Windows 8.1: Should Your Business Make the Jump?

I'm not a programmer, but I have many friends who make software that people use to get things done. Allow me to impart one lesson they have all learned, repeatedly and painfully: very small changes can result in many, many disruptions to people's workflow.

And when that happens, they will let you – and everybody near them – hear about it.

So I have some sympathy for the people behind the recent Windows 8.1 release. The major question seems to be, “Will upgrading from Windows 7 be smooth, and will it be worth the time and money?” And the answer is, as with so many things technology, “It depends on how you work and live and what you expect.” But your personal, daily workflow is more key to this question than anything else.

That is because so much of Windows 8.1 is based on smoothing out the edges and addressing common complaints around Windows 8. Windows 8 introduced a minimalist, flat-designed, one-app-at-a-time “Start Screen” that, when used with a standard desktop mouse-and-keyboard users, was “like trying to eat M&Ms with oven mitts”. In general, Windows 8′s user experience was a keen launching point for a new Surface tablet, and jarring for people working at a desk.

So onto Windows 8.1. With a big hat tip to experienced Microsoft writer and analyst Ed Bott’s analysis, here are some things that have been tidied up for those wary of stepping foot inside the new Windows.

  • There is a Start button and a desktop (if you want it): The desktop mode of Windows 8 offered a familiar setup for long-time Windows workers: icons, taskbars and resizable windows. Everything really, except the Start button that had been with us since Windows 95. With 8.1, the Start button is back, and you can boot right into that Start-enabled desktop (with a switch in settings).
  • You can use multiple windows on one screen, or multiple displays: Windows 8 was literally an all-or-nothing dive for people used to working with side-by-side programs, or who had a multiple-monitor setup perfected. Half-screen window “snapping” is restored in 8.1, you can use up to four apps at once (including multiple instances of Internet Explorer or Mail), and the options for sizing and balancing multiple monitors are much improved.
  • More hints on start-up about how to use the thing: With Windows 8, you would have to literally guess at how, for example, mousing or tapping on certain corners or edges of the screen would get you to the “Charm bar,” that allowed for things like searching and somewhat essential things like, well, connecting to a printer. There are more links to tutorials, and more arrows pointing out where to look when you first boot up.
  • Little visual things that induce less panic: You can now set a background that works for both the Desktop and the Start screen, rather than solid colors or translucent patterns. You might not think the ability to always see the background you love to be a priority, but one can assume the Windows team heard about it. And new programs installed on a system, or by an update, are not automatically added to the Start screen, displacing all the work one did to make that new space look slightly tidy.

As noted above, Ed Bott’s tour of Windows 8.1 and slideshow tour of what’s new go much deeper, but the points above should give you an idea of where Windows 8.1 is headed. Upgrading from 7 to 8.1 is smoother than when Windows 8 first launched, but you should still take a very close look before leaping.

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