faster than it's accrued market share. Microsoft, now a year older and wiser, hopes to right its course with Windows 8.1, which began rolling out to current Win 8 users as an optional download at 7 a.m. Eastern time Thursday.
The protests against Windows 8 are legion. Some say it alienated desktop users with its Live Tile Start screen and redesigned UI. Others contend it bored desktop users with uninspired core apps and a weak library of third-party titles. It was also criticized for forcing a tablet OS and a desktop OS into one package, and for failing to revitalize the flagging PC market. And that's not to mention the implications of Microsoft's Surface tablets, an inextricable extension of the Win 8 strategy that has not only cost the company millions but also soured relationships with some of its partners.
Retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in June that Windows 8.1 would offer a "refined blend" of the original Win 8 vision, but given the original version's struggles, many commentators have questioned whether iterative enhancements will be enough. Should you upgrade to Microsoft's newest OS? Here are 10 things you need to know.
[ Will Windows 8.1 make the difference for laggards? See Windows XP Holdouts Hold On. ]
1. Windows 8.1 won't become available to all customers at the same time.
Microsoft began a staged rollout to current Win 8 users Thursday morning, which means Windows 8.1 is already available to many via the Windows Store. For some current Win 8 users, though, the update might not appear until later in the day. The update is optional, but Microsoft will stop supporting Windows 8 with security patches in two years, which should push stragglers along.
For those using an older version of Windows, the retail version of Windows 8 will become available Friday. The core version is $119.99 and Windows 8.1 Pro is $199.99.
2. Windows 8.1 should offer a better desktop experience.
With a boot-to-desktop mode, the ability to disable hot corners, a reintegrated Start button and other features that allow users to banish Live Tiles from their workflow, Windows 8.1 might offer enough to appease disenchanted desktop users. After changing a few settings, the OS can be treated largely like an updated version of Windows 7. There is one significant exception, however. Read on.
3. The Start button doesn't have a Start menu.
Unlike Windows 7's Start button, the Windows 8.1 version doesn't summon a Start menu; instead, it takes users to an "All Apps" view.
This issue has made many Win 8 critics skeptical of the upgrade's prospects. Nonetheless, the new Start button still preserves many Start menu-like functions. If users right-click the Start button, or hold down on it when using a touchscreen, a list of additional options will appear. They include access to programs, settings, files and the Task Manager, as well as the ability to power down or restart the device.
4. Windows 8.1 is an update to both Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Microsoft has downplayed the RT branding lately; the company dropped the RT designation with the Surface 2, and Microsoft Surface product manager Jack Cowett admitted in a recent interview with ARN that the company's original marketing confused consumers.
Nonetheless, Microsoft remains committed to Windows RT in spirit, if not in name; Windows 8.1 updates both Win 8 and Win RT. The upcoming Surface 2 will run the 8.1 version of RT, which adds support for Microsoft Exchange, as well as many of the other Modern UI tweaks that will debut in the full version of Windows 8.1.
What remains to be seen: Will any manufacturer other than Microsoft make an RT device?
5. Windows 8.1 should offer a more cohesive user experience.
Moving between the desktop and the Modern UI could be smoother in Windows 8.1 thanks to a variety of new features. Users can set the same background for both interfaces, for example, which should make it less jarring to jump back and forth. Microsoft has also integrated a tutorial app to help users learn how the OS works, which should help speed up whatever remains of the original Win 8's infamous learning curve.
Windows 8.1 should also be more cohesive for users who prefer to stick with one UI or the other. Those who opt for Live Tiles can now access more settings and controls in the Modern UI's settings menu, eliminating the need to pop over to the desktop. Those who prefer the desktop, meanwhile, can essentially lock off the Modern UI, as mentioned above.