Windows 8.1: What you need to know (FAQ)


(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

One year after the debut of Windows 8, Windows 8.1 is here. It feels significantly less dramatic, but Microsoft’s latest version of its PC operating system has some changes, and some requirements, all its own. If you’re a curious would-be adopter, or a diligent Windows 8 upgrader, read on for some answers to your questions.

What’s new?

 

Last year’s Windows 8 was a brand-new, somewhat jarring operating system aimed at making touch-screen devices, and Windows devices that could convert between touch and keyboard/mouse modes, easier to use.

Windows 8.1 is a series of subtle changes, a software patch of sorts to last year’s software. There are some differences, but most of them seem to exist to appeal to more-traditional PC users — those who want more of a return to the traditional Windows experience. The biggest changes are:

  • You can boot directly into Desktop mode instead of the tile-based app user interface
  • The long-lost Start button is back
  • You can snap more apps side-by-side for better multitasking
  • There’s also better cross-system search, along with search that ties into cloud-based SkyDrive storage

For the full rundown, read CNET’s review. Or, check out our list of the top new features you need to know in Windows 8.1.

 

What’s the different between Windows 8.1 and Windows RT?

 

Windows 8.1 is the “real” Windows OS that runs on PCs and tablets; it includes backward compatibility with most earlier Windows software — programs and games that were designed to run on Windows 7, Vista, and XP. By contrast, Windows RT is a stripped-down version of Windows 8.1 that does not deliver that backward compatibility. (The reason: RT machines run ARM chips rather than full Intel or AMD “x86” CPUs, allowing them longer battery life and cheaper prices.) Instead, Windows RT only runs the apps available in the Windows Store (which, confusingly, is available in both 8.1 and RT). Notably, however, Windows RT includes a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013, which has been designed to run on both versions of Windows.

While there were a handful of devices that ran RT in 2012, so far, the Microsoft Surface andSurface 2 tablets appear to be the only RT machines currently available. (Again, adding to the confusion: the Surface Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablets run full Windows 8.1.)

 

Do I need to buy a tablet to use Windows 8.1?

 

No, you can use any PC, as long as it fits the Windows 8.1 hardware requirements. Touch screens aren’t required. In fact, Windows 8.1 makes it easier: you can stay in “Desktop mode” and just use your PC in a way that (largely) bypasses the touch-friendly tile interface. Even those, should you encounter them, can be navigated with keyboard and mouse/touch pad, however.

Start button!

 

Is the Start button back?

Yes — sort of. The annoying absence of a Start button made easy-access navigation on Windows 8 a confusing chore, but it’s back — although it just provides a shortcut to the tile menu. However, right-clicking it brings up a contextual menu with additional options.

 

How do I get Windows 8.1, and what does it cost?

 

For existing Windows 8 users, Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade. Just go the app store if you’re a Windows 8 user, and start downloading.

If you’re coming from Windows 7 (or an even earlier version of Windows), it can be bought herefor $120, or $200 for the business-targeted pro version. For more step-by-step information, read our how-to guide.

 

What are the system requirements?

 

For the full rundown, click here. But here’s the bare-bones needs:

  • 1GHz or faster processor with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
  • 1GB of RAM for 32-bit computing, or 2GB for 64-bit
  • 16GB of hard-drive space (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit)
  • A Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver

 

What’s the ideal system to use with Windows 8.1?

 

Despite the return of the Start button, having a touch screen is still the preferred way to go with Windows 8.1. In the portable realm, look for a tablet (Sony Vaio Tap 11 or Microsoft Surface Pro 2), a convertible laptop (the upcoming Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga), or a touch-screen laptop (theSamsung Ativ Book 9 Plus).

In the desktop world, larger touch-screen all-in-one machines like the Dell XPS One 27 or Sony Vaio Tap 21 are ideal.

 

Should you upgrade to Windows 8.1?

 

My colleague Dan Ackerman said it best in his Windows 8.1 review. If you’re a regular PC user, I’ll repeat in his paraphrased words what you should do:

  • If you’re an existing Windows 8 user, the update is free and largely seamless, and adds some useful new tweaks and features. You should upgrade as soon as possible.
  • If you’re a Windows 7 user thinking of upgrading your legacy hardware, consider keeping with Windows 7 until it’s time for a new PC; those touch-optimized Windows 8 and 8.1 elements won’t do much for you anyway, and Windows 7 still works well with all sorts of applications.

 

Either way, you’ll probably have to get used to Windows 8 eventually, since it’s Microsoft’s PC operating system now. It’s really, however, more of a finishing touch for Windows 8-optimized machines.

The best way to get Windows 8.1? Wait to buy a new PC with Windows 8 or 8.1 installed: it’ll run the software better, and it won’t cost anything extra.

I’m moving on from Windows; what other alternatives are there?

 

 

Windows isn’t the only game in town: you can always opt for a Mac, a tablet (Android, iPad), or aChromebook. There are more choices than ever before; just realize that each of them has relative advantages and disadvantages, and none of them will run your legacy Windows software (unless you invest in a solution like Parallels for Mac).

 

BBM Finally Launches For Android And iOS, Years Too Late (Download here)


If this was 2010, RIM launching BBM on Android and iOS would have been viewed as a nod to open communication and a platform-agnostic product strategy. If this was 2010, it would have been marked as a win for RIM and a sign that company is here to fight. If this was 2010, RIM might still have a chance.

But at the close of 2013, BBM launching on Android and iOS is a swan song for Research In Motion-turned BlackBerry. And the 5 million downloads are just a hint of what could have been.

BlackBerry finally launched BBM on Android and iOS today, leaning on a reservation system likely to prevent the issues that plagued the first launch. And just eight hours after launching, BlackBerry took to Twitter to proclaim 5 million users had already downloaded the app. As of writing, BBM is the top free download in the App Store. The demand is there, but the future is not.

BBM was once the king of messaging platforms. Hit Me Up On BBM. It was iMessage and ChatOn before either one existed. And even five years ago it seemed to work better than its modern day counterparts. It was RIM’s secret sauce and had the company been willing to share a few years back, things could have been different for the Canadian smartphone maker.

RIM’s decline was clear a few years ago, yet the company proceeded as business as usual. BBM could have been a type of Trojan horse, showing Android and iPhone users the strength of RIM’s platform. But the company took too long to launch the messaging app on competing platforms. BlackBerry is now seeking a corporate buyer. Canadian wireless companies are not carrying the latest BlackBerry. And it won’t be long until BBM will be just a footnote in the company’s storied and sad history.

 

BBM Android app available to download, install, chat today


BBM for Android is scheduled to launch today, but missed the release time. Originally, BlackBerry planned to make the BlackBerry Messenger app on your Android phone available today to chat with your long-lost BBM buddies, with the BBM iPhone app set to come in a few hours.

“Thanks for your patience Android users!” says BlackBerry. “Working hard to get you the real BBM ASAP. We’ll let you know when it’s live.”

Head over to the Google Play app store and you should be able to download BBM for Android at some point today. Install the app and you’ll be chatting with your old BlackBerry buds before you can say “WhatsApp? What’s that?”

The BBM app for other devices lets you swap instant messages with other app users, with voice chat to come at a later stage. If you’ve defected from BlackBerry to Apple, the iOS app will be available from the Apple App Store at midnight.

BlackBerry has certainly made us wait for the instant messaging app to arrive on other phones. Sadly scammers have taken advantage of the wait to fill Google Play with fake BBM apps, targeting eager ex-BlackBerry owners with ads, spam or worse.

BlackBerry Messenger was the main reason that teens became as addicted to their BlackBerrys as the most business-minded executive, mainly because — unlike texting — it’s free. You can also write much longer messages and see when someone’s read your missive.

But with the rise of the iPhone and more affordable Android phones, the shine wore off BlackBerry devices — especially with the arrival of IM services like WhatsApp or Samsung ChatOn that work across different devices, so you can chat with friends and family even if they have different phones to you.

Are you excited to get back on BBM? Will this encourage people to come back to BlackBerry, or have the folks at BlackBerry just killed off the last reason to actually buy one of their phones? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or chat away on our Facebook page.

Update: The BBM app was scheduled to appear at noon, when this story was first posted. We’ve updated the story to reflect the delay.