Should You Even Bother With Windows RT 8.1?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I thought it would be easy. I wanted to update three Windows 8 computers to the newly released Microsoft ( MSFT) Windows 8.1 operating system. I didn't realize it would take nearly thirty hours spread over a full week to accomplish. Now that's it's over I wonder whether the ordeal was worth it in the first place.

I'll spare you the minute details. In short, I was trying to upgrade three computers to Windows 8.1. All had been running the beta Preview Edition versions of Windows 8.1 that had been released over the summer.

Upgrading the touchscreen Lenovo Windows Pro laptop was relatively glitch free. Especially after the first few phone and email conversations with the Microsoft specialist assigned to my case. Not so for the two Windows RT devices on hand. Both the first-generation Surface RT and Asus Vivo Tab RT would not accept the OS upgrades. For the record Asus is one of a number of manufacturers which no longer make Windows RT/ARM-based ( ARMH) computers.

It took five days for the Microsoft expert to ask that an instructional file be complied on one of the machines and emailed to him for examination. A few hours later he sent a string of command line instructions (an ancient text-only computer interface) for me to input along with a way to force the computer to find the actual upgrade in the Windows Store.

These last steps worked. I'm happy to report that both machines are finally running Windows RT 8.1 despite Microsoft's apparent lack of advance preparation.

So now, two question remain: is the upgrade worth worrying about and why not just buy a new Surface 2 tablet with 8.1 already installed? If you already own a first-generation RT or Pro device you should upgrade immediately. The new OS is much improved in dozens of ways and the software is free. It's a no brainer. You should encounter fewer problems than I did. Many of the early upgrade kinks have already been ironed out.

Whether to buy a new Surface 2 is a more difficult choice. We now have a Surface 2 tablet on for comparison. The 2 is silver in color (to differentiate it from the more expensive, black, Surface 2 Pro), it's noticeably lighter in weight than the original and offers improved screen viewing angles. Otherwise, there really isn't much of a difference.

If you can find an original Surface RT at a good price - say $300 or less - and you primarily want a tablet for surfing the Web and creating Office documents an RT device with the free 8.1 upgrade might be a good option.

But, you'll soon have another choice. Lenovo, Acer, Dell ( DELL) and others are about to unleash new, slightly smaller (with 8-inch screens) Windows 8.1 tablets. They're designed to compete with other tablets like Apple's ( AAPL) iPad mini and Google's ( GOOG) Nexus 7. The big difference is these new Windows tablets will be running the full-featured Windows Pro 8.1 OS on Intel ( INTC) processors. Some will include a free version of Microsoft Office. All are being introduced in the $300-$350 price range.

Aside from the larger screen size I can't imagine many buyers being attracted to computers running a somewhat limited-use operating system when new designs running Microsoft's big operating system can be had at a lower price.

Windows RT 8.1 is definitely a worthwhile improvement over last year's offering. But with the advent of less expensive/more capable Windows Pro devices it seems that RT is even more of a dead end than before. I'm guessing Microsoft will soon merge its Windows RT and Windows Phone development teams into a single unit. We may have to wait for the company to find a new President to announce a reorganization of that magnitude.

The world doesn't need 10.1-inch Windows tablets along side 8-inch Windows tablets along side 6-inch tablets (like the just-announced Nokia ( NOK) 1520 smartphone) all of which run on slightly similar but different Windows platforms.

Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

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