As of October 17, 2013, Microsoft
Windows 8.1 is available as a downloadable update for Windows 8 users
. The
retail box version of the operating system hit the market on October 18, 2013.
For those of us using Windows 8, the new features and subtle changes of 8.1 are
very welcome. I can say unequivocally, if you have a computer running Windows
8, you want to upgrade to 8.1.

This
article is also available as a TechRepublic Screenshot Gallery.

Before you begin your download

I know you will be tempted to start your Windows 8.1
download right away, but there are few things to do in preparation before you
begin the process:

  • Make sure you have updated
    your copy of Windows 8 by running Windows Update.
  • Make sure you are logged
    in as the account administrator.
  • Make sure you have
    allocated a couple of hours to the project – it will likely take less time
    than that, but you can never be sure.
  • Just to be safe, you might
    have you activation code for Windows 8 close by.

Note: After you install Windows 8.1, you will be asked to sign in to a Microsoft Live account. There will be no apparent way to move past that screen if your intention is to only have a local account. Here is the trick: Click the Create New Account link and then at the bottom of that next screen you will see a link that will let you cancel the process. You will then login using your local account.

Downloading

If you have a retail version of Windows 8, you can update to
8.1 by going to the Store from the Start Screen – the first item you should see
is a large Windows 8.1 download icon (Figure A).

Figure A

Windows Store

The next page (Figure B) is where you will actually click
the download button. This is also where you can get some explanation of what
changes are available with 8.1.

Figure B

Download

The download took a long time (Figure C), but I am thinking
some of the increased time was because of the number of requests coming in on
the first day of availability.

Figure C

A slow download

Subtle but welcome changes

Once you have completed the download an installation
process, the Start Screen of Windows 8.1 looks much like Windows 8 always has
(Figure D).

Figure D

Windows 8.1 Start Screen

One of the prominent complaints against Windows 8 was the
steep learning curve. In my opinion, much of the problem was that Microsoft did
a terrible job explaining how things work in Windows 8 – especially with regard
to the Start Screen.

Windows 8.1 includes a Help + tips tile (Figure E) that
explains many of the navigation features users should be familiar with when
they are using the Start Screen. There is also an explanation of some of the
new 8.1 features.

Figure E

Help + tips

Figure F shows you some of the new features of Windows 8.1.
For me, some of the more noteworthy changes include the better Search, multiple
applications on one screen, and more personalization choices.

Figure F

What’s new

Figure G shows you a few more of the new features, including
the additional integration of SkyDrive. This is an important change – the
default saving folders are now all on SkyDrive. You will have to specify a
different saving path if you want to save on your local hard drive, for
example.

Figure G

More What’s new

You have many more settings options (Figure H) with 8.1 and
you can now display two modern interface apps side by side.

Figure H

Applications side by side

There are also more options flowing off of the Personalize
settings screen (Figure I). In a business setting, this may not be as
important, but for individuals falling under the BYOD mode of operation it is
often very important.

Figure I

More personalization

Corners and edges play a major role for touch screen users
and the settings for those navigation aspects are included in the Personalize
settings menu. (Figure J)

Figure J

Corners and edges

As a desktop user, I am more excited by having more features
and choices available from the Windows Desktop. Figure K shows you the options
you get when you right-click the Start button in the bottom left corner.

Figure K

More right-click options

As you can see in Figure L, an additional menu off of the
right-click menu gives you all of your Shut down options.

Figure L

Shut down options

The Start button right-click menu also gives you direct
access to the familiar all-encompassing Control Panel. (Figure M)

Figure M

Control Panel

Another new feature in 8.1 that desktop users have been
looking for is the ability to login directly to the Desktop. The setting for
this feature can be found in the Taskbar and Navigation properties screen,
shown in Figure N. You get to this screen by right-clicking the Taskbar and
clicking the Properties menu item.

Figure N

Taskbar and Navigation properties screen

Another personalization feature is the ability to set a
background image for the Start Screen. (Figure O)

Figure O

Background changes

As mentioned earlier, the Search feature in 8.1 now searches
everywhere (Figure P), which eliminates the need to specify apps over settings
etc.

Figure P

Search everywhere

The Windows Store has also received a facelift with 8.1.
(Figure Q)

Figure Q

The new Windows Store

Windows 8.1

As I said originally, if you use Windows 8 you will want to
upgrade to Windows 8.1. There are new features and subtle changes that address
many of the issues user complained about when Windows 8 was released. And you
get these better features for free – that’s tough to complain about.