Microsoft Windows 8.1 review

Pros

  • Fastest start-up of any Windows version
  • Loads of included apps and utilities
  • More window options for new-style apps
  • Improved stock apps

Cons

  • Dual nature of OS may still confuse some
  • Windows app store lacks some big names

Increased tablet sales and declining desktop and laptop sales make one thing clear: People want tablets. But they still need computers capable of multitasking high-power applications. With both Mac and PC sales down, Microsoft took this problem on with a completely reimagined operating system concept in Windows 8, a system designed to be at home with both casual use on tablets and serious business and digital media creation scenarios on desktops and laptops. Windows 8.1 doesn't abandon this strategy – far from it – but this refresh addresses a lot of shortcomings in Microsoft's first hybrid OS attempt.

Coming just about a year after Windows 8's release, Windows 8.1 is a free upgrade through the Windows app store for existing Windows 8 users. It’s also available to anyone else from the Microsoft Web Store as a packaged DVD, and on new PCs, laptops, and tablets. As with Windows 8, there's a standard and a Pro version, priced at £99.99 and £189.99 respectively. The Pro version adds business capabilities like disk encryption and network domain joining, and is required for those who want Windows Media home cinema capability.

Birthing an entirely new class of product that looks like nothing that came before is not always the smoothest of endeavours, and it's no secret that Windows 8 has met with a good deal of resistance. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has moved faster than ever before to address concerns with a new OS release. And the device convergence may be taking a step further, with reports that Microsoft is expected to combine the app stores for Windows Phone and Windows 8. This will be a boon to Windows 8, which, although it already boasts over 120,000 apps of its own according to the MetroStore Scanner site, still trails Apple and Android’s app stores by a massive amount, and it lacks some big names. An official Facebook app only appeared simultaneously with the 8.1 release.

Most of the major new features in Windows 8.1 have been widely available in the Preview version of the OS, though there have been some tweaks. The updated Mail app was not available at Preview time, and it adds much-needed elements like drag-and-drop to folders. The Help+Tips app is also new in the released Windows 8.1, as are improvements to the Camera app for tablets, such as the very cool 360 panorama.

Improvements include a more consistent look between the desktop and mobile app interfaces, lock screen slideshow and notifications, better help to get people going with the new interface, the ability to boot to the desktop, a Start button, more windowing options for new-style (Metro) mobile apps, and more settings in the new-style interface. The Windows app store gets a much-needed facelift, and the default apps like Mail, Internet Explorer, Skype, Xbox Music and Video, and search also benefit from updates.

Help+Tips

The new Help+Tips app that debuts in Windows 8.1 addresses the main criticism of Windows 8 – namely that it's confusing to use. Actually, Windows 8 could not be simpler to use for a lot of things – what's so hard about clicking a big tile with the name of an app on it to run it? But some essential activities are less obvious in Microsoft’s new OS. Things like using the Charms (an always accessible menu button bar along the right side of the screen), switching apps, and moving between the desktop and new-style interface are all covered in the Help+Tips app.

Help+Tips has a simple six panel interface offering help options titled Start and apps, Get around, Basic actions, Your account and files, Settings, and What's new. Going through the whole batch is not a major undertaking, with simple animated images provided to show frequently needed gestures. The new app does a lot to allay any fears or uncertainties that new users may have about Windows 8. Even if they don't visit this help app, Windows 8.1 adds pointers right in the interface showing how to use it.

Start button and boot to desktop

Two features that long-time Windows users cried out for after Windows 8's original release have made their way into Windows 8.1 – the Start button and the ability to boot to the desktop, where standard Windows programs can run just as they have for the last few versions of the OS. The Start button Microsoft has included, however, isn't quite what the long-time users were hoping for, since it opens the new-style Start screen.

But really, if you think of this as a full-screen Start button menu, you'll use Windows 8.1 just as swiftly as its predecessors. (For more tips on quickly mastering the new OS, read my 5 tips for using Windows 8.1). The boot-to-desktop option is found in the Taskbar's settings dialog, shown here:

New Start tile and window options

The tile-based Start screen has gotten more flexible, and now offers four size choices instead of Windows 8's two. The new additions are a huge square, for apps with a lot of live info to display such as Mail, and a tiny one, for apps with nothing to update live. Not all apps have all size choices, depending on what the app developer deems sensible.

The Start screen gets more than just new tile sizes. It can now display animated backgrounds, or use the same background as the desktop wallpaper, for a more unified interface experience. So that the Start screen doesn't get overwhelmingly cluttered with app tiles, now apps are only automatically added to the All App screen, not to the Start screen – and in Windows 8.1, you can get to this All Apps list simply by swiping up on the Start screen.

As for new-style app windowing, more than two modern apps can now share the screen. No longer are you restricted to a large window and one slender side panel, but two apps can each take up half the screen, or, depending on what the app's developer has allowed, any portion you choose. The number of apps depends on how large the screen is and its pixel density.

Apps can even sprout a second new-style window when it makes sense such as the new Reading List app, which keeps the list in a narrow left-side panel while the content you want to read takes up most of the screen. With multiple monitors, you can further augment the number of windows. Speaking of external monitors, Windows 8.1 supports Miracast, which lets you send video over Wi-Fi to large HDTVs and the like.

The Lock screen also has new tricks: It can act as a slideshow display of your photos, rather than just showing a static picture. The slides are chosen with some intelligence, too, rather than simply rotating through all your photos; for example, you may see photos drawn from around the same time of year. Another big help, especially for small tablets, is access to the camera without the need to log in. The same goes for answering Skype calls – just tap on the notification to start video-chatting with grandma.

A big bugbear of mine was that there were two Settings tools in Windows 8 – the new-style one and the traditional Control Panel on the desktop. Windows 8.1 still maintains this duality, but the modern UI settings have become far more robust, eliminating the need to head to the massive number of choices in desktop Control Panel. For example, now you can configure display settings, change mouse and typing options, and see PC info. You can even make new adjustments, like changing the app switching behaviour in the Corners and Edges section.

Another peeve of mine was that in order to sync documents with SkyDrive, you had to have two SkyDrive apps running on Windows 8, the modern and the desktop version. Now SkyDrive document syncing is a built-in capability of the OS, and it offers an option that lets you access any files on a PC, even if you didn't explicitly upload the file to SkyDrive. I still wish you could upload from the Pictures app, and auto-upload the way you can in Windows Phone.

New and updated default apps

The biggest new changes in Windows 8.1's included apps have been introduced to Photos and Mail, and Xbox Music, along with Skype. First off, let’s look at Photos. You can actually now edit the photos in this included app. That means measures like applying Instagram-esque filters as well as doing lighting and colour corrections, and cropping. The Window 8 Photos app was pretty useless for anything but viewing the picture, so these are very welcome additions.

To adjust things like brightness, contrast, shadows, and highlights, you twirl a circular dial control. One cool option is to select a colour with a dropper and intensify that colour throughout the image – nice for green lawns and blue skies. You also get vignette and selective focus effects – and you can save a copy so that the original stays pristine. It's not as full a photo solution as Mac OS X's iPhoto, but it's come a long way from the Windows 8 Photo app.

Maybe the most welcome app updates are visited upon the Mail app, which now lets you drag-and-drop emails between folders that cleverly fly out when you tap on the folder icon. Newsletters and Social Updates are sequestered to their own views, and you can also view just messages from your most important contacts – very useful if you want to make sure you don't miss an email from your boss among all those dubious pitches. However, once again, OS X's Mail app is slicker and more mature.

Xbox Music has been redesigned so that it's more about your music than about discovering what's in the store. The main choices are now Collection, Radio, and Explore. That's right, it now includes a Radio feature like that announced by Apple for iOS 7 – but you can also now filter your songs by album, artist, title, and sort by date added, alpha, artist, and genre. It's a far more useful and modern app than its primitive Windows 8 predecessor, though it's still no iTunes.

One completely new included app – well, it’s more of a utility – is Reading List. For this one, you can use the Share charm to send any web page or other document to the app for later perusal. This app is well suited to the small sidebar placement in a multi-app view, and it's synced among any devices signed in to your Microsoft account.

As of this release, Skype is now a standard included part of Windows. It will now pop a notification at the top of your lock screen when there's an incoming call or instant message, and you can answer without logging into the PC. Skype also lets you send files or images, and will snap to a side window if you open a link through it. It also ties in with the People (contacts and social) app and in IE11 for click-to-call capability.

Bing and other apps

A new set of information apps makes its way into Windows 8.1, too: The new and updated Bing Apps. Mostly targeting home users, the new Bing line-up includes Travel, Maps, Weather, Health & Fitness, Food & Drink, Sports, News, and Finance. Bing Finance now lets you add and track your own portfolio holdings.

In a more utilitarian vein, Windows 8.1 also includes a new-style Calculator app, as well as Calendar, Reader for PDF, XPS, and TIFF files, Scan, and Sound Recorder. The Alarms app can be used as a timer and stopwatch as well as a background-running alarm clock. All in all, it's really a pretty full set of included new-style utilities and amusement apps.

A better desktop PC, too

In addition to these features, Windows 8.1 maintains Windows 8's improvements for hardcore desktop users: Much faster start-up, improved battery life for laptops, better security (including Trusted Boot for UEFI systems), the File History automated backup and versioning utility, clearer task manager and file move dialogs, and the ability to mount disk image files as virtual drives, among other improvements. And to top it all off, Windows 8.1 actually has a smaller disk footprint than Windows 8.

When you invoke the Search charm and enter a query – actually, even before you enter it – you'll see significant changes in Windows 8.1. First, after typing just a couple of letters, you'll see suggestions for apps, but also for popular web searches and more. Even before your query, you can change the scope of your search from Everywhere to Settings, Files, Web Images, and Web Videos. But the results page holds the biggest changes. If you search on any popular musician, you can play their top songs, watch their videos, and scroll through pages of website info. If you search on "Chicago," you'll see a Bing Map, the current weather for that city, and attractions.

New Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer 11's new-style, full-screen incarnation gets some notable updates in Windows 8.1. You can now use as many tabs as you want, and these tiles scroll along the bottom, nearer to the address bar for easier access, rather than at the top. HTML5 support improves, and surprisingly the browser now supports WebGL, something Microsoft had resisted! It's kind of mind-blowing to see Chrome WebGL Experiments such as Yi-Wen Lin's Blossom running in IE. Still lacking, though, is support for WebRTC's getUserMedia command, which gives web pages access to your webcam and microphone.

New Windows Store

The Windows Store, where you get new-style apps, gets a much-needed redesign in Windows 8.1. Now you'll see one large featured app, which alternates among several curated app choices. Next, you'll see Picks For You, based on your previous choices. Swiping or scrolling right reveals large thumbnails for Popular Now and New apps, then the standard Top Paid and Top Free sections. No longer are there over a dozen categories to scroll through, but instead, you can invoke the list of categories by swiping in from the top or bottom to display the app bar. This bar also shows tiles for Your Apps, including those you've installed on other PCs, and Your Account, where you edit billing info.

The individual app page has also been redesigned for the better. Now you'll see a three panel view comprising of the description of the app on the left, a large image area for app screenshots in the middle, and ratings and reviews on the right. Before Windows 8.1 you had to select tabs to get at all that info. One thing I still miss is the ability to simply launch an app from the store right after I've installed it, as I can do from the iPad's App Store and from Google Play.

There are a lot of new benefits for app developers in this redesigned store; for one thing, they'll now be able to offer in-app purchases. And users will now be able to install bought apps on as many devices as they like, which actually benefits developers with ad-based revenue models or in-app purchases.

New ways to print

Printing sounds so outdated these days, but there are still times when I've wandered the office looking for a printer that works for me. New NFC support in Windows 8.1 will mean that your PC can just recognise the nearest working printer and print to it, assuming the printer supports NFC. Another hot topic is 3D printing, which Windows 8.1 will support natively. So you'll be able to print from any app that supports 3D printing, with drivers automatically downloaded and installed just as they are for paper printers.

Business and security improvements

Windows presents a strong business case, with the ability for IT pros to manage huge numbers of machines, controlling their access to corporate resources. Windows 8.1 furthers the case, with better BYOD mobile controls and better security. With 8.1, Defender has been improved, along with native VPN connectivity. An "auto-triggered" VPN option will automatically connect a remote Windows 8.1 client to a website or other work resource that's behind a company's firewall, for example. But I still don't see a leader among the built-in VPN options – Cisco.

A new Workplace networking option can grant mobile workers access to internal apps and websites. If an employee leaves the company, IT will be able to remove just the business assets, so the whole device doesn't have to be wiped. All this applies to Windows RT as well as x86-based PCs.

Verdict

Windows 8.1 sticks to Microsoft's strategy of being an "and" OS – a tablet OS and a full-power desktop OS – while polishing the flaws which were present in Windows 8. Even if you never use a new-style app, you can take advantage of Windows 8.1's faster start-up, better multitasking, and better system tools. But I dare you not to try some of the new and ever increasing catalogue of simple touch-friendly apps – even if you're not on a touch-capable device.

Windows 8.1 really spans the device world from high-power desktops through laptops to new compact tablets. For its fast operation, full set of included apps, better security, and better help measures among other improvements, Windows 8.1 gets a well-earned four star rating.

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