THE BLOG
11/12/2014 11:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Writers Workbench: The Very Long Windows 8 Column

It's quite belated, but I figured that it's time to finally tackle the subject and do a column on Windows 8. (Actually, it's Windows 8.1 now, and that makes a big difference, but I'll use the name interchangeably here. But know it is actually Windows 8.1.)

We'll get to all that in a moment, but first know this: rest easy. I do not plan to make this a techie column, nor one about all the many convoluted features it has. There are plenty of those kinds of articles online (especially at this point...), filled with great graphics, and unless you're an Early Adopter, you're probably not deeply-concerned with all the specifics. I'll include some, because some are important, and some can't be helped, but for the most part I've decided to do this from a totally different perspective. Which is sort of the point, too, in doing this belatedly, because I suspect a lot of people are in that same position.

(And know this, too - this is going to be long. I don't mean adorably long. I don't even mean long by my standards when I say a column will be long. I mean "What is he thinking??" long. It covers a LOT of ground - both Windows and Office, for starters, and a touch more - and I do want to make things clear, because it can otherwise be confusing. So, that means no techie shorthand. And lots of explanation to be hopefully clear. It will be very long. Really. In fact, rather than writing this as a column, I was thinking of pitching it to the networks as a mini-series. As such, you'll see below a sort of "table of contents" that's much more detailed than usual, so you can keep everything in better order, and scroll directly to sections of interest.)

What I thought is that it would be best to tackle Windows 8 from the viewpoint of people who have put off upgrading their system until now and show what the process is like - a process that includes not only Windows 8, but also Microsoft Office since it tends to run hand-in-hand for so many people.

By the way, there are many justifiable reasons not to have upgraded to Windows 8 yet. The most common is that your computer is running fine, and you've had no need to up to this point. Another big reason is abject fear. Not to worry, all is well.

In my case, although I write about tech, I knew I'd get to Windows 8, but my computer was simply running fine. That changed recently when my three-year-old hard disk drive was clearly beginning to go belly-up. (They tend to do that after 3-4 years.) So, not wanting my system to crash on me, I felt I should quickly rush out to get a new HDD. And as long as I was doing that, and data and software would be transferred, then I thought I might as well make the jump to Windows 8 now, rather than having to go through some things twice.

And to make things even easier to follow, as I said, I've broken this article down into a variety of sections, each of which I think cover the topics of most interest. And at the end, there will be a few words about getting started. (Why "getting started" at the end? Well, first you need to find out about all those questions you have and figure out whether or not you even want to upgrade.)

Hopefully you won't be weary by the time you get there. But I trust all will be well, because at the very least you'll have a comfortable journey. And now we jump in.

Windows 8.1
Desktop Interface
Modern Interface
OneDrive
Microsoft Account
Getting Ready
The Windows Bottomline
Microsoft Office Professional 2013

WINDOWS 8.1

There are two important things to know about Windows 8.

The first is that it isn't Windows 8. It's Windows 8.1. This isn't just a decimal point, it's significant. Years back, Microsoft released an operating system called Windows 3. You've probably never heard of it. That's because it was problematic, and then they released Windows 3.1. It's the version that changed the computer world. So, decimals matter.

Whatever you may have heard about Windows 8 is moot. It had problems to be sure, though it wasn't nearly as problematic as its reputation. But that doesn't matter. Because version 8.1 is a significantly upgraded operating system, with many of the issues resolved, and other features added for a highly-stable, well-integrated experience. To be clear, there are still problems, and I'll discuss them along the way. But because this is going to be a long article, you might as well know upfront that I think Windows 8.1 is quite impressive. And the more I use it and configure programs to run with it (as was its intent), it becomes even more so, changing how I use my devices.

And the second thing to know is that you have no need to be terrified by there being, supposedly, "two Windows" - the Desktop version most people are familiar with, and the Modern Interface, for tablets.

Microsoft took a hit for integrating the two interfaces, since people were confused. But keep in mind that Apple has two operating systems - OSX for desktops and iOS for handhelds. They are absolutely nothing alike...yet somehow people are able to function without collapsing.

(Side Note: I find it bizarre that Apple has been lauded for its innovative thinking - its ad line "Think Different," - and Microsoft long-blasted for being stodgy, yet when Microsoft released an operating system so wildly different, they got slammed for it. Different for the sake of being different is not good, it has to work, and be different for a reason. Windows 8 does take getting used to, but it's different for a reason - it's looking ahead at how devices are being used and syncing with one another - and it actually does work. Really well.)

So, let's be clear -

There is one Windows. Within it, there are two user interfaces (Desktop and Modern Interface). You don't have to use both, you don't have to even understand both. It certainly helps if you do, and is better if you do. But if you want to work on the Desktop and the Desktop only - you can.

Desktop Interface

The Desktop is the interface that most people are used to from Windows 7. And in Windows 8.1 it looks and runs almost identically. In fact, if you install a little third-party app called Start8 -which costs a whopping $4 and adds back the Start Button (that Microsoft inexplicably removed, though wisely is bringing back in the next update) - using the Desktop interface for Windows 8.1 is even more almost exactly the same as using Windows 7. Further, unlike the earlier version of Windows 8 (which defaulted to opening in the Modern Interface), you can set Windows 8.1 to boot up to the Desktop just like you're used to and pretty much never leave it, never even know that the Modern Interface exists. In fact, you can almost not even know that Windows 8.1 exists, it's that similar (on the surface) to Windows 7.

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In fact, it's so similar to Windows 7 that there's little reason to go into any specifics here. There are changes, to be sure - it's an upgrade, after all. It's more stable and faster and more protective against viruses or your system being hijacked. It's a new operating system. So, some things have changed. (One example: there's no "Backup and Restore" any more for doing nightly backups. Instead, they have File History, which you set up under the Control Panel. In the same place you can do a System Image Backup, which is hidden here as well. But there's a reason for that - and it's related to Microsoft Accounts.)

Microsoft Accounts change Windows as an operating system in a huge way - for the better. The short version is that by creating a personal sign-in account, all your devices (desktop computer, tablet, mobile phone, online services) are integrated. And if you have a system problem, fixing it is not the hellish problem most operating systems face (including earlier incarnations of Windows.) Using Microsoft Account is brain-dead easy - as easy as creating your user account with a name and password, and signing in once on the device you're using. It changes the way you use computers. I'll explain it more in a bit below, in its own section.

Same with OneDrive, which is a significant new addition, even though it's been around for a while on its own, in that it is now built into Windows, which makes a huge difference. OneDrive is sort of like the well-known service Dropbox, a cloud-based service for storing files. But being integrated as part of Windows, it offers different base strengths. This is a tremendous feature that's core to how Windows 8 was developed. It's also related to the aforementioned File History as being a preferable form of integrated backup. (Though it's always good to have a separate backup, as well.) I'll explain OneDrive more in a bit, as well, in its own section.

One techie note here: Libraries were a wonderful addition to Windows 7. They are a terrific, easy way to consolidate all folders of a similar topic. For instance if you have numerous folders filled with music files, you can keep them separate, but also merge them all in a single Music Library. Same with photos or documents or videos. Libraries showed by default in Window 7. They don't in Windows 8, for some reason. But it's simple to get them back. Open Windows Explorer, click on View, Options, and then select Libraries.

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Now, even if you work on the Desktop you may want to go to the Modern Interface on occasion - there might be an app you like, or you might want to change a setting. (A few settings can only be accessed through "Change PC Settings" on the Modern Interface.) But you don't have to. So, there's little reason, bordering on none, to be concerned. In fact, Windows 8.1 is overwhelmingly-better integrated and has made the concept of switching between the two interfaces far-easier - now, for example, you can pin an app from the Modern Interface directly onto the Desktop taskbar, and mix in among your other Desktop programs. So, you can keep working solely from the Desktop and never have to leave.

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Modern Interface

Which brings us to the Modern Interface. Think of it as the user interface mainly intended for touchscreen tablet use. (In fact, I'll occasionally refer to it here as the "tablet interface" when I think that usage will be more clear. In its early life it was also known as "Metro," and a lot of people still call it that.) Just know that all these names refer to the same thing - an interface designed for use on a tablet, and a touch screen. You don't need a tablet to use it, mind you, or even a touch screen, it works fine on a desktop computer or notebook computer with a regular monitor - mouse click-commands take the place of a finger. Point your mouse to the upper right corner of the screen, and the "Charms Bar" slides out from the right (this is the name of the placeholder where all the settings commands reside). This Modern Interface definitely works more elegantly on a touch screen - that's what it's made for, after all - swiping from the sides of a monitor is more intuitive, but it's not necessary.

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A big concern I've heard (especially if you have a Windows tablet) is that if you use the Modern Interface, do you have to learn all new commands? Absolutely - but remember: if you had a Mac desktop and bought an iPad, you had to learn all new commands. And somehow people seem to have managed with great ease. And there's a difference - although you do have to learn new commands with this tablet interface (it's a tablet, after all), they're all based on Windows you're used to. The programs and apps you access are Windows programs. So, there's ultimately a familiarity. But...yes, in order to use this tablet-style interface, you do have to learn new tablet commands, just like you did with an iPad or iPhone. But most commands are as simple as - swipe the screen from the right to bring up the Charms Bar. Or swipe down to close programs. (Something so easy that Apple integrated it into their iOS.) And swipe from the left to display your open apps. It's not rocket science.

And remember: if you have a Windows tablet, you can stick with using the Modern Interface all the time - you don't ever have to switch to the Desktop Interface. But if you do ever want to go to the Desktop, there is a big icon that says, are you ready? - "Desktop." Click it. Really, it's that easy.

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(Ultimately, although you have to put up with the initial confusion of these two interfaces, their existence is what makes Windows tablets so valuable. Though you'll spend most of your time on the tablet interface, you can switch to the Desktop to run all your legacy programs on the same device. You don't need two operating systems for two different products. As I said above, it's all Windows. One Windows - just two ways of getting around.)

To be clear, I do understand that it's a little confusing in concept to have two different interfaces in one operating system. No question, at first. But here's a theoretical question: is it better to have the two interfaces integrated into one O.S. where they work together intricately, and allow you to do everything, or have two completely separate operating systems which are more focused in their design, but each limited in what they do? That's personal choice. There truly are advantages to each. I suspect that in time, as people grasp that Windows is just one operating system with two different interfaces for different situations and begin to use them both, they'll enjoy having them together. But if not - you basically only have to use one or the other. The Desktop for your main computer, and the Modern interface for your tablet.

I don't think the Modern Interface does everything extraordinarily well yet, and I've had a few glitches where something doesn't open. And there are odd decisions - like which version of Internet Explorer will default when in the Modern Interface. (It's not necessarily what you think...) But it generally run very smoothly and works significantly better now in version 8.1. My biggest quibble is that it's a little difficult to find some settings, buried under different categories than you're used to in Windows 7 - though not everybody likes to change settings and so they may never even encounter this. I also wish you could merge Tiles (the Windows name for icons) into like-themed folders. All of your news-related Tiles, for instance, in a News folder. All your game Tiles in a Games folder. But you can't. (They're finally adding this to the new Windows Phone operating system, so maybe at some point it will comes to core Windows.) What you can do is create groups to which you give unique names. It works well, with everything in the open, but I think folders work better.

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(By the way, Tiles have a very nice feature called Live Tiles, where information is regularly updated, like the weather, or stock tickers, or news headlines or sports scores. It gives more substance to a mere blank icon, and their sizes can be changed, as well. It's very good - though a touch more sizzle than essential. I love the news. I don't absolutely need to see headlines floating by. Though the information displayed on your Calendar Live Tile is quite helpful.)

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Also, you may have read how in the original Windows 8 Modern Interface it was terribly difficult to figure out how to do some basic actions: for instance, doing a search from this tablet interface, and hard even to find how to simply close an app, let alone a challenge just to figure out how in the world to shut down the computer. But know that that was then, this is now. In the upgraded Windows 8.1, the start screen of the Modern Interface now has a magnifying glass to click for searching. You can't miss it. And all apps have an "x" in the upper right corner to close them (even if "sweeping" them closed is easier, which you can still do). And there's now an actual power button icon to shut down the system. Like I said, it's a different, improved, much more user-friendly operating system. Far easier and better.

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And now we get to apps. Ah, apps. The issue of apps for the Modern Interface does remain a concern for people. It's a valid issue, though less than people think. Yes, there are far, far fewer Windows apps than exist for the iOS and Android. Yet there are still 160,000 of them at the time of writing, and almost all of the major ones. And the reality is that most people probably have at most 10 apps that they use all the time. Having countless apps available more gives you better choices. But if you have what you want, you don't need more choice. For me, the two biggest issues with apps in Windows 8 are not so much "how many," but that 1) there are still a few major developers who haven't created important apps for Windows 8 yet, and 2) some of the apps that do exist aren't as richly-designed and fully-featured as their iOS and Android counterparts. But most top apps are there.

There's a very important caveat to these apps issues - using Internet Explorer, if there's a webpage you like, you can pin it to the Modern Interface Start screen in tablet mode. Once there, it will function in essence exactly like an app, in essence allowing you to create an app for anything. (Example: there's no app for the Los Angeles Times. However, I can go to the paper's homepage and pin that - the actual, full website itself - to the Start screen and have "app" access.)

OneDrive

The aforementioned OneDrive has been around for a couple years, and even longer if you consider its earlier and not terribly successful Microsoft incarnations, like Live Mesh. But now that it's integrated directly into Windows 8, the program has changed the way I use my devices. At its heart, OneDrive is a cloud-based storage service, similar to the well-known Dropbox, Google Drive and others, many of which are quite terrific and valuable, indeed a program like Dropbox does some things even better than OneNote. But when integrated in Window 8, OneDrive moves in ways that are unique. It's not that OneDrive can work better with Windows 8, it's that OneDrive is actually built directly into Windows 8 as part of the operating system which is specifically designed for OneDrive to work with it.

(Know that you don't need Windows 8 to use OneDrive, it's just that it comes as part of Window 8, and is better integrated there.)

OneDrive exists either as a log-on website, or application embedded into Windows Explorer where it looks as if it's just another folder. The short version is that when you copy files to OneDrive it then makes them available to any device on which OneDrive is installed. So far, that's the normal way all these cloud-based storage services work. But being cloud-based, they all have one liability, they only work when you're connected to...well, the cloud, when you have an Internet connection. Lose the Internet, and you lose being able to get to your data. With OneDrive, though, you can set Window 8 to also make your files accessible on the hard drive all the time, offline, even if there's no Internet. (It's simple - right-click on the OneDrive icon and choose "Make available offline.")

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What this means, for instance, is that you can safely move your My Documents files from their default folder location and put them in the OneDrive folder and never worry if you'll lose your ability to work with them if you're not near a WiFi hotspot. They're on your hard drive, not only residing in the cloud. And you can set your Microsoft Office programs to automatically save files to OneDrive.

By the way, this works the same as with OneNote, Microsoft's "notebook-like" software that competes with the robust and industry-leading Evernote, or Google Note. While these others require an Internet connection to access your data they store, OneNote notebook "folders"- if you embed them into OneDrive - are there for you on your hard drive all the time, as well as all your devices. There other ways OneDrive is integrated to work with Windows 8 (photos taken with a Windows Phone, for example, can be instantly transferred to OneDrive so that copies immediately sit safely on your home computer), but this is the basic idea.

The result of all this is that it's changed how I use my devices, which are now intricately merged. When I work on my main home computer, everything I put in OneDrive - my Word documents, OneNote data, pictures, almost anything - shows up on my laptop, on a Windows tablet, and Windows Phone, just about instantly. So whatever Windows device you have at the moment, you're completely synced. Change a document or add a file to one device, and the change is available on all your devices. (This is why I got a Windows Phone, incidentally, much to the chiding of friends. It wasn't the ability to browse or send email and texts or make phone calls - all mobile phones do that. It wasn't for the apps. It was for the ability to give me near-full and synced access to all my data. And to have, almost literally, my desktop computer in my pocket. Combined with Microsoft Exchange for my mail, task list and address book - but that's a separate matter from the topic at hand - I'm fully synced)

Understand that when you put anything on the cloud there is a risk of security. (To be equally fair, there is a risk of security even on your hard drive at home, which can be breached. But that's more in your control, and less likely. And there's a risk with anything in the cloud, whether is Dropbox, Google Drive or Apple iCloud.) Of course, a risk of security doesn't mean you will be breached. But it's important to be aware. Also, there are ways to protect yourself, like using Two-Factor Authentication - that's another matter, but good to at least know about.

(Two-Factor Authentication is easy in theory, though, it can be a little confusing to set up if not explained well, which is isn't even remotely on the Microsoft Account site. But I digress...)

OneDrive comes with a massive 15 GB of storage space free with Windows 8.1. You can buy more, but as a point of reference, all my documents - and I have a lot, can you can imagine - take up just less an a gigabyte, just 830 MB. And my size-heavy photos are just 2 GB.

But OneDrive goes even deeper and in even more important ways, as I said, like syncing your computer settings with your also-aforementioned Microsoft Account. What's that?? Read on...

Microsoft Account

At first glance, a Microsoft Account is something so low-key that it's easy to overlook. But it might be the most powerful feature of Windows 8.1. Maybe you've already even signed up for a Microsoft Account to get access to the company's Outlook.com email website, or Office.com applications (like Word online). If so, you've got an account already. Maybe you've ignored them, figuring you prefer your Gmail, or Google Docs, and don't really need these others. Fine, your choice. But getting a Microsoft Account - even if you never use any of these online services - changes profoundly how Windows 8.1 works. (When you install Windows 8.1, and it asks for your sign-in information, you'll be prompted to create an account if you don't have one, to get a user name and password.)

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For starters, when you sign into Windows 8.1 with your Microsoft Account (something you only have to do once, not each time you boot up), the system will remember and sync your settings and even many passwords. And it remembers all your settings where applicable across all your devices. Where this comes in handy (and "handy" shall herein be defined as system life-saving) is if you have a crash or need to reinstall Windows.

In an earlier time, like only a year ago, if you had to reinstall Windows, it was a hellish experience. (Not just Windows, but reinstalling any operating system was hellish.) It took a long time, you had to re-load all your programs, and sometimes, if you had to do a clean-install, you might even overwrite you data. With Windows 8.1 and a Microsoft Account, that's all changed.

Now, you have two options. PC Reset and PC Refresh. The former restores your computer to factory condition. Yet it does so very quickly, perhaps in just 10-15 minutes. But even that's just the small part of the story. Because with a Microsoft Account, the system will remember what apps you've already installed from the Windows Store and will make them available again on your computer. (Note that any legacy, non-Windows Store software you personally loaded from your own home collection onto the Desktop interface, you'll have to re-install. This feature only works with your Windows Store apps installed in the Modern Interface. But even if you rarely use that mode, there still will be a lot of apps.)

More remarkable is the PC Refresh option. This will just reload Windows 8.1 without overwriting any of your data! It keeps all your data files right where they were. And as before, your Microsoft Account will remember the apps you have installed.

You may recall earlier above that I wrote about how "Backup and Recover" had changed with Windows 8.1. All these new features integrating with a Microsoft Account is a major reason for that. Windows 8.1 handles files and backup totally differently. Doing a "System Image" (basically a snapshot of your hard drive) isn't as essential under Windows 8.1...because the operating system itself with Microsoft Account remembers much of what you had installed and will reload those apps itself. And if you enable the aforementioned "File History" feature (found in the Control Panel), the operating system will back up your documents and data to an external drive at whatever time interval you select. (Microsoft has had this feature under a different name for many years, before even Apple had its Time Machine.) And of course, if you're working with files stored in OneDrive, you have even more backup options there, since that material is all saved in the cloud.

Getting Ready

At last, the beginning. If you've made this this far (congratulations...! But take a rest, you're about halfway done with the column) and are thinking of upgrading to Windows 8.1, here are a few thoughts to help the process along.

You can install Windows 8.1 in two ways - a clean installation, or an upgrade. The upgrade is the easiest. No need to re-load any of your programs, which is a massive advantage. There is a good reason to do a clean install, though - if you have any problems on your old system, like bad sectors on an old hard drive, or malware, they'll still be there. Same if you have problematic or conflicting software. Also, since I did a clean install here, I discovered an unexpected advantage. Rather than spends days re-loading EVERYTHING, I simply loaded first the dozen essential programs I need. That only took an hour or two. Then, over the next few days I had planned to load the less-critical software a few a day, easy, no problem. But...what I discovered is that I really didn't have a burning need to re-load some of that lesser software. Not because it took more time, but I realized I rarely used it, so this gave me a leaner, crisper-running machine without bloat. If I find I need one of those lesser programs, that's when I'll load it.

Know that whichever installation of Window you use, that's not the end of the process. There are a lot of updates, and you'll have to load them all. Windows tells you what you need, but listen to it. Keep installing the updates and Service Packs until you're finished.

A slight digression here from Windows, to discuss hard disk drives for a moment.

As I was mentioned at the beginning, I started this adventure because my old hard drive was about to crash. When I set out to get a new hard drive, one of my tech gurus was insistent (to the point of nearly shaking me silly) that I get an SSD drive instead. This stands for Solid State Drive. Unlike hard drives, they use no moving parts, are much thinner and smaller, are wildly faster, and shouldn't break down nearly as regularly (since they have no moving parts). They also cost more. But the price has plummeted in recent years. A few years back, a 256 GB SSD drive went for $700. Today, a Samsung SSD drive double the capacity (500 GB) - which is what I bought - costs only $250. By comparison, a 1 terabyte standard hard disk can be bought for only $70. But most humans don't need 1 terabyte.

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(Here's what I mean: I have a fairly-loaded computer. Not a huge amount of photos and music, which can take up massive space, but a respectable collection. And keep in mind that many people today put all their photos and music in the cloud, not on their hard drive, so they save huge space. Anyway, with everything loaded, my computer uses up just 135 GB. So, even a 256 GB SSD would have suited me just fine, for $170. The only reason I bought the bigger SSD was it was a better deal and ultimately more protective for the future, since SSDs should have a much longer life.)

Keep in mind, too, that because SSDs should last significantly longer, that has to be factored into the cost, as well. There's one other cost-effective option you can consider doing - get a small SSD (128 GB) to load all your programs on - that should be big enough by far - and then buy a high-capacity but low-cost hard disk on which to put all your data, music and photos. The programs will run very, very fast from the SSD, but simply read the data off the cheaper, huge hard disk.

By the way, despite the knowledge that the SSD would load programs faster, that wasn't something that deeply interested me. I tend to load the programs I need in the morning and work with them all day. But given that I was having a hard disk crash issue, getting a new SSD drive that shouldn't crash as often was the selling point to me. It turned out that there was another benefit which I subsequently learned and adore -

As I mentioned, SSDs are wickedly fast. And Windows 8 itself has a much smaller "kernel," which means it can boot up much faster on its own. As for shutting down, a computer checks the drive first, so a faster drive speeds up that process, as well. Put this all together, and I've had a revelatory experience. Keeping in mind (to be fair) that my old hard drive was near crashing and slowing down, it would take me five minutes to shut down and reboot my system. Now, it takes about 70 seconds! This has changed the way I use my computer. Before, when something would be updated and ask about rebooting, I'd have to plan ahead and hold off until I was done working and leaving my desk. Now, I don't think twice. Need to reboot? Fine, go ahead, it'll be back up in a minute. That alone has almost been worth the SSD, combined with Windows 8.

The Windows Bottomline

Despite some confusion and critical words in a few corners when Windows 8 was released, the upgraded Windows 8.1 is really impressive (as long as you buy a $4 app like Start8, which returns full Start Button capability.) The Modern Interface (or tablet interface) is significantly improved in Windows 8.1, but it's still a growing process for Microsoft. The availability of apps is much better than most people assume, though it still lags very far behind the competition. But most of the important apps are there. And you do have a learning curve with the Modern Interface - just like people did when they got an iPad. But the Desktop Interface (with the aforementioned Start8 app) is almost identical to what people are used to with Windows 7.

What I find is that when I am on a desktop or notebook computer, I far prefer to use the Desktop interface, and almost exclusively stick to it. But when I've tested Windows tablets (a good many of them, though oddly Microsoft has not yet sent me one of their own Surface tablets to review...), I've been surprised how much I prefer the Modern Interface in that tablet environment, and I want to stick it as much as possible. On each, though, I've appreciated being able to switch to the other interface when appropriate. Switching is more the case when using a tablet - I do like being able to go to the Desktop on occasion and run legacy programs (like my screenwriting software, for example). But when I'm using my home computer or notebook, I find I almost exclusively stick with the Desktop interface. As I said - repeatedly - if you prefer one interface over the other...you can pretty much use it only.

The short version - after 5,000 words - is that Windows 8.1 has flaws, has significantly improved from the initial Windows 8 release, and is mostly very fast, extremely stable and quite wonderful. Mixed opinions you may have read are largely based on the initial Windows 8, not the 8.1 upgrade. And with OneDrive and a Microsoft Account, it's changed the way I use my devices for the better.

MICROSOFT OFFICE PROFESSIONAL 2013
[http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/professional/]

If you run Windows as your operating system, there's a pretty reasonable chance that you use Microsoft Office. You may have already upgraded to Office 2013, though many people tend to be happy with their older versions and put that off. (For instance, me....) But with moving up to Windows 8.1, I figured that's a good time to test out making the change.

As in everything written about Windows above, this is going to look at Office more from an upgrade process standpoint, more than the specific details of the suite itself, though I'll throw in a few comments about it here in there.

Oddly, the biggest question about upgrading to Office 2013 is - what version of Office??? This is not as easy a question as it seems. In fact, until writing this column, I was a bit bewildered by the various options. But I think I have it down now, and even have some recommendations about it that surprised me, and will do my best to make it clear. Still, though - buckle your seatbelt and have a bottle of aspirin handy, just in case. This will actually be the longest part of discussing Office.

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The version Microsoft is most-heavily pushing is Office 365. It's a subscription-based service, where you pay a monthly fee. The full program of Office Professional 2013 is loaded onto your system, and all upgrades are made instantly with no input needed by you - if Microsoft releases a new "Office 2015," for example, while you're subscribed you'll get it. This option also comes with a massive 1 terabyte of extra OneDrive storage per user, as well as 60 "Skype world minutes" of calling per month.

[Update: Since writing this, Microsoft announced in late October that they were exceeding even the 1 terabyte offer. Actually, they're eliminating it. They now will begin offering Office 365 subscribers unlimited storage on OneDrive. Yes, unlimited. That should be sufficient for most people...]

Also, the complete suite of all Microsoft applications are included - Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher, Access, and Outlook.

Got that? Okay, now moving on.

There are two versions of Office 365 available - Personal and Home.

Personal Office 365 is for installing on one PC (or Mac), as well as on one tablet, and multiple SmartPhones. It costs $7 a month. (I'm going to round up a penny on all the prices here, for easier reading and reality.) But if you buy it for the full year, the price lowers to $70, a 16% savings.

Home Office 365 gives you licenses for five PCs (or Macs), plus five tablets, and additional SmartPhones. Its price is $10 a month. But again, a full-year subscription is just $100. Also a savings of 16%. (And each license gets that free unlimited OneDrive storage.)

That's Office 365. But there's another way you can get Office.

The other way to buy the suite is what I'll call "one-time purchase" Office 2013. This is more like what people have been buying for years and are used to. You pay one price and get your copy of Office, for as long as you want to use it. No monthly fees. You've paid for it, done. If Office releases a new version, though, you still have the old version. No "instant upgrading" to the new one. (You'll still get normal updates for your version, of course, but have to download them yourself.) And no extra unlimited OneDrive storage or Skype minutes. (Remember, though, what I wrote above - that OneDrive automatically gives everyone 15 gigabytes of storage by default, which is a huge amount for most humans.) And it's only good for installation on one computer. No second computer, no tablets.

And...of course, there are multiple versions of "one-time purchase" Office. (Hey, I told you it was convoluted.)

Buckle up. But not worry, it's not bad. You'll make it through.

There is Office Home & Student 2013. It includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. And only costs $140. But importantly there's no Outlook, which is critical.

The second incarnation is Office Home & Business 2013. This offers the same applications, but adds Outlook. Its prices is $220.

Finally, Microsoft offers Office Professional 2013. This adds Publisher and Access, and jumps the cost to a whopping $400. (This is the version I tested for this article.)

But not so fast with that "finally." To make things even more swirled, know that you can buy any individual Office application as a single, standalone product. So, you might just want Microsoft Word and Outlook. This will cost you $220. But then, that's the same price as Office Home & Business 2013, which includes Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

(And hey, why stop there when you're juggling Office suites? Because Microsoft also has - are you ready? - Office Online, which is its full suite of applications that you can access for free in your browser. It's basically Microsoft's competition for Google Docs and similar applications, like the very good Zoho. It works very well, is reasonably full-featured, and offers near-complete familiarity to Office applications you're used to, along with strong integration. But though one of its great strengths is the ability to work with Office documents on your computer (especially if they reside in OneDrive), it's more involved that using standard Office when working with existing Office documents that sit on your hard drive, and of course does require having an Internet connection, not a problem most of the time, but a big negative if you're a professional writer and need all access, all the time. The point is that it's very good compared with its online competition, and free, but you shouldn't look at it as a smooth, standard Office replacement. It's not at that level yet.)

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Okay, we're done. You survived! Congratulations.

So, which to choose? Well, that depends on personal needs. I'll do my best to talk through how to best look at this.

When Office 365 was first introduced, I was skeptical about it, for a lot of reasons. And I know that most people are used to buying their Office and holding on to it. But after all this research and usage, I now think the Office 365 suite is actually quite a strong option, particularly for its ability to install on multiple devices if that's what you have, and being sure you have the latest versions. However, if you're the kind of person who doesn't change Office often, and have used the same version for many years, the "one-time purchase" incarnation might still suit you best. (As for which version...well, you're on your own with that. But getting a version with Outlook seems essential. I think Office Home & Business 2013 for $220 is probably a good choice for many.)

For me, though that wouldn't work. I use Publisher quite a bit, and Access very slightly, not much but enough to need it. Otherwise, I might select Office Home & Business and add a standalone version of Publisher, saving $70.

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But I'd still give Office 365 very serious consideration. With people using multiple devices these days, that's probably most cost-effective in the long run. Especially if you purchase full-year subscriptions.

However, since I think many writers sit at their home computer and write - and like having their own version of Office which they'll keep for a long while because they're so familiar with it and how they best work with its commands and don't want things to change - and since this article is written specifically for professional writers, that's why I chose to review the "one-time purchase" Office Professional 2013. But I still hold to my recommendation above.

Know that the individual programs themselves are exactly the same, whichever you get, Office 365 or "one-time purchase." So, everything that follows below from here on is basically the same, whatever you end up with.

And with that - at last! - we move on. Huzzah.

And with that, as well, we've really gotten past the hard part. Deciding which version of Microsoft Office to get. At least as far as the purposes of this article is concerned. That's because, as I said above, I'm not going to go into great technical specifics of the various applications in the Office suite, and this is mainly about The Process. If you use Office already, you basically know the suite at its foundation. There are improvements and changes - and I'll get into some - but for the most part, you know Office.

Once upon a time, the "hard part" with Office was setting it up. Not that it was all that difficult, but it meant swapping disks and took a LOT of time, with repeatedly rebooting your system. I was shocked how simple it was setting up Office 2013. Microsoft doesn't even sell a boxed version anymore. So, the process is the same whether you're getting Office 365 or "one-time purchase" Office. Basically, you click "Download," and that's it. Seriously. Within about five minutes, a message popped up on my screen saying that although the software had more add-on features to install, you could begin using already! I waited, on general principle, but the whole process took no more than 15 minutes.

The integration with OneDrive and Windows 8.1 was seamless. If you have an earlier operating system, there's a bit of tweaking to do, letting Office know that you're using OneDrive. But with this version of Office, it expects that you have OneDrive, and it's built directly into the suite. When you open or save documents, the option to do so on OneDrive, and not only on your hard drive, is there at your fingertips.

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Any custom settings you've set up with Office will follow your device with Microsoft Account and active Internet access. So, as long as you sign in to your Microsoft Account, all your settings will be familiar to you, even if you're aware from home and working on your notebook - or a friend's home computer. That's another of those benefits of Microsoft Account I was mentioning.

Having a Microsoft Account (and Internet access) offers other benefits, as well. There is a Resume Reading function that carries your settings onto other devices, like a tablet or even a SmartPhone.

One quibble I do have with Office is that the interface is now incredibly bland, even for Microsoft. The standard theme is, in fact, very white. It's a clean look to be sure, but pointlessly flat. You can change this, but only a very small amount. (It's done through File/Accounts.) Dark Gray gives slightly more contrast, but that's as far as you can go. "Dark Gray" really doesn't make the heart soar. You are able to give your Office programs a background theme, but I find that going too far in the other extreme, being more distracting than anything.

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A few years back, Microsoft introduced a new file format to its traditional ".doc" files. Called ".docx", it provides more functionality, though for most of my purposes it was unnecessary. However, with the integration with OneDrive and Office Online, .docx now becomes valuable since it works seamlessly when you're online. Old documents using the traditional .doc format won't be as accessible under those conditions. (If you have no interest in ever working with documents online, then it's a total non-issue. But all of this online world is part of the huge feature benefits of this upgrade.)

This has become even more pronounced now that you can access, edit, and view documents from your Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android phone or the web. Office Mobile (which gets installed on mobile devices) and Office Online also help you get things done on the run. So, the online world is significant, and .docx might have a bigger place in your future than you think.

As I said above, I'm not going to go into details about the programs. At this point, most people know what the Office suite programs do. So, you can just figure that with the 2013 version it does all that, and more. (Plus, there are other articles that can give you the techie details, including Microsoft's own website, linked above.) But a few things did stand out with the suite, so a few comments are in order.

Word has expanded its ability to create publications, and made it easier to do so, as well. You can also now open PDF files in Word and then convert them into editable Word documents - and then save them back to PDF.

If you have a blog, you can now use Word to write and save directly from Office to the site. (There are notable limitations to this, though, since only a limited number of more prominent hosts are supported. Mine is not.)

I particularly like the "Live layouts" feature. This works throughout Office, in all the programs, though it's far more extensive in Word. In the past, you had to change the formatting of your documents back-and-forth in order to compare differences; now, you can just hover your mouse over various formatting options and view the changes instantly - then, move the mouse away, and the format changes back to what it was before. Really terrific.

Publisher now makes it much easier to work with graphics. As you would suspect, graphics tend to come from a lot of different sources, (pictures on your hard drive, artwork found online, the Office.com clip gallery, and much more), and previously you had to track those all down separately. Now, everything can be searched from one convenient area, collected together, no matter their source It's also easier to add pictures into a publication -- those you select are all put in one "Scratch" area - and it's from here that you can simply swap them in and out.

I don't think everyone needs to upgrade to Office 2013. A lot of the world has done just fine on Office 2010 - and I suspect there are even those still making it through life with their limited needs on Office 2003. But if you've upgraded to Windows 8.1, know that it and Office 2013 are made specifically with other in mind, and they bring out the best of each other.

And much as tradition says that buying the standalone suite is the way to go, I am no longer convinced of that. And I think an Office 365 subscription might serve more people than they think.

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"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here

To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.