Windows 8.1 Update: A confusing but important upgrade

This Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 file image shows a pre-release version of Windows 8.1 on a tablet in Los Angeles. The 8.1 Update is now out. (AP Photo/Ryan Nakashima, File)

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Linda asks: “I’m hearing all kinds of rumors that a Windows 8.1 update was to be released. Is this correct or just one of those unsubstantiated rumors that floats around?

In Microsoft’s usual confusing manner, it has in fact released an update to Windows 8.1 that it is calling Windows 8.1 Update (instead of something less confusing like 8.15 or 8.2).

It’s mainly a lot of user-interface features, but it’s also a pretty important update for keeping your system secure in the future.

Unlike the original update to Windows 8, you don’t have to go to the Microsoft Store to install the update if you have the automatic update feature turned on.

By default this feature is turned on, but if you want to make sure, use the search charm to find “Windows Update” (or you can access it via the Control Panel by clicking on System and Security).

Windows 8 was Microsoft’s attempt to create a touch screen and mobile-friendly operating system, but many would argue that the company went way too far. The 8.1 Update seems to be Microsoft’s silent mea culpa to keyboard and mouse-concentric users.

The Windows 8.1 Update has a large number of new features that is a clear attempt to appease the masses who don’t have a touch screen and preferred the old look and feel of Windows (which is most users).

Microsoft has by no means abandoned the new tiled interface (it’s called the Start screen), but it certainly returned a lot of the familiar features common in older versions of Windows.

You can now have the system boot right to the desktop, which is what traditional Windows users are used to seeing, instead of the new tiled Start screen without a third-party program.

The taskbar in the traditional desktop interface now has the ability to also see and switch to any of the new store apps that are running in the background.

You also can pin new store apps to the task bar, and if you float the mouse over any of the media apps in the task bar, controls will appear so you don’t have to actually go into the app to make a change.

One of the biggest areas of confusion that I have seen Windows 8 users experience is how to actually close the new store apps when you’re done. With the update, all programs including the new style apps will now have the familiar “minimize” and “close” buttons appear when you drag your mouse to the top of the screen.

Huge changes to the Start screen include the additions of the power and search charms in the upper right corner. You no longer have to swipe from the right side to find these previously hidden features.

A right-click of the mouse on app tiles on the Start screen will now bring up context menus that allow you to quickly resize, uninstall, pin and unpin the app from the Start screen.

You can see what all these changes look like on this Microsoft video on YouTube:

Why this update is important

The most critical reason to make sure you have the Windows 8.1 Update (and not just Windows 8.1) is that security updates will no longer be available after May 13 without it.

Windows 8 users who never updated to 8.1 will still get security updates after May 13. If you decide you want the new features, you can go directly from Windows 8 to the Windows 8.1 Update, with no need to install 8.1 first.

Confused? My recommendation is to keep up to speed with these updates to avoid the Windows XP cutoff syndrome down the road.

Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and the host of the daily Data Doctors Radio Tech Tips You can follow him on Twitter @TheDataDoc and on Facebook

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