I have long been a fan of David Pogue's books. He's one of an elite group of tech writers who can take a complex subject, explain it so that nearly anyone can understand, and be entertaining in the process. He's written some of the best books in the Missing Manual series, and this time he's tackled Windows 8.1. Does this book live up to its predecessors? Did it provide any surprises along the way? Let's find out.
Introducing Windows 8.1… and a lot more
Although the title says Windows 8.1, and that is its primary focus, this book actually covers Windows 8, Windows 8.1 and Windows RT. In fact, the first part of the introduction is specifically aimed at newcomers to Windows 8, and then it moves smoothly into the things that were introduced and improved in Windows 8.1. Many technical books can be read in any order the reader chooses, but this one—yeah, start at the beginning. You'll be glad you did.
And let me just say that I absolutely love Mr. Pogue's "TileWorld" term for the new interface. :) And the philosophy behind the book, in his own words:
Getting off to a good start
The book is divided into five parts. Reading part one (TileWorld) and part two (The Windows Desktop) should give just about anyone—experienced users and newcomers alike—a complete education in all versions of Windows 8. Each topic is covered step by step, and everything is explained in a breezy conversational tone. So many technical books appear to be written strictly for use as references, topic by topic, inviting people to just look up the information they need and skip the rest. Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual is as easy to read as a novel. And the easier a tech book is to read, the easier it is to learn, right? Since the TileWorld interface is likely to be the most confusing to a newcomer, Mr. Pogue explains it step by step, in a natural progression. (This section applies to both Windows 8 / 8.1 and RT.) The Start screen comes first, of course. And this book is illustrated in color (some other Windows 8 books I've read recently are still done in greyscale) which shows off the Start screen to its best advantage. I learned right off the bat that Windows 8.1's lock screen lets me go directly to the camera or to Skype without logging in. This is something I hadn't known before, despite having looked at that screen plenty of times. I just never paid attention to those little icons. Now I know! The rest of the chapter is full of equally interesting tidbits, along with a great explanation of how everything on the Start screen works. The chapter is designed so that both newcomers and experienced users are sure to find something they didn't already know. The differences between the touch screen and mouse-keyboard interfaces are made quite clear, which is something not every Windows 8 / 8.1 book takes time to do.
As a veteran interface-tweaker, I especially loved the extensive instructions for customizing the lock screen and Start screen. If you're looking at a screen that looks and works the way you want it to, you're already off to a great start. The section called How TileWorld Works is worth the price of the book all by itself.
Familiar and unfamiliar Desktop, explained
I think most people coming to Windows 8 or 8.1 for the first time will find the desktop interface reasonably familiar (it is, after all, a lot like Windows 7 in many ways). But there are still plenty of new features, and old features that don't work in quite the same way, and a good clear explanation of what's there and what's been added or changed is well worth reading. The section on the Desktop is just as thorough and easy to read as the TileWorld section, and since most people (given a choice) will spend more time in one interface than the other, it's good to see every concept given an explanation that makes it all seem simple and logical. As you can see, the chapters in this section take care of just about anything anyone would need instructions for.
As a long time Windows user, I have found the desktop interface much more intuitive than TileWorld (it might be different if I had a touch screen device, but I don't). After all, it's very much like the Windows 7 interface. But where there are new features, Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual goes into satisfying detail. I noticed the description of the "secret start menu" right away—once again, something I hadn't really paid attention to before. I'm a newcomer to Windows 8.1 and having this book on hand is already helping me get the most out of it. There's also a nice full color illustration of Classic Shell, a third-party start menu program that a lot of people prefer to Microsoft's brave new world.
And I was very amused to find that the very next section is called The Complete Guide to Ignoring TileWorld. I bet that's the most popular part of the book. :) I don't think the suggestion to use the same wallpaper for both interfaces is necessarily a good thing, though. I tried it and it only confused me. But then maybe I'm just too easily confused. The section describing all the features now available in the windows was especially interesting. Once again, there were quite a few new features that I either hadn't really noticed or hadn't used to their full potential. And sorry, Microsoft, but nothing has ever convinced me to like the ribbon. But at least Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual provides a quick and easy reference to all the things it can do. There is also a terrific section that will teach the reader how to customize toolbars—once again, a way to make your screen truly yours. Windows 8 made major improvements in the search process, which have carried over into Windows 8.1. Here you'll find an easy to understand explanation of the process of indexing (necessary to get the full benefit of your searches) and the ways you can customize your searches. People who come to Windows 8.1 from Windows XP should learn a lot from this section.
Oh, and the section called Redesigning the Desktop World starts out by explaining how to turn almost all the Desktop's new features off. Yes, it's possible to make Windows 8.1 look a lot like Windows XP. I know a couple of XP diehards who would buy the book just to find out how this is done. :)
But wait, there's more
Here's the description of this book from the O'Reilly Media web site: Windows 8.1: The Missing Manual. Take just a moment to scroll down the table of contents. As you can see, this book is just jam-packed with information. If I were to do full justice to every section, this review could go on for screen after screen and put you to sleep. (Better you spend time reading the book instead.) So let me just point out a couple of the notable discoveries I made while reading. In the chapter on Internet Explorer 11, I discovered for the first time that Internet Explorer can act as an RSS feed reader. I've long been a fan of RSS feeds, because they make it so easy to check a bunch of websites at once. Anything that saves me a lot of point-and-click time and makes browsing efficient has got my attention automatically. Internet Explorer is not my default browser, but this is making it look better.
The Maintenance, Speed, Tweaks and Troubleshooting section's information seemed familiar already. That's because 7 Tutorials has published so many great articles explaining these built-in utilities in detail. Clearly, we provide an excellent education too! The section called Setting Up A Small Network is one of the best I've ever read. Since most of us have some kind of home network, and since the language commonly used to describe network protocols and functions can sound like Martian to the average computer user, having everything explained and illustrated is also worth the price of the book. Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual goes out with a bang. The appendices (I'm going to be pedantic and insist on the proper spelling of the plural of appendix) are packed full of must-read stuff. The chapter called Where'd It Go? contains a comprehensive list of things that were removed, put somewhere different, or renamed in Windows 8 / 8.1. If you've got an old favorite command or program that you can't find, this is the place to look. Mr. Pogue also suggests present day alternatives for programs that aren't there any more.
Where To Buy
And finally, there's a comprehensive 31-page index that should delight old book readers like me. :)
Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual is a great addition to David Pogue's long list of impressive credits, and a fantastic reference for anyone's bookshelf. I could not find anything to criticize about it except the one little nit-picky detail I mentioned above, and anyone who reads my reviews knows I can be pretty darn critical when the material warrants it. I loved reading this book. Windows 8.1 The Missing Manual is an education in a book. It's available in both print and e-book editions (I reviewed the e-book edition) and will be a great addition to anyone's bookshelf. If you've read the book and would like to comment, please do!