Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Good and Bad: Update on My Experience Using Two Windows 8.1 Machines

Good and Bad: Update on My Experience Using Two Windows 8.1 Machines

By Dennis D. McDonald


This is an update to Using A New Windows 8.1 Machine With Two Clouds which I published last July.

I’ve been running Windows 8.1 on my two computers for a couple of months now. That’s long enough to develop a feel for the system and how it works for me.

Overall I like Windows 8.1. At times I even enjoy using it. But there are some significant issues that I discuss below.

My machines

My two machines currently are a Samsung notebook computer with 6 gb of RAM (an RC512) and a small Asus notebook with 4 gb of RAM (an X200M). The Samsung is serving as my stationary “desktop” computer and is attached to a 23 inch monitor and an external hard drive. It stays where it is. The external monitor is not touch enabled. The Asus has an 11.6 inch screen and is touch enabled. Our household also currently  includes two iPhones, a Kindle, a Kindle Fire, a Roku, and an iPad Mini.

Windows Installation

The Asus machine came with Windows 8.0 installed and I had 8.1 as a free download.

The upgrade to 8.1 on the Asus was a surprisingly tedious process that lasted all afternoon and into the evening. Since I was coming from Windows 7, though, my adjustment for basic tasks following the install was pretty short. Since I had recently started subscribing to Office 365 to replace my old Office 2003 suite I was productive pretty quickly. (The Asus machine replaced an old notebook I had been running Ubuntu Linux on.)

The Samsung install was a different story. I inherited the machine from my son-in-law when my Windows 7 desktop machine, an HP 6 GB tower, died; my Ubuntu Linux netbook had died the same week.

The Samsung notebook was already running Windows 7 so I figured the 8.0 install would go smoothly from which I would upgrade to 8.1 as I had done with the Asus.

The 8.1 install did not go smoothly. I lost almost 1 1/2 workdays to the process. At one point I was confused by the on-screen prompts and restored back to the original Windows 7 install and from there had re-install 8.0 and then go on to 8.1.

There was much gnashing of teeth.

My advice: buy a machine already running 8.1. It will make your life easier.


The Asus has a touchscreen and the Samsung does not. I’m enjoying the Asus and the touchscreen more and more as time goes on, especially in the mornings and evenings when I just want to sit down in a comfortable chair and navigate and interact without extended periods of content production.

The touch interface on the Asus is very responsive. I find myself using it more and more to navigate both web-based and MS Office apps. I’m even surprised at the smaller icon and menu items (remember, 11.6 inches) that are easily acted on by my fingertips.

It also helps that the display on the Asus is bright and gorgeous.

As noted the Samsung’s 23 inch monitor does not have touch interface but I have not found going back-and-forth between the Samsung and the Asus difficult. Part of the reason is that the 8.1 interface adjusts itself to the display technology by, for example, adding scrollbars to substitute for the touch and swipe.

I do tend to use the two system differently with the Samsung being more of a “production” device and the portable Asus being more of a “consumption” device.

“Too many desktops”

Both machines provide access to two different desktops:

  1. The “tile” menu brought up by hitting the “Windows” key or one of the callable onscreen Windows icons.
  2. The “regular desktop” that looks a lot like the Windows 7 desktop.

Having (two) available so readily makes the adjustment to a “tiles”-based system faster in the short-term and this, initially was the basis for my quite positive assessment of Windows 8.1 as used via either machine.

As time goes on, though, my experience has become a bit more nuanced to the point where I now see a major issue and frustration with the two desktops.

Applications differ as to whether or not they’re optimized for one of the other. The native “News” and “Scan” apps, for example, can be used completely within the Start desktop’s tiled interface. They’re very well designed and operate quite smoothly, as does the Amazon Kindle app for reading books. The latter is different from but in my opinion is almost as smooth and as easy to use as the Apple iOS Kindle app.

But not all applications can operate as easily within the tiled interface. Office 365 apps, for example (at least the ones I use, i.e., Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Access) operate primarily within the more traditional desktop environments. (I do not use Outlook nor do I use OneNote.)

At first the differences between the two desktops was not really a problem. But over time I’ve experienced several instances where for at least a moment I couldn’t figure out how to get from one desktop to another. This usually happens when I’m accessing or manipulating files and lists, I think, but the upshot has been that the two “views” of the underlying file structures aren’t perfectly interchangeable or immediately swappable.

Maybe I’m just a victim of “not reading the manual” but I don’t think so. I’ve been using desktop systems for a couple of decades now and think that I’m actually seeing is a fundamental flaw here, despite the fact that my overall impression of Windows 8.1 is generally positive.

Chrome the Wildcard

I was messing around with the Chrome browser a couple of days ago (version 37.0.2062.124 m) and I came across the command “Relaunch Chrome in Windows 8 Mode” so I tried it figuring I had nothing to lose. It took a second but it did switch over to the total screen view of the Chrome browser with another bar of Google icons on another shelf at the bottom.

Oh goody, I thought, another desktop!

Playing around a bit I saw that I could easily make the Chrome browser window shrink down and the repositionable “shelf” of basic Google icons could be used to access menus and submenus of Google apps. Luckily the “shelf” is repositionable since the 3 x 3 master “cube” icon that brings up all accessible Google apps initially overlays the master Windows tile icon in the lower left hand corner of the screen — probably a simple coincidence.

After playing around with this Chrome desktop I put it away for two reasons:

  1. I couldn’t find an easy way to “drill down” to my underlying documents for file list without going back to the two basic Windows desktops. This suggests to me that, if you select this mode that Google really wants you to play in its cloud.
  2. Three different desktops are too many.


I have halfheartedly investigated dual booting at least one of my Windows machines so I can run Ubuntu Linux but, frankly, the effort of doing this scares me a bit. I do miss Linux since, out-of-the-box, it gives me the tools I need as long as I’m willing to live without key Microsoft tools. Maybe the Chome interface would do this if I could figure out how to get back and forth and it supported managing multiple local storage devices. (Again, this may all be possible but I have not been able to easily figure it out and I can’t afford to spend all my time experimenting; I just want things to work, thank you.)

Cloud Integration

Which brings me to one of the most impressive feats of Windows 8.1, Office 365, and OneDrive: cloud integration.

I’ve been using Google Docs and Google Drive for many years and I am very impressed with Office 365 and how its apps are integrated with OneDrive. Yes, it does take some getting used to, especially when at first you might be confused by the reference to two versions of Word, online and local. Plus you have to learn where you store files and where Microsoft suggests you store things, i.e., somewhere in the cloud or on OneDrive or locally. The file and folder navigation integration between the local machine and the cloud is much better handled by Microsoft than Google, I think, perhaps because Microsoft has added OneDrive to the recognizable file navigation interface whereas Google has created a different navigational schema as represented by Google Drive.

I’m not saying that one is better than the other just that I have found OneDrive much easier to get used to. (I also experienced a disastrous attempt to convince a client to use Google Docs for document collaboration but that’s another story!)

For me the bottom line is that with Windows 8.1 it’s relatively easy for me to locate my files and to share them:

  • My local machine?
  • Google doc/drive?
  • Microsoft OneDrive?
  • My external hard drive?

Still to go

As I’m an Apple iTunes and iMatch user for my music collection I’m accustomed to not thinking too much about where my music is stored given a variety of devices I can access the music from (Windows iTunes, iPhone, Apple TV). I haven’t reached the same level of understanding for my iPhone-generated photos even though there is a native Windows iCloud photos app on both my machines. Will Windows play a role in how I manage my photos? It’s too early to tell as I have a well-defined organizational schema for photos that I use on my external hard drive and in relationship to Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Google+. Adding another major player for managing photos may not be in the cards but from what I’ve seen so far Windows 8.1 is quite nice.

Current Bottom Line

As I said I like Windows 8.1 a lot but the “multiple desktops” issue has me stumped the more I work with it. I would not, for example, want to be responsible for rolling out Windows 8 to a corporate crowd where different functions have to be supported for different groups. While I understand from a networking perspective that Microsoft security administration tools are quite robust I fear that the “multiple desktops” scenario might result in some confusion and at least some marginal hits on productivity.

But that’s just a hypothesis based on personal experience. Let’s just say that, for now at least, my reaction to Windows 8 parallels what James Kendrick said in his column It’s over, Windows tablet; it’s not you, it’s me. He refers to the problem as Windows 8’s “dual personality.” His comments are based on a lot more experience with tablets than I have but they are similar to mine even though my experience is desktop and notebook based, not tablet-based. There are  just too many variations in the basic user interaction experience that aren’t being easily handled in a unified fashion by Windows 8.1. That’s a serious issue that goes back to basic design decisions regarding the relationship between software functionality and physical delivery platform.

Will such problems be resolved by Windows 10? I hope so. I like the touch interface on my Asus notebook and I like the cloud integration of Office 365. Now, if I could get all that on the machine I really want — a touchscreen MacBook Air — I’d be all set!

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