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Customer Review

94 of 108 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Start button is back (sort of); other Windows 8 awkwardness remains (and not Linux-friendly), 15 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Microsoft Windows 8.1 (Full Version) (CD-ROM)
The initial portion of this review addresses the final stage of an progressive upgrade from Windows 7 with an intermediate step --lasting one year-- at Windows 8 before progressing to Windows 8.1.

Bottom line up front: If you are a power user of Windows 7, and you can keep running your current hardware with a Windows 7 variant: I can't offer a single compelling reason to make this change. If you're already using Windows 8, proceeding with the evolution to Windows 8.1 will provide a marginal improvement to the user experience due to the return --sort of-- of the Start button (with much less functionality than in earlier versions of Windows) and the option to boot directly into the desktop (bypassing the clunky "Charms" Metro start page).

I've made this upgrade to two computers. For a desktop computer that met the full Windows Store system requirements, I proceeded with the upgrade from Windows 8 from the Store. A netbook I installed Windows 8 on did not have sufficient display resolution to install 8.1 directly from the Windows Store, so I had to run the installation separately via a downloadable 8.1 installer application.

The good news: In both installation cases, The Windows 8 to 8.1 upgrade was issue free (which mirrored the earlier Windows 7 to Windows 8 upgrade experience for both machines). It retained all of my previously installed OS settings, data files and applications. For the netbook upgrade via the installer program I had to enter my Windows 8 activation key (you still have yours, right?); the upgrade via the Store either trusted me or examined the registry for validity of my install.

The not so good news: once Windows 8.1 was in place, the user interface remains fundamentally the same Windows 8 experience that is kindly described as "awkward at best". After more than a year of using this operating system, I still feel like I'm working at half speed whenever I interact with it.

Most of the 8.1 improvements over Windows 8 are under the hood. The biggest user interface change is the return --sort of-- of the Start button. It is rather non-intuitive in that you have to right mouse click to reveal it. Once you do, you'll learn that it is more like a cousin than a brother to the Start button from pre-Windows 8 versions. You will encounter an utter lack of customizing (no pinning programs you use most often, no recent documents listing, no dragging items from the task bar to the Star menu). While you can now boot directly into the desktop, 8.1 still forces you to its Metro/Charms "alternate" desktop for any real power-user functions. Yes, it's an improvement over Windows 8 for simpler navigation to start/shutdown options. For those used to a high degree of start menu customization, this will not slake your thirst (although you'll feel less like you're crawling through a desert towards a mirage than under Windows 8).

Like Windows 8, Windows 8.1 would really, really like you to establish an online log-in with Microsoft. It would also really, really like for you to permit Microsoft to "improve your search and other user experiences" (or something similar; if I were talking to you face-to-face, those would be big old "air quotes", because a cynical user might think Microsoft had another interest in compiling vast amounts of user data to improve marketing opportunity and revenue streams). You can bypass all this and establish your login via with a more traditional --and more private-- local user account, which is my preference. But the interface does not make this option highly visible.

Finally, prior to the installation of Windows 8.1, I had a nicely functioning dual-boot (Windows and Ubuntu) machine. No longer. The boot loader appears after POST, but the Windows/Ubuntu boot loader is non-responsive to either keyboard or mouse commands, and it simply pauses for the programmed delay (4 seconds in my case) and the goes to Windows. Since my Linux is a hobby, this is not a show-stopper, but this could be a deal-breaker for a user with a non-negotiable need for a multi-OS machine.

The remainder of this review addresses the earlier Windows 7 to Windows 8 "upgrade" that preceded the move to 8.1. If you are proceeding to Windows 8.1 directly from Windows 7, this is what you can expect.


This review separates the Windows 8 upgrade/installation experience from the user interface experience. While I consider myself a power user of Windows 7, this didn't come only in its use since upgrading to that OS three years ago . Any proficiency I enjoyed as a Windows 7 user evolved from much longer experience acquired during the evolution of its predecessors (going back to Windows 95). Windows 8 offers a much different user interface (at least to "start" with...pun intended) that relies less on on your prior expertise with earlier Windows operating systems. Much of it will be familiar to users of earlier Windows versions, but it has enough differences to remind you frequently that this is *not* the Windows OS you've become --for better or worse-- familiar with. Because of this, I'm going easy on assessing it until I've had a more time using it for my normal productivity tasks (but so far, I'm lukewarm on the interface).

Since this is an *upgrade* version of Windows 8, this review emphasizes the *upgrade* process, which is not the same as a review focused on the overall user experience. So far, I'm neutral on the interface changes. Lets just say I won't be in a hurry to upgrade all of my existing Windows 7 machines to Windows 8.

Bottom line: This was by far the easiest, most intuitive Windows upgrade I've performed. This is compared with many Windows upgrades and fresh installs going back to 98, ME, Vista and 7. It took less than an hour and successfully retained my existing applications and data files.

What's in the box?
(1) 32-bit installation DVD
(2) 64-bit installation DVD
(3) a product key card
(4) a single page getting started guide

Windows 8 system requirements are essentially the same as Windows 7 (which were generally LESS demanding than Vista and XP requirements). I installed Windows 8 over Windows 7 on a 5-year old Dell XPS 420 with a 32-bit 3 GHZ Intel Core2 Duo processor, 4 GB RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 2600 video processor. Total upgrade time took less than an hour.

The installation process went as follows after inserting the installation DVD:
(1) "Preparing": took about 3 minutes to check for and download updates online.

(2) Windows 8 offered to either preserve your existing applications data files (and some settings) or do a fresh install. I chose to retain my applications and data. In either case, you'll want save --and have access to-- backup copies of your data files and application media/files BEFORE you go through the upgrade and installation.

(3) The install processes ran on my machine for about 28 minutes, then went through a series of restarts. During this time a "percentage complete" message ran on the monitor.

(4) After a final, farewell appearance of a Windows 7 desktop and another restart, Windows 8 went into a "getting ready" process. At this point it presented options for:
-wireless network connections
-express or custom setup
-some privacy-related settings and registration options with Microsoft (these defaulted to not sharing or not required...which is good!)

(5) It then proceeded to a "finalizing" process. At this point is when the upgrade process really shined: it recognized an existing Linux/Ubuntu 12.04 partition on my hard drive and the existing Windows/Ubuntu dual-boot options. It not only preserved Ubuntu functionality, but offered options for selecting your default OS and delay options for the boot loader display.

After finalizing and restarting, Windows 8 recognized all my existing peripherals. All of my existing data and applications were available with no problem. Boot time is about 45 seconds and shutdown time is about 21 seconds.

Comments on the interface experience:
I understand some of the initial hostility this OS has received. While the familiar desktop metaphor lives on (and once you are there, the differences between this and previous Windows user experiences are minimal), before you get there, you have to learn to live with a separate "Start" page. Out of the box this page heavily populated with many online services that Microsoft would clearly be interested in driving your attention (and your wallet!) to. The good news is these are easily removable.

Your keyboard's Windows key will become a powerful tool, as it allows rapid switching between the desktop and start screens. If you have a Windows 8 compatible touchpad (like the Logitech T650), then its "gestures" also permit rapid switching.

At this point, I consider myself still learning the new interface. Some features seem less than intuitive (like how to shut down, for example), but look how we've grown accustomed to the "Start" button being the place to go to stop working!

As I write this, I'm learning to master both the new interface and use of a touchpad instead of a mouse. While I'm not yet working as intuitively as I was with Windows 7, the learning curve hasn't been a deal breaker. The start screen seems mostly an invitation to hook users into use of applications tied to a registered Microsoft account, and the cynical (and privacy-minded) part of me doesn't see great value added in this. It also a place to display your frequently used applications, files, folders and system controls for rapid access.

Bottom line: EASY upgrade process, Ubuntu-friendly and a little learning curve. We've certainly had worse new operating systems from Microsoft in the past...

Note: I've since performed a second install on a netbook that did not have sufficient video resolution to display Windows 8 tiled apps that run on its Start screen. Otherwise, this upgrade path was similarly problem free, and similarly retained existing applications and data present under Windows 7.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 6 Dec 2013 08:12:45 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 3 Feb 2014 16:42:14 GMT]

Posted on 25 Dec 2013 14:44:57 GMT
Dr. Dawson says:
Thanks for let us know what is in the box. I might need to get this product if the download doesn't work. We may need the 64-bit version!

Posted on 19 Feb 2014 11:00:47 GMT
IS1 says:
Concur , not dual boot friendly period :)

Posted on 22 Feb 2014 21:42:27 GMT
Al says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Feb 2014 14:25:14 GMT
B. says:
Hi I have just bought a W8.1 will give my review when I load up OK!!

Posted on 24 Mar 2014 08:37:22 GMT
suilven says:
Useful review, thank you.

Actually if you have a Microsoft account already, that is an (almost) compelling reason to upgrade. The full benefits only become apparent if you own another Windows 8 device e.g. a smartphone. It's nice having a single account for everything and at least they don't blatantly scan my email to target me with ads! "Better the devil you know?"...

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Mar 2014 16:01:13 GMT
fruitloops says:
windows 8 sucks if you actually use your pc for work, not just fannying about. 8.1 is just 8 with a start button. and even then, its not there really. everything takes twice as long to find and do than in windows 7. thats when you can get windows 8 to work and not freeze and crash all the time. had windows 8 then 8.1 on my old pc for about a year and there was barely a day went by without me tearing my hair out with the thing. maybe it just didnt like my cpu or maybe windows 8 doesnt work, either way why bother with the hassle? ive just built a new pc with a haswell chip and ssd drive, installed windows 7 on it. so far everything is perfect. like a breathe of fresh air. sometimes new isnt better. or as good.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Mar 2014 00:25:26 GMT
Last edited by the author on 26 Mar 2014 00:25:38 GMT
@Al: Macs are fine for those who enjoy overpaying for hardware. I don't, and enjoy the flexbility that comes with the relatively open architecture of the PC environment. I've run every version of Windows since Win 95; never had a virus issue

Posted on 14 Apr 2014 21:52:52 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 14 Apr 2014 21:56:36 BDT]

Posted on 20 May 2014 12:00:37 BDT
martin says:
I have been very keen to buy a new laptop and upgrade from windows 7, however at no point has any review ever tempted me away from Win7.... i am now getting to the point where the only viable alternative is to move over to Apple.....

if i HAVE to learn something new, the software might as well work, which Win8 patently does not for 'users' of laptops.... ho hum.
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