Microsoft has released its first major update for Windows 8, the Windows 8.1 upgrade, with a slew of fixes intended to improve features and address many usability issues and concerns with the original release.
Perhaps most notable is the return of the Windows Start button, which was removed from the original launch of Windows 8, much to the dismay of users who have been accustomed to it for more than a decade of Windows use. In point of fact, though, the interface is still a bit different… instead of the words “Start” the icon is now the Windows logo, as shown below, and clicking on it does not bring up the familiar start menu from the prior days of Windows, but instead launches the Windows Metro interface where you can click on the Tile for the application you want.
Beyond the return of the start button, the new Windows 8.1 upgrade also allows users to boot their computers directly to the familiar Windows desktop, instead of the "new" Windows 8 start screen shown above. Oddly though - given all the criticisms that brought back to the boot-to-desktop feature in the first place - it is still not the default, and in fact as tech guru Walt Mossberg explains, it requires a somewhat hidden series of steps to actually turn on the feature.
For typical financial adviser Windows users, though, this is surprisingly about the fullest extent of changes you'll likely notice in Windows 8.1. Although there is a long list of additional features of the release, most of them relate to the touchscreen versions of Windows laptops and Windows tablets like the Surface Pro; given that relatively few desktop users have touchscreens, the various gesture and touch updates are generally irrelevant for most.
Perhaps the greatest nuisance of Windows 8 (and 8.1) is the fact that Windows "Apps" (the little software snippets you download and can integrate directly into the Windows start screen tiles or run within Window Metro) still don't integrate with Windows "Applications" (all that software you run on your desktop). As a result, there's still no easy way to switch between Windows Apps and Windows Applications. Personally, I've found that the easiest way to use Windows 8 is to just completely ignore the entire existence of Windows 8 Apps, and just use Windows in the same desktop format to which we've all grown accustomed. Which works fine, except it seems like a ridiculous waste that I have to avoid using any Windows Apps because the interface is so badly designed. In fact, Windows 8 users who have wanted to upgrade to Windows 8.1 have been confused and unable to figure out how to do so, because the Windows 8.1 upgrade itself is run not through the familiar "Windows Updates" feature (where every other Windows update has been found since the launch of Windows!), but instead in the "Windows Store" App found on the Metro start screen... an excellent example of the confusing lack of continuity and integration of Windows Apps and Applications.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that for Windows users who are accustomed to using a desktop machine as... well, a desktop machine... will find that Windows 8.1 makes their lives easier, with the return of the Start button, the potential to boot to desktop, and essentially the opportunity to ignore as much of the Windows 8 Metro interface as possible. While that seems like quite a waste, the upside is still that, as adviser tech guru Joel Bruckenstein has pointed out, Windows 8 is significantly more secure than older versions of Windows (especially Windows XP, for which Microsoft will no longer even provides security patches, updates, or support after April 8th of 2014!), generally boots and runs faster, and overall represents the focus of both Microsoft's development efforts and new features and the integration efforts of many financial adviser software platforms (given that Windows is still the primary operating system used by financial advisers).
So the bottom line is that while Windows 8.1 certainly doesn't resolve all of the many complaints that have been levied at it, the latest version of the operating system is at least a little more familiar and usable than the prior version was, and the upgrades in speed and security should be compelling, especially for users that are still several versions behind. And to say the least, if you're still running Windows XP - with support set to end next Spring - you should probably look at upgrading to Windows 8.1 soon.
What do you think? Is it time for an upgrade? What are the features of Windows 8 - and Windows XP - that you cannot live without? Join the conversation
Michael Kitces is a Partner and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, and publisher of the financial planning industry blog Nerd's Eye View. You can follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces, or connect with him on Google+.