Dead Tree Alert: Windows 8.1 Is Minor but Meaningful

The best updates are often the ones that clean up after the alleged blockbusters.

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[image] TIME cover


In the new issue of TIME, I have a story on Windows 8.1. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it here, but trust me: It’s better on paper. (For one thing, the magazine version has a list of new features, which isn’t in the online version.)

The story is very far from being the final word on Microsoft’s big update to Windows 8. For one thing, it’s only a page long. For another, while Microsoft has released some general information about what’s new, it hasn’t yet shown off the changes in detail. It’ll do so next week at its BUILD conference in San Francisco, and will release a beta version of 8.1 which will let anyone who’s interested get hands-on time before the final release. I’ll be one of the folks who downloads and tries this preview edition–and will let you know what I think once I do.

That name Microsoft chose for the software that was code-named “Windows Blue” is meaningful. As the “.1” in “Windows 8.1” indicates, this is still Windows 8, with incremental improvements. It’s neither a great leap forward nor a sweeping rollback of the things some people either actively dislike about Windows 8 or find off-putting enough that they haven’t bothered to try it. (Microsoft is bringing back the Start button, sort of, but in a form that feels grudging: Pressing it still bounces you out to the new Start screen rather than to the familiar-but-still-dead Start menu.)

But you know what? As I’ve written before, major upgrades are overrated: They often break things that didn’t need fixing, and even worthwhile new ideas are introduced in half-baked form. Minor upgrades such as Windows 8.1–the sort that polish up rough edges, swat bugs and otherwise have aims that are level-headed and eminently attainable rather than wildly ambitious–often do more to make products usable.

Windows 8.1 won’t turn teeming masses of Windows 8 doubters into Windows 8.1 lovers: The changes Microsoft has imposed on its operating system are so radical that a goodly chunk of its customer base will remain skeptical for years to come. But if all it does is make the new Windows feel less experimental and more practical, it’ll matter more than its name suggests–as the best minor upgrades always do.