Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Windows 8.1 Update 1, now with less annoyance

Some disasters are easy to see coming. All you had to do was look at Windows 8 and its Metro -- excuse me, Modern -- interface back in its beta days and you knew it was going to fly like a pigeon with concrete overshoes. Years went by and Windows 8.1 was -- better, but still basically awful. Now Windows 8.1 Update 1 is here, and I've been trying it for the past few weeks and, ah, the best I can say is it sucks less.

First, the good news: If you install Windows 8.1 Update 1 on a PC without a touchscreen, it actually boots to the desktop! Since the Modern interface is just an annoyance without touch, this is a nice improvement.

That said, this change reminds me yet again that Modern really is for touch-enabled PCs. It's awful on a traditional desktop. It also reminds me that if I want touch functionality, I want it on a tablet or smartphone, not on a screen where I have to waste time raising my hand from the keyboard to do a job.

Another change: The Modern apps now have title bars and taskbars. This makes them marginally more usable for people who have used Windows for years. But it brings out another Windows 8.x annoyance: The new title bars and taskbars don't look and work quite like their predecessors, the ones you've used for years.

Change for the sake of change, which is how I've always seen Windows 8.x, is not a way for any product to endear itself to people who used earlier versions for decades. Sure, there were jumps from Windows 3.1 to Windows 98 to Windows 2000 to XP to Windows 7, but none of them required you to relearn the entire desktop experience to be productive.

For example, if you're in desktop mode and you click on an image, now you get to view the image in Windows Photo Viewer instead of the Metro Photos app. Yay! But, if you're on the desktop and you double-click a PDF file, Metro Reader opens it up for you. Boo! Is interface consistency really that hard, Microsoft?

Moving along, Internet Explorer 11 still doesn't impress me. Does anyone, by the way, find it more than a little off-putting that security holes keep appearing that affect everything from IE6 to IE11 despite the fact that Microsoft keeps saying that it has improved the security of its browser? On the other hand, IE11 now at least has tabs and an address bar by default again -- but why they're at the bottom of the display is totally beyond me.

I'd really hoped to see the Start menu come back in this update. I was disappointed. Instead, all the Start button does is throw you into the Modern interface. Again, this is never, ever where I want to be. It now appears -- and, oh, how we hope! -- that we'll get a "new" (read, "old-style") Start menu in August or September.

What's a devoted Windows user to do? Well, if you're already on Windows 8, you poor devil, you should go ahead and "upgrade" to Windows 8.1 as fast as possible. After all, it's not like Microsoft is going to give you any choice in the matter. If you're on Windows 7, stick with it. If you're using anything older, move to Windows 7.

If you're not so devoted and want to try living outside the Microsoft world, I recommend Chromebooks or Linux distributions with a Windows XP-like look and feel, such as Linux Mint with Cinnamon.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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