Last year, I reviewed Tony Northrup's Windows 8 Inside Out and found that it was an excellent reference that did a fine job of explaining the then-new interface of Windows 8, so that it was easy for newcomers to understand. Now there's a new edition that covers Windows 8.1. Is the approach different this time around? Does the book still do a great job? Did the book live up to my expectations? Let's find out in this book review.
NOTE: I'm reviewing the ebook version. Since it has lot of very useful extras (like links to helpful videos) I think it's well worth buying this instead of the print edition (see purchase options at the end of the article).
Windows 8.1 Inside Out - Off to a Good Start
Windows 8.1 has cleaned up a lot of the annoyances in Windows 8, improved its features and added a lot more. Windows 8.1 Inside Out begins with a chapter that talks about these changes and walks the reader through what's been done. People who are upgrading from Windows 8 should already have their feet on the ground, so to speak, but people upgrading from other versions of Windows might not find this section so interesting, because obviously their focus is on learning how this new interface works.
Like its predecessor, Windows 8.1 Inside Out does a great job of walking the reader through the new interface from the beginning and focuses on the features people will want to use most often. Once people try the new interface, it won't look as alien as it does at first glance. The structure of the book is the same as the previous edition. It starts with an overview of what is new in Windows 8.1, and then goes on to give detailed instructions for buying and installing it, including the upgrade process from previous versions of Windows. Since upgrading from Windows XP (which a lot of people are going to be doing after Microsoft stops supporting XP) is a somewhat more involved procedure than the upgrade path from XP to previous editions of Windows, the section that describes this process is especially useful. All the possible problems are covered. This should be reassuring to the newcomer. The process of migrating from one computer to another is also described in detail. This is really essential information. Anything that reduces the time and complexity of a transfer from one to another is well worth reading.
I also liked the instructions for dual booting. Not everyone will want to do this, but it's a good thing to know. And it's one way to keep your old operating system while you're getting used to the new one. Although the instructions for uninstalling Windows 8.1 remain, the author once again encourages the reader to give the new operating system a fair trial before doing something so drastic.
Customizing the Windows 8.1 Interface
One of the big annoyances I found in Windows 8 was the lack of options for customizing the interface. Windows 8.1 has fixed some of this, and Windows 8.1 Inside Out gives plenty of instructions and examples for making your interface truly yours. While the options for customizing the Lock and Start screens are still somewhat limited, it's a major improvement over the way things used to be. And there's a good video available to demonstrate how everything works.
Windows 8.1 changed the way apps are displayed, taking the administrative tools off the Start screen (since fewer people need access to those on a regular basis). If you'd like to have those apps displayed, you can find simple instructions in the book. There's also instructions for adding a power-off and restart tile, but our shortcuts are better. The Desktop has always had more options than the Start screen, and Windows 8.1 has added even more. There are some great ideas in the section on Desktop customization, including a link to a Start Menu replacement for people who just can't give that up. And if you would rather not have to keep going back to the Start screen to launch apps, Windows 8.1 Inside Out demonstrates a way around that by putting a special folder on the Desktop.
Getting to the Windows 8.1 Apps
As with the previous volume, I suggest skipping to the chapter on setting up your network connection before you tackle the chapter on adding apps. After all, unless your internet connection is working properly, you're not going to be able to get anything from the Store. The section that covers networking is very thorough and detailed and includes troubleshooting instructions that should solve most common problems. Once your network connection is set up, it's time to skip back to the chapter called "Adding, removing and managing apps", which should give just about anyone confidence to find and install any kind of app from the Store. The Store may be unfamiliar territory for people who've come to Windows 8.1 from Windows 7, Vista or XP, so even though the Store is intuitive, it's good to be able to read the directions. Once again there is a lot of technical information on apps that I don't think many people will actually need, but it's there for the higher level geeks who want to dig inside and use those uncommon capabilities.
Doing Things the New Way, Explained
I don't think I'm alone in not realizing what a huge design change Microsoft made between Windows 7 and Windows 8 & 8.1. The whole way files and apps are dealt with is radically different from the way things worked before. While you certainly don't have to be aware of this to use Windows 8 or 8.1 successfully, knowing about the different approach can make things a lot easier. Windows 8.1 Inside Out does just as good a job as its predecessor in making the app-based approach in the new editions of Windows easy to understand. There's a lot of good, solid information on working with files, including organization, backup, protection, and storage. Reading through the section titled File Management is an excellent education in itself. Once you understand the philosophy behind the changes Microsoft made, the new way of doing things doesn't seem so alien anymore. The extremely useful instructions for finding Puppy Linux and using a live CD to repair any damage that's made Windows 8.1 lose its mind are still there and still something the reader should stick a bookmark (physical or electronic) in for future reference.
The section that deals with media applications explains things just as thoroughly. I think anyone who pays attention to Windows 8.1 Inside Out will have no problems whatsoever with music, video, TV and movies. And the explanation of streaming is also well done. Despite the fact that I have used computers since they filled rooms and ate punch cards, I am a relative newcomer to the media uses for home computers, and after reading this book I feel I've gotten my feet a little more firmly on the ground so it will be easier to do more with things other than just plain old files and apps.
Security, Safety, and the New Technology
The chapters dealing with security are pretty much the same as in the previous version, with additions that cover the changes in Windows 8.1. Most of the discussion should already be familiar since Microsoft's built-in security measures have been more or less the same for a long time. This is not to say that one should just skip reading this section, however. There's no such thing as too much security these days. The section covering security measures on a touchscreen device should definitely be recommended reading for people who've just gotten a shiny new Windows 8.1 tablet. The touch-screen interface is new to many people and it was good to see that there's a separate section that takes this in mind. Many people may not realize that the touch-oriented passwords may not be as secure as they're supposed to be since smudges and fingerprints on the screen can give the password away surprisingly easily. Once again, Mr. Northrup goes through a clear and detailed description of picture passwords and finishes by telling the reader not to use them.
Maintenance, the Windows 8.1 Way
The section that deals with maintenance and troubleshooting starts with a thorough discussion of Windows Update. Some people still don't recognize the importance of the updates that Windows Update provides, or get annoyed by being interrupted by it, and shut it off. Bad idea, and Windows 8.1 Inside Out explains exactly why. It also explains how to customize the update process to be way less annoying, so you can have security and convenience too. There's a video that goes along with this section that is worth watching. The Windows Experience Index has been removed from Windows 8.1, so Windows 8.1 Inside Out recommends some third-party benchmarking tools that people who are interested in their system's performance will find useful. The section that describes the many uses of Task Manager is really outstanding. Some of us have used this tool for years without fully understanding what it can do. The more one knows, the better, when it comes to maintaining and managing your computer.
And again, the final section that helps the reader figure out startup problems and crashes is well worth the price of the book in itself. The extensive index that takes the reader directly to the pages describing the solution to any given problem is once again a gem.
Windows 8.1 Inside Out is every bit as good as its predecessor. It is clearly written, well illustrated, and it's easy to see that the author knows what he's talking about and how to convey it to the reader. It will help most people understand Windows 8.1 much better, in some uncommon ways. It's an excellent guide and reference and well worth having. I really don't think you can go wrong buying Windows 8.1 Inside Out, in either the print or ebook format. The e-book makes it much easier to get at the accompanying videos and can be searched a little faster than looking things up in the comprehensive 39-page index. Either way, you can find the answers to almost any Windows 8.1 question, and plenty of encouragement to try new things along the way.