A first, jaundiced look at Windows 8.1 RTM

Hopes that Windows 8.1 RTM would correct some of the problems from earlier builds prove very wrong

Thanks to a modern-day Robin Hood enigmatically named WZOR, new pirated Windows 8.1 RTM bits are coursing through the underground veins of the Internet. I've had a chance to play with the pirated RTM version of Windows 8.1 Pro for about 18 hours now, and what I see is disheartening at best, infuriating in places. A full review will follow, but here's what struck me the most about the latest, unofficial, not-yet-released version of Windows 8.1.

If that isn't enough of a caveat, consider: Microsoft has said repeatedly that it will make changes to Windows 8.1 itself, and particularly to the Metro apps, before General Availability on Oct. 18. More accurately, Brandon LeBlanc in Blogging Windows played a little time zone game:

I am excited to share that starting at 12:00am on October 18th in New Zealand (that's 4:00am October 17th in Redmond), Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 will begin rolling out worldwide as a free update for consumers with Windows 8 or Windows RT devices through the Windows Store. Windows 8.1 will also be available at retail and on new devices starting on October 18th by market.

What we're seeing in the RTM bits right now may change by the time customers start using Windows 8.1 on Oct. 17 or Oct. 18.

Unfortunately, a whole lot of the problems in Build 9364, which I described in March, were also in the disappointing Milestone Preview detailed in June and elaborated on in July, and in the mess encountered in Build 9471 earlier this month and are still in the pirated RTM build. Whether they'll change by GA is anybody's guess.

Here's a quick rundown of the problems I still see:

  • Smart Search slithers: It's Smart for Microsoft marketing but not for you. Smart Search -- the single greatest privacy-busting feature Windows has ever spawned -- is enabled by default on installation. Smart Search sends every search term you type for local, on-your-computer-or-network searches to that big Bing engine, for collecting, collating, and enhancing your shopping experience.
  • Local accounts crumble: It's still almost impossible to install Windows 8.1 from the distribution ISO with a local account. Microsoft tries over and over again to force you to use, or sign up for, a Microsoft account. The only way to install with a local account requires you to enter a bogus email address -- you're supposed to know this by osmosis, as there are no instructions -- and you're finally given the option to install with a local account. Of course, if you upgrade through the Microsoft Store, Microsoft already has your account information (that's the only way to get into the Store), so this is a non-issue.
  • Libraries lynched: The old Windows 7 and Windows 8 libraries aren't built by default, and they're hidden in the new File Explorer. Microsoft wants you to use SkyDrive, so it's made libraries very hard to discover. It's even hard for most customers to find their Public folders. Ka-ching. And the ultimate insult: if you elect to install SkyDrive ("recommended"), your Documents library is set up so anything stored in the Documents library automatically gets shunted to SkyDrive.
  • Backup and Restore Center gone: If you have Windows 7 or Windows 8 backups created using the Windows Backup and Restore Center, you're going to have a jolly good time trying to restore them with Windows 8.1. System Restore points aren't created until you figure out how and where to turn them on. (On Metro Start, type restore, click Create Restore Point, select the drive you want to enable, click Configure, select Turn on System Protection, OK twice -- that was easy, wasn't it?)
  • Who has the tiles? I wonder how many Windows customers will guess that their newly installed "legacy" apps (er, old-fashioned Windows programs, like Office) now get their live tiles stuck on the All Apps screen. Unless the installer sticks a shortcut on the old-fashioned desktop or on the Taskbar, getting those programs launched involves a trip through a largely unused part of the Metro UI. They aren't on that wonderfully fast and fluid Start screen (now available with moving swirls!). Expect lots of confusion.
  • More bygones: Windows Experience Index is gone. The connections to Facebook and Flickr in the Metro Photos app are gone. Sic transit gloria. Windows Easy Transfer lets you bring data in, but won't let you push data out.
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