Windows 8.1 Update -- Microsoft finally gets it right

In an effort to make its tiled OS more popular, Microsoft has been forced to make a series of compromises. People haven’t been rushing out to buy touch screen computers, and Windows tablets lag a long way behind Android and iOS devices, so with the Windows 8.1 Update Microsoft has made changes designed to appeal to keyboard and mouse users and further bridge the gap between the desktop and the Modern UI.

Sure, the result is a Frankenstein product, and the compromises made along the way are obvious and awkward, but you know what? Windows 8.1 with Update installed, is actually a damn fine OS. If this was the product that Microsoft had rolled out as a successor to Windows 7, I suspect it would have been a lot more popular and received a lot more praise.

When I first used Windows 8.1 with a leaked version of the Update installed (in a virtual machine), I wasn’t sure I liked it. But dipping in and out over time, my opinion slowly altered. And now using the full, official, release on my actual PC I find myself really approving of the changes.

Microsoft's latest raft of compromises look odd to existing users -- because we know they’ve been shoehorned in -- but to a newcomer it all makes perfect sense. Adding a menu bar to Modern apps is great -- it makes them easier to close. Adding the taskbar to the Start screen is excellent -- you can jump straight to any running program using the mouse. Including Modern apps on the desktop taskbar is a smart move. It blurs the lines between the two modes, and I really, really like it.

When Windows 8 came out I couldn’t recommend it to anyone. I didn’t rate it, and couldn’t get behind it. Windows 8.1 was a marked improvement, and my view changed. I liked it, and recommended it, but not wholesale. I knew it wasn’t for everyone.

Windows 8.1 Update, I’ll happily recommend to all. Sure, there’s still a slight learning curve, but it’s a much gentler one. Spend half an hour learning your way around, and you’ll be fine. Yes, there’s no Start menu, but the Start screen is great, and the tweaks Microsoft has made to it are good ones. Highlighting recently installed software makes it so much easier to find new programs and apps.

If you feel the absence of a Start menu undermines your productivity, install a third party one -- there are plenty of choices. Don’t let that one thing stand in the way between you and what is now a near perfect OS.

If you hate the Start screen, you don’t need to go near it. If you want nothing to do with full screen Modern apps, you don’t need to use or install them.

Sure, certain niggles remain but Windows 8.1 is still trying to be an OS that will work on a range of devices, from the tiniest tablet to the most powerful multi-screen PC, so that’s inevitable. And forgivable. The pluses easily outweigh the minuses.

At Build we saw a glimpse of a future Start menu, which -- for me -- would be another step in the right direction (backwards, some would say, but it doesn’t have to be). Microsoft is rebuilding Windows 8.x as it goes, refining and improving. The latest incarnation is very different from the initial release, and future changes -- like adding a Start menu -- would further distance the OS from the original vision. But really that’s no bad thing.

If you’ve been sitting on the fence, undecided whether to upgrade to Windows 8.1, now is the time to jump. You won’t regret it.

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