC. As Michael and Sascha have pointed out, that's just the way the world is headed. When doing so becomes unavoidable, I will move to the then-current version of Windows and I will do it happily – when touch is all you use, Windows 8.1 is a fine operating system about which even I can find very little to complain, and I see no reason to believe things will get worse in the future.
But the world in which I've abandoned my beloved bleeding-edge, self-built desktop PC with highly comfortable and customised pointing devices in favour of a too-expensive, underpowered system designed for touch is not the world in which we yet live. Windows 8.1 acknowledges that there are still lots of people out there who, like me, don't need – and, in many cases, don't want – the benefits it brings to touch, but even so it hasn't improved the Desktop experience in any significant way.
So until I'm dragged to Start by either the Digital Gestapo or Father Time, I'm going to keep using Windows 7. Given that so many of 8.1’s changes that really affect me are retreats to what worked in that OS anyway, why not just stick with the real thing?