Windows 8 was released on October 26, 2012 quickly followed by Windows 8.1 on October 17, 2013 (a free upgrade for Windows 8 users treated by Microsoft like a service pack for Windows 8).
With the General Availability of Windows 8.1, customers on Windows 8 have 2 years, until January 12, 2016, to move to Windows 8.1 in order to remain supported. — Windows 8.1 Lifecycle Policy
Windows 8.1's mainstream support ends on January 10, 2023 and extended support on January 9, 2018.
Windows 8 Short-lived
With the release of Windows 10 on July 29, 2015, Windows 8 was, at just over 2½ years, the shortest-lived operating system in Microsoft's history.
Windows 8.1 Documentation Disappearing
Microsoft's support documentation for Windows 8.1 is now placed within the context of “Windows 10: Previous Versions.” Some material may no longer be available.
- Windows 8.1 TechNet resources are aimed at technical support staff.
Microsoft wanted Windows 8 to reflect the future of computing, but in achieving that goal it lost sight of the fact that the majority of Windows users are stuck in the here and now using budget hardware attached to keyboards and mice. — ZDNet
Moving to Windows 8.1
One blog described the difference as though Windows 8 was the beta and Windows 8.1 is the final product.
A move to Windows 8.1 involves a high learning curve, asking the user to abandon everything they've learned since Windows 3.1.
PC World's Deep inside Windows 8.1's hidden new features provides some insights including the new Start button.
If you don't like Windows 8, you most likely won't like Windows 8.1. On the other hand, if you're a Windows 8 fan (or you're stuck with Windows 8 for whatever reason), there's no debate — you should install Windows 8.1…. — Windows Secrets Newsletter
Windows 8.1 “Makes it Usable”
Windows 8.1 is an incremental upgrade from Windows 8 and is free for Windows 8 users.
In short, Windows 8.1 takes Windows 8 — which really was an abomination for mouse-and-keyboard Desktop users, and only slightly better on tablets — and makes it usable. The irony, though, is that almost all of the changes made to Windows 8.1 were originally pointed out two years ago by beta testers of the original Windows 8 Preview. — ExtremeTech
I recommend reading Woody Leonhard's reviews of the final release. He notes:
It's a hell of an upgrade when the two top-priority security changes help protect you from Microsoft.
View the CNET Windows 8 Pro review.
There are some significant privacy issues as well.
Microsoft has shelled out a mind-boggling estimated $1.8 billion to convince the public that it needs Windows 8. Why the record-breaking marketing deluge? Because a slick ad campaign is Microsoft's best shot at hiding what Windows 8 really is; a faulty product that restricts your freedom, invades your privacy, and controls your data. — Free Software Foundation
One example is an “advertising ID” is built into Windows 8 that follows you everywhere.
Microsoft also installed optional updates to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users (KB3075249, KB3080149 and KB3068708) that provide the same telemetry data to Microsoft as is found in Windows 10.
Spybot Anti-Beacon allows you to make significant choices about your privacy settings including many that are hidden or not easily altered. It immunizes your computer so you can check then reset your privacy settings after rebooting your computer (particularly after a Windows Update).
Windows 8.1's new secure boot was marketed as a way to protect you from malware. It has the potential to prevent you from installing any other operating system except Windows 8 or 10 on your computer.
Microsoft ID Log-in
You need to use a Microsoft ID to log into Windows 8.1 if you want to take advantage of many of its newer features, including the Microsoft Store and live icons. This conveniently allows you to bring up your desktop and personal content on any Windows 8.1 computer.
However, this also means that your data is being stored “in the cloud” where anyone can access it if they break your password (your ID is your email address — information that is public). More significantly, you no longer completely control what happens to your personal information or how it is used.
- Windows 8 Security flaw: Logon Passwords Stores in Plain Text.
- If U.S. cloud services are not good enough for the Canadian government, why should they be good enough for individual Canadians?
Windows 8.1 “Phones Home”
Windows 8.1 reports to Microsoft what is installed on your computer. This gives you the ability to duplicate your desktop on another Windows 8.1 computer, but also creates a privacy risk.
Microsoft's Kill Switch
Finally, because Microsoft knows what is being installed on your computer they can remotely delete any application. If only used to remove bootleg copies that's one thing. What if it's used to force you to use a Microsoft app instead of a third-party app — or worse.
- The Windows 8 Kill Switch: A Hacker's Dream Come True (PC Magazine).
Windows 8.1 Editions
Windows 8.1 features pretty much the same editions as Windows 8 did.
There are three primary editions of Windows 8.1 (only the first two are suitable for PCs and tablets powered by 32- and 64-bit x86 processors):
- Windows 8.1 (recommended for most home users) and will come preinstalled on most hardware.
- Windows 8.1 Pro (for tech enthusiasts and business/technical professionals) also includes encryption, virtualization, PC management and domain connectivity.
- Windows RT available pre-installed on PCs and tablets powered by ARM processors like the Microsoft Surface.
Windows RT was abandoned with Windows 10.
Determining which version of Microsoft software you have a right to run, known as your downgrade rights, depends on the channel through which the software was purchased; Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), Retail (FPP), or Volume Licensing (VL) and also when it was purchased. — TechNet
Microsoft originally allowed downgrades from Windows 8 Pro:
Instead of using the Windows 8 Pro software, you may use one of the following earlier versions: Windows 7 Professional or Windows Vista Business.— ComputerWorld
You should check with the vendor. HP has stated that it won't provide support and drivers for downgraded OSs on computers shipped with Windows 8.
Microsoft's article, Understanding Downgrade Rights, may answer your questions.
Can You Run Windows 8.1?
Windows 8.1 system requirements aren't too high, so a relatively new and powerful computer will be able to at least meet the minimum requirements. However, you'll need additional resources to run programs and may find that you have an unpleasant experience with minimal hardware.
Microsoft lists the following Windows 8.1 system requirements:
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
- RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
- Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver
- Secure boot requires firmware that supports UEFI v2.3.1 Errata B and has the Microsoft Windows Certification Authority in the UEFI signature database.
- To install a 64-bit OS on a 64-bit PC, your processor needs to support CMPXCHG16b, PrefetchW, and LAHF/SAHF.
You'd best look at new hardware if you want to optimize your experience with Windows 8.1. It is designed for newer computers running UEFI- rather than BIOS-based hardware (boot environments). See the general notes about Windows hardware requirements for more about this.
The Windows 8.1 and 8 Upgrade Assistants: FAQ has been replaced with the Upgrade to Windows 10: FAQ.
Not everything about Windows 8 is bad. PCWorld looks at Windows 7 to Windows 8: The system's biggest improvements.
Quicker Startup and Shutdown Times
Windows 8.1 will start and shut down much more quickly than its predecessors, particularly on devices using the ARM processor. It accomplishes this partly by never actually shutting down. Instead it goes into an enhanced hibernation mode. If you have to actually shut down Windows 8 (e.g. do a cold boot) you'll need to change some things — particularly on a UEFI system.
Windows 8.1 is optimized for touch-screen enabled devices (like tablets) where sideways scrolling is natural.
Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad. — Jakob Nielsen: Windows 8 — Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users
While many believe that the traditional PC desktop is dead, the majority of today's computers continue to use traditional screens, mouse and keyboard. Because even the majority of computers sold with Windows 8 preinstalled are NOT touchscreens, this feature is a liability.
Launching Windows 8 lands you in the “Start” screen (Windows 8.1 allows you to choose). Applications are represented by either large rectangles or smaller squares. Regular applications are shown as small icons inside squares like Firefox and Pocomail under the Kindle app on the screenshot at the top of the page.
Gone is the familiar Start button that appeared with Windows 95. Right-clicking the desktop gives an option to view all items as smaller icons, but this includes even programs you don't want to appear here (the items previously held in a folder within the All Programs menu in the Start menu like the “Microsoft Office Tools” icons).
If social media, email and X-box are your primary tasks, you'll love the larger and informative animated “live” icons. These are unique in that they show updates — provided you've logged onto your computer using your Windows Live account (you are using a secure password for that, aren't you?).
While static icons force you to leave relevant applications open on the desktop to get updates, the new larger icons simply take up too much room if you're a power user with dozens of applications installed. Tweaking? Forget it. There isn't much you can do other than choose between a rectangular block or a square.
Having a scrolling list of Facebook updates, emails, photos and more is a distraction.
- I wonder if businesses are seriously going to permit degraded performance for long before banning such activity on their computers.
- Most are moving to Windows 7 unless they have a need for dedicated support for mobile devices and will await Windows 7's true successor or look elsewhere (Linux Ubuntu and Mint are already present on many consumers' computers — third and fourth behind Windows and Mac).
The Microsoft Store
Windows 8 introduced the Microsoft Store which hoped to grab a chunk of the tablet app market currently dominated by the Apple iOS and Google Android. Windows runs on only 4% of the smart phones on the market and there are definitely some issues.
… [T]he Metro UI was only an ugly, overt manifestation of Windows 8's deeper mobile ambitions: The birth of the Windows Store and Microsoft's push towards coaxing more revenue out of users via subscription services. Both are still at the forefront of Windows 10. — PCWorld
- The new Microsoft Store makes purchasing and installing new applications easier, but the ARM-based Windows RT doesn't support legacy software.
- Application vendors have not yet embraced the Microsoft Store, so there are far fewer applications (2,000 at launch; only 50,000 by March) than what was available in either the Apple (821,000) or Android (600,000+) stores.
Windows RT a “Closed” System
Microsoft blended Windows 8 with their own computer (the Windows 8 RT version can only use software purchased through the Microsoft Store). By controlling both the hardware and the software they hoped to improve the Windows experience and eliminate hardware conflicts (much like Apple did with the Mac).
You also need to use a Microsoft ID to log into Windows 8.1 if you want to take advantage of many of its newer features, including the Microsoft Store and live icons. This allows you to bring up your desktop and content on any Windows 8.1 computer.
- This requires a password for your computer that will withstand online assaults and limits your ability to use other vendor resources.
- Windows 8.1 has an option to use specific sequences in a photo, but that requires a touch device and the options are limited for most images.
More Energy Efficient
Efficient use of the battery is a critical for tablets — these are mobile devices. Windows 8.1 and the Microsoft Store applications are designed to minimize power consumption.
Legacy Desktop Support
While Windows 8 didn't totally abandon the legacy desktop model, it was clearly working to improve the experience for touch devices at the expense of the traditional mouse and keyboard. While this may work for their goal of a unified experience across platforms, the majority of users (and computers in the market) still don't have touch capability.
Windows RT is not supported in the upgrade to Windows 10 and is therefore a dead-end system.
Is the PC Desktop Dead?
Windows 8 generated much controversy in choosing to abandon the desktop in favour of touch screens. Somewhat ameliorated by changes in Windows 8.1 it still is an issue for desktop users.
A large live icon showing the desktop is your gateway to the legacy desktop with its regular icons — you can enter the legacy desktop only after the new Start screen loads.
Windows 8 disposed of the Start Button.
In Windows 8.1 the Start Button is restored — sort of — and there is better support for traditional keyboard and mouse navigation. The full functionality is not restored, but it is better.
The legacy desktop is like the Windows 7 desktop, except the traditional “Start” button is gone in Windows 8 and navigation using a mouse is more awkward. I found I had to resort to the keyboard for navigation more often.
Control panel items are split between the Windows 8 desktop and the legacy desktop, so making changes (or even finding items) can prove confusing.
- Start8 for Windows 8 ($4.99) — Bringing back the Windows Start menu is included with Stardock's Object Desktop.
- Classic Shell (free) includes a Start button plus other enhancements.
- Start Menu Reviver (free) is the only Windows Start Menu utility to revive the Microsoft Windows Start menu, not just replace it.
- Start Menu 8 (free) brings back both the Start button and Windows Start Menu, and offers the option to land directly in the legacy desktop interface.
- Start Charming (free) makes the Start interface more user friendly without adding a Start button.
- Windows 8 cheat sheet from ComputerWorld has hints and help to get you started with Windows 8.
- Some manufacturers may add a custom Start menu to their computers.
Media Player “Optional”
If you prefer Windows Media Player, be prepared to pay for Windows Media Center — unless you're running Windows 8 Pro:
- Windows 8 Media Center Pack adds the multimedia features missing in Windows 8. Retail cost is $119.99 USD.
- You can also upgrade your Windows 8 with the Windows 8 Pro Pack for $119.99 USD.
These upgrades no longer appear in the Microsoft store and are now replaced with the upgrade option to Windows 10.
Alternative media players will work fine. I'd recommend VLC Player — a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player, that plays almost all multimedia files as well as DVD, Audio CD, VCD, and various streaming protocols.