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An in-depth look at Windows 8.1: A decent update, but nothing special

SoftwareFeatures
by David Cardinal, 16 Sep 2013Features
An in-depth look at Windows 8.1: A decent update, but nothing special

Microsoft is betting that Windows 8.1 will be enough to jumpstart stalled sales of new Windows PCs and to coax reluctant Windows 7 users into making the leap. After using Windows 8.1 RTM (essentially the version that will ship with machines when it is officially released) for several days on several different types of machines, I’m impressed by its many subtle improvements over Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 Preview, but it hasn’t addressed any of the fundamental issues slowing Windows 8′s adoption.

I’ve installed Windows 8.1 Pro RTM on three of my daily-use machines: A laptop and a desktop running Windows 8, and a tablet running Windows 8.1 Preview. All three upgrades went flawlessly, although as promised the upgrade from Preview required reinstalling all my applications. Except for small differences, like the return of the neutered Start button – without a Start menu – and a small down arrow on the Start screen pointing to where you can find your applications, there aren’t a lot of visual changes from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.

In general, the changes Microsoft has made are fairly subtle and uncontroversial. App bars have been made a little more consistent – with Internet Explorer placing both of its at the bottom of the screen now, for example. Many more settings are available from the Metro version of PC Settings, although not enough to do away with the traditional Control Panel entirely.

Having also helped someone else upgrade directly from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1 RTM, I can truly empathise with IT professionals in that position. Explaining all the various changes in the UI is time consuming and – worst of all – most of the changes only make life harder or more confusing for users of traditional desktops and laptops

The good news is that Windows 8.1 RTM feels faster and more stable than either the Preview version or Windows 8. Like Windows 8, it also uses less memory than Windows 7, and boots faster. The niggling bugs that kept various pieces of the Preview from working correctly seem to be fixed. Without a doubt, it is the best version of Windows 8 that I’ve used. So for Windows 8 users, the update is likely a no-brainer.

Windows 8.1 for diehard Desktop fans

Key for Windows Desktop traditionalists are the new Navigation settings. They allow you to boot directly to the Desktop, and change the way the Start screen acts to make it less intrusive. These settings, shown in the dialog box below, are found by right clicking on an empty area of the taskbar and bringing up its Properties:

The most-asked-for option of the bunch is the “go to the Desktop instead of Start” capability. Checking this box causes your machine to bypass the Start screen and go straight to Desktop mode when you log in. Options to turn off Charms and the list of Metro-friendly apps seem much less useful. Matching your Desktop background and Start screen background also seems like more of a sop than any type of real increase in usability. The option to show the Start screen on the display you’re currently using is nice, although it didn’t always work correctly when I tried it.

Note that none of these options eliminate the need for the various-Start-menu-replacing accessories. So if you use one of those, you’re probably better off just keeping it and not trying to fiddle with the new Windows 8.1 settings – especially since the new options only provide a placebo Start button, and not a true replacement for the Windows 7 Start menu.

Searching for a usable Search UI

Search finally works well. Whether or not you’re a fan of the default blending-in of Bing results, Search does a much better job of finding files and applications on your computer than it did in Windows 8 or in the Windows 8.1 Preview. Unlike in the Preview, you also don’t need to flip down to the Application screen to search for applications. My only gripe is that Search doesn’t seem to work identically between machines. On one of the machines I upgraded, for example, Windows Update pops up nicely in Search, while on two others it is impossible to find without going to the Control Panel first.

There are also lots of little baubles that Microsoft has found the time to add to Windows 8.1, like using slideshows on your lock screen, keeping the same background for your desktop and Start screen, and more tile size choices for your Start screen. While all of these are certainly pleasant, it’s hard to see them changing the game as far as whether you’ll buy a new Windows computer or upgrade your existing model.

Things that are still broken

Everyone has their own set of pet peeves about Windows 8. There are a few of mine that still appear to be a problem – minor ones, maybe, but enough to set my teeth on edge once in a while. First off, the Windows Store still doesn’t provide a way to launch an application that you already have installed after you search for it. Often I go to install a viewer or app with particular functionality, only to find I’ve already installed it. On Android, Play greets you with a helpful “Open” button. Windows Store only provides you with the factual information that the app has been installed and forces you to spend more time finding it.

Secondly, there are still two versions of many popular applications, like Internet Explorer and OneNote. You get a different UI depending on how they are launched, and it can be hard to know which is which. Thirdly, and related, the list of running Desktop apps is found on the taskbar while the list of running Metro apps is found using a Charm. If Microsoft really cared about moving users over from the Desktop, it’d let you find all your running apps in the same place.

Metro still isn’t compelling

Even Microsoft’s Metro apps don’t seem to leverage Windows strengths. The much-touted Food & Drink app, for example, doesn’t offer a Print button for recipes – which is especially surprising since fully integrated printing is one of the most obvious advantages of Windows over Android or iOS. You can also tell that Microsoft hasn’t faced the issue of having tens of thousands of apps in its Store yet. It doesn’t show the publisher of an application in the browse mode, so it is almost impossible to tell official clients for services like Facebook and Twitter apart from lookalikes without visiting the page for each application.

The Photos app is another “restart.” Dumping all the good work Microsoft has put in to previous versions of its Photo Gallery apps, the Metro-friendly Photos app offers a combination of simplistic eye-candy and a few useful filters that can be previewed in real time. However, it is only a shadow of the photo management and editing capabilities that Microsoft has offered at one time or another under various names. Once again the strength of desktop Windows has been abandoned in Microsoft’s quest to have a tablet-friendly and not-too-overwhelming user interface. Users can still download Microsoft’s Essentials suite, including Photo Gallery, but it doesn’t come installed by default.

Libraries are also given short shrift in the UI, with no explanation from Microsoft about why – other than the implied decision to try to force everything to SkyDrive. Changes like that make it just that much harder for IT pros to train their users, or for consumers to get used to new versions of Windows. Ironically in this case, the shiny new Photos app can only see images that are in either the Library or SkyDrive – and not the rest of the file system.

Perhaps more minor in the grand scheme of things, but especially irksome because it seems like it would be so easy to fix, Microsoft refuses to relent on the Start menu, instead insisting on providing an eye-candy-friendly but painful-to-use alternative in the All Apps view found below the Start screen. Sure, tiles are great for tablets when you’ve set up exactly the right ones, but that’s no excuse for crippling a proven approach to quickly finding an application from among many.

Should you update to Windows 8.1?

If you’re running Windows 8 or need to, then Windows 8.1 is a slam-dunk improvement over Windows 8 and the Windows 8.1 Preview, and well worth installing. If you’ve held off on moving to Windows 8, waiting for a silver bullet that will make all its problems disappear, this isn’t it. If you are a Windows 8 hater, nothing in the new release will change your mind. Congrats to Microsoft for cranking out a fairly major Windows release in 12 months, even if it is more of an SP1, or perhaps just the polish Windows 8 should have had when it was released. I just wish Redmond could have done more to address the major UI issues introduced by Windows 8.

For more on Windows 8.1, see our multi-monitor desktop hands-on.

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