We all know how Windows 8 has been perceived over the last year. Some of us like it, but the majority wouldn’t touch it with a 50ft pole. Luckily, Microsoft has been working hard over the past 12 months to deliver an improved, more feature complete version of Windows 8, also known as Windows 8.1.
What is Windows 8.1?
Windows 8.1 is the successor to Windows 8. It improves upon pretty much everything Windows 8 has to offer, from the Start Screen to our beloved Desktop. Everything got a new feature, change and improvement, mostly for the better.
Windows 8.1 has not fixed everything Microsoft got wrong with Windows 8, but it will most definitely give it another chance. Using Windows 8 after using Windows 8.1 for a few months makes Windows 8 feel like beta software, it’s incredible.
The new operating system is being treated by Microsoft as more of an update to Windows 8, as it does build off its foundations. Windows 8.1 is free for Windows 8 users, but will be sold as a brand new operating system, replacing Windows 8 in the Microsoft Store.
Windows 8 users will be able to update to Windows 8.1 through the built-in Windows Store found within Windows 8 starting October 17. The update process will allow you to keep everything you currently have on your system, much like updates are on iOS and Android.
What’s new in Windows 8.1?
Everything! Windows 8.1 has given Windows 8 a fresh new life, and now actually has a chance when it stands up against Desktops and Tablets.
We’ll be diving more into a few of the new features and improvements, but just to give you an idea to how many improvements there are in Windows 8.1, here’s a ‘short’ list:
- Smaller/Larger Start Screen Tiles
- Personalization Improvements
- Desktop Improvements
- Modern UI Multitasking Improvements
- App Improvements
- Search Improvements
- Enhanced Desktop Experience
- Mouse and Keyboard Improvements
Let’s kick things off with the main star of the show, the Start Screen. What was one of the most criticized features of Windows 8, the Start Screen has come a long way since it was reviewed last October. With the introduction of smaller and larger tile sizes, the Start Screen is now more customizable than ever.
A big complaint with the Start Screen in Windows 8 was that it was a huge inconvenience when using it with a Mouse or Track Pad. Has Microsoft fixed these issues with Windows 8.1?
Technically, yes. The introduction of smaller and larger app tiles makes the Start Screen so much more productive, allowing you to get hundreds of more apps on the screen at one time, or few larger app tiles which display up to date information.
More so, with the new ability for the Start Screen to self-adjust itself to larger resolutions, you can have more rows of tiles without the need for huge empty space. This means there is less travel distance when moving your mouse across the screen.
Something new with Windows 8.1 that I feel should be implemented into other touch first operating systems is the ability to move more than one app tile at a time. This is very handy for both touch and mouse users as it allows for quicker customization of the Start Screen.
Another new addition to Windows 8.1 is the ability to use your Desktop background on your Start Screen! You are no longer limited to just seeing the basic color or accents, but now you can feature your Desktop wallpaper. This offers a better blend between the Desktop and Start Screen. We’ll go over this in the next category.
Windows 8.1 introduces a heap of new personalization options which make Windows one of the most personal operating systems I’ve ever used. You can use over one-hundred different color combinations, with the ability to use a number of pre-installed Start Screen patterns or even your own desktop wallpaper if you really want to get into the personalization side of things. You can come out with some really crazy combinations!
Desktop apps now color co-ordinate themselves to match the most dominant color in its logo. This means the Start Screen looks more colorful at all times, instead of having a heap of tiles which are the same color as your Start Screen.
The actual personalization panel is now located in the Charms bar instead of the PC Settings app. This move makes it possible to see the personalization changes live as they happen, instead of having to jump in and out of the PC Settings app just to see if you like your new color pattern.
The ability to use your desktop wallpaper as the Start Screen background is a huge plus for users, especially those who use the desktop. Enabling the desktop wallpaper makes the Start Screen seem much more like an overlay instead of an entire new UI. Opening the Start Screen with the Desktop wallpaper enabled will fade everything on the desktop and dim the wallpaper slightly, making the Start Screen just seem much more welcome on desktop PC’s.
Even if you don’t use the desktop, using a desktop wallpaper is a nice little feature as it allows you to have your favorite image in the background of your Start Screen. It can be anyone or anything, that picture of you and your friends, your daughter or your favorite car.
The desktop in Windows 8.1 welcomes our beloved Start Button back into the Windows family. After being an absent member in the Windows 8 release, users expressed their hatred towards the removal of such button. Microsoft listened, and have brought it back for users to press over and over again.
The Start Button is a portal to a magical place, or in other words, it takes you directly to the Start Screen. Yep, the Start Menu is still absent in Windows 8.1. Is this a bad thing? Well, that all depends, as in Windows 8.1 there are other alternatives to the Start Menu then just the Start Screen.
If you want, in Windows 8.1 you have the ability to pretty much never see the Start Screen. Microsoft has implemented the ability to boot directly to the desktop, as well as allowing the user to use the App List instead of the Start Screen when you press the Start Button. The App List is just a full screen Start Menu, which allows you to organize your desktop and Modern UI apps into a number of different view categories.
The Taskbar and Navigation Properties window will be one of your favorite places if you use Windows 8.1 on a desktop. It is from here that you can disable things like the Charms Bar and App Switcher, as well as sorting how desktop applications are listed, and whether or not you want to see either the Start Screen or Apps List.
The desktop Start Button also houses a few extra tweaks, which were sort of there in Windows 8 but have been updated in Windows 8.1. You can right click the Start Button for access to a number of different tasks, including the ability to shut down or sign out of the PC. This is handy, as disabling the Charms Bar would remove such ability.
The Taskbar and Navigation window is hidden rather well, which is understandable as Microsoft kind of don’t want you to avoid the Start Screen, but if you must this window can be found by right-clicking the taskbar and selecting ‘properties’.
The Windows Explorer has also received a few tweaks. It is now called the File Explorer, a name change I think is appropriate as users would occasionally mistake the Windows Explorer as Internet Explorer.
The File Explorer houses a couple of changes, including Libraries being hidden by default and SkyDrive being baked into the Explorer. Libraries being hidden by default is an oddity, as I originally thought the Library feature was a great one. Now, clicking the File Explorer icon opens the ‘This PC’ area (formally known as the ‘My Computer’ or ‘Computer’ area).
SkyDrive is the new C:\ Drive
SkyDrive being baked directly into the File Explorer is also a plus. The tighter integration between SkyDrive and Windows in Windows 8.1 means the default save location for documents is SkyDrive. This change is a tough one to get used to, and can be easily changed if you would rather save to your local disk. The cloud is somewhat a major player with Windows 8.1, and SkyDrive is at the heart of that.
Windows 8.1 has improved upon Search dramatically, with Bing now being more than just a search engine, it’s now a platform that’s baked right into the operating system which searches locally and on the internet for the stuff you want. Searching for a file will not only search for the file, but it will also search your apps, settings and the internet.
Microsoft has updated the Search user interface too. Since Bing is more than just a Search engine now, it can index a number of different areas of the web and your hard drive and show them as a ‘Hero’. These Hero results are the result of a much more organized, easy to use UI that allows you to find what you’re searching for pretty quickly.
If you’re searching for a website, opening the website will open in Internet Explorer. Looking for an app will launch the Store. You get the idea.
With the changes to Search, apps are no longer dependent on it. In Windows 8, all apps share the Search charm, so if you wanted to search for something in a specific app, you would go through the Search Charm. In Windows 8.1, this isn’t the case. You will start to see apps have their own search boxes, as the Search Charm is now for the OS itself, instead of the apps.
Modern UI and Apps
Windows 8 introduced a whole batch of new touch-first apps, originally called Metro apps. Modern UI apps are the same thing, and have been updated in Windows 8.1 to reflect API changes as well as functionality improvements. This segment will go over a few changes to some key apps, and will also talk about the ‘Modern UI’ as a whole.
The Mail app, an app in Windows 8 that is lackluster in pretty much everything, has been given a new life in Windows 8.1. The app has so much more functionality now, not only for touch, but for mouse and keyboard users too.
The Mail app now support organizing folders, and drag and drop. Meaning you can sort emails easily and fluidly. The drag and drop support works with touch too, and rather intuitively. It doesn’t require placing your finger on an email for X amount of seconds, just slide it out of its slot, almost like magic.
The Mail app also automatically organizes your email into a number of different types. You get your main inbox, which is most normal emails. But the app will also sort your favorite contacts, flagged emails, newsletters and social updates conveniently so they don’t clog up your main inbox. I personally love this idea, but it can mean you’ll sometimes miss an email. For example, I always miss emails from Facebook as they are not located in my Inbox, instead they are filtered and put into the Social Updates tab.
The Music app in Windows 8.1 has too been given a rather large update. The app is usable now, and has in a matter of fact persuaded me to start using it as my default app player. I even bought an Xbox Music Pass, which is something I highly recommend, as the adverts on Xbox Music can be annoying, especially since there’s only ONE advert.
The updates to the Music App is mostly for the UI, the app still does everything it used to do, and there isn’t any change functionality wise. Of course, the new app supports the larger app tile on the Start Screen, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the functionality of the actual app.
Windows 8.1 introduces a number of new apps too, much like Windows 8 did. The new apps are apps that aren’t really apps, but more utilities, if you know what I mean. Windows 8.1 introduces Alarms, Calculator and Sound Recorder apps, something that I think should have been included in Windows 8.
These new apps aren’t anything special, they do what they say on the tin. The Alarms app allows you to set multiple alarms that can be displayed on your Lockscreen. The Calculator app allows you to do math, something I’m not a particular fan of. And the Sound Recorder app is a simple sound recorder that allows you to trim recorded sounds and save them. All nifty, but nothing amazing.
Windows 8.1 also includes Bing Health + Fitness, a new app which allows you to track how fit you are. It supports a number of awesome features which allow you to keep track of your daily intake of Nutrition and Calories, Exercises, and a number of other healthy things.
Reading List is too another new addition in Windows 8.1. The Reading List app allows you to save a webpage, tweet, email or any piece of content for reading at a later time. You can add reading lists via the Share charm in Windows 8.1, which is still universal for all apps, unlike the Search charm.
We go over a load of more app changes in our Hands On video of Windows 8.1. Check that out below.
Moving onto the Modern UI as a whole. It’s different in Windows 8.1, but not in the way it looks. I mean it functionality wise. Microsoft was aware when it launched Windows 8 that there’s a rather steep learning curve and Windows 8.1 fixes this. You are absolutely smothered with tips on how to get started with Windows 8.1, but they only appear once. Once you do what it says, it won’t come back.
In a matter of fact, there’s a whole dedicated app, much like the one on Windows Phone called Help+Tips, which offers lots of help on how to use Windows 8.1 in its basic manner. It will tell you things like how to close an app, how to open the Charms, how to customize and so on.
Multitasking in the Modern UI has completely changed. No longer do you have to multitask with one app being really small, and the other being pretty large. You can now have them evenly sized on the screen. If you’re running higher resolutions, you can have even more than two apps on the screen at one time, which is probably one of the most handiest things I’ve had the pleasure of using with Windows 8.1.
Using the Modern UI on desktop monitors has also improved, as mentioned about the Start Screen will now adjust correctly to the size of you screen. If you have a huge 27 inch monitor running at a resolution over 1080p, the Start Screen will display eight rows of apps instead of six. The Charms will also adjust themselves, opening the Charms from either the top or bottom of the screen will place the Charms at either the top or bottom of the screen. This results in less mouse movement, something users have complained about a lot in Windows 8.
Overall thoughts and should you Update?
I’ve been using Windows 8.1 since the beginning of September. In a matter of fact, if you count the Preview, I’ve been using it since June. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs with the operating system, as you do with most operating systems. Nothing is perfect, and Windows 8.1 is far from being anything like perfect, but it works. It works better than Windows 8 does, and in my own opinion, it works better than Windows 7 too.
“Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been when it launched in October of 2012.”
Windows 8.1 builds upon the foundations of Windows 8, which may sound bad. But when you realize that Windows 8 was built upon the foundations of Windows 7 and that Windows 7 built upon Windows Vista, you soon begin to realize that the latest version of the operating system is always the better one. Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been when it launched in October of 2012, the operating system feels feature complete now, and I actually enjoy using it as my daily driver on all my machines. Windows 8.1 runs on my laptop, tablet and my gaming PC, yes, gaming PC.
But the question you want answered is ‘Should you update?’ Well, of course, this always depends on what you’re looking for in an OS. If you like everything you’ve read about here in this review, then sure, go ahead! Windows 8.1 is a great operating system, even on non-touch devices. If you’re worried that you’ll lose features from Windows 7, you won’t. You’ll be gaining features if anything. Sure, the Start Menu is gone, but the Start Screen is a far better replacement.
And if you really don’t want to use the Start Screen, don’t! Windows 8.1 offers boot to desktop, and the ability to use the Apps List instead of the Start Screen when you click Start. You’re not losing any functionality by upgrading to Windows 8.1.
If you’re running Windows 8, and are wondering if you should update to Windows 8.1. Stop wondering. Update!Further reading: Microsoft, Windows 8.1