Reviewing an update to an operating system feels a little odd, doesn’t it? After all, if you already use Windows 8, it’s not like you’re not going to install Windows 8.1. Sure, there’s always the threat of compatibility issues, but Microsoft seems to have this one covered pretty well with the website (and scanning tool) that it’s dedicated to the Windows 8.1 update.
That’s not to say the 8.1 update has been perfect—Surface RT tablet owners who tried to jump the gun on a zero-day upgrade were apt to encounter some early blue screens. And users have been plagued by any of the other, typical issues that come with a major update to the OS, including Windows 8 balking at installing the update to begin with. Take, for example, Windows 8.1’s lack of cooperation with those who made the foolhardy decision to move their entire \user folders over to a separate drive from Windows itself. Good luck with the update.
At the end of the day, however, an update is usually seen as a step in the right direction. Or, as is often the case with Microsoft, a mix of things that greatly enhance the operating system combined with a few nagging tidbits that make us look forward to the next update.
So, again, while it feels a bit strange to review an update—especially since Microsoft is now officially cutting off support for Windows 8 in less than two years (October 18, 2015)—it’s still important that we take a brief jaunt through all that Windows 8.1 has to offer—or, at least, the major parts you’re likely to encounter.
Let’s start with the biggie. The Start button. A variant of the Start button from operating systems of yesteryear makes its return in Windows 8.1, but really, it’s only a tease of a true Start button.
Windows 8.1’s “Start button,” if one can really call it that, shows up on the OS’s desktop mode. It does not, as its name might imply, present one with a delightfully simple, pop-up menu of one’s apps. No, it merely takes you back to Windows 8.1’s "metro" Start screen (aka the Modern UI). Ta-da.
We would argue that the right-click functionality of the Start Button is more useful than the left.
You can also have the Start button automatically pull up Windows 8.1’s “All Apps” menu via a setting in the Taskbar and Navigation properties, which is itself kind of like the illegitimate child of the Start screen and the Start Menu. Still, a conventional Start Menu, the All Apps view ain’t. We somewhat appreciate the effort, but it’s just not the same.
On the plus side, Microsoft has boosted the number of options found in Windows 8.1’s right-click context menu. Power users will surely appreciate the additional tweaks, including—finally—a means for shutting down one’s computer from the desktop itself (if Alt+F4 isn’t your thing).
“All Apps” is just what the name suggests: The hodgepodge of every application (and app!) you’ve stashed on your PC.
Jumping over to the Start screen for a minute, we love that Microsoft has really cleaned up the look and feel of the tiles. For starters, Windows 8.1—unlike its predecessor—doesn’t just slap every single “shortcut” that an application creates upon installation as a new tile on the Start screen, thank God. That which you install gets kicked over to the All Apps view by default, leaving your Start screen pure and pristine. Only the programs that you specifically pin get placed there—and that includes apps you grab from the Windows Store itself. We love, love, love the newly clean Start screen.
Microsoft also brings a few tweaks to tiles themselves. Specifically, you can now uninstall everything that Microsoft’s dumped onto your Start screen en masse by right-clicking and group-selecting/uninstalling that which you don’t want. For the tiles you want to keep, you can now select between one of four different sizes for each (or change a batch at once)—Weather, for example, will expand to take up four normal tiles’ worth of space and dump plenty of information about the forecast right on the front of your Start screen.
Take that, apps-that-come-with-Windows-8.1. Mass-uninstalling apps is super-easy in the new operating system update.
We also like how Microsoft has enhanced the various customizations one can do to the Start screen. That includes additional backgrounds for prettying up its appearance, as well as the brand-new option that allows one to set identical backgrounds for the desktop and Start screen. The feature, admittedly small, does allow one to create more parity between Windows 8.1’s two halves; it’s a subtle, but appreciated tweak.
Though we’re fans of customizing our desktop with our own background images, we give Microsoft kudos for including some pretty fun-looking default backgrounds.
For the photo-maniacal, Windows 8.1 now lets you set up slideshows on your lock screen if you don’t like looking at the same ol’, same ol’ whenever you go to boot into Windows 8.1. Heck, you can even “boot” into your system’s webcam (or included camera) from the lock screen itself. This desktop OS is starting to look more and more mobile by the minute….
Windows 8.1 also gives the lackluster Modern-based PC Settings menu of its predecessor a much-needed kick in the pants. This includes filling it up with plenty of new options to lessen your need to run over to your Control Panel: Take, for example, the new option that allows you to turn Hot Corners on and off (without having to resort to third-party freeware to do so), the specific controls you can put into place regarding Windows 8.1’s new search techniques (we’ll get to that in a bit), and the brand-new SkyDrive options that you can access from Modern by default (also fodder for later).
We’re still waiting for the day when Microsoft stashes all Windows system controls on its Modern UI and desktop interfaces.
We still do wish that all of your system’s settings were unified regardless of where you go to edit them—the Start screen or the desktop’s Control Panel.
Bing, Bing everywhere, and plenty of search results to drink.
Click the next page to read about Windows 8.1 search improvements.
Here we go. One of the major “improvements” Microsoft has made to Windows 8.1 includes a complete reworking of the operating system’s core search functionality. Before, it was a bit of a convoluted mess —you’d start typing in Modern and, once entered a good enough number of letters to describe what you were looking for, you’d have to select what, exactly, you were trying to find: an app? A system setting? File? Some kind of data within an individual Windows 8 app?
Too much clicking. Yuck.
Microsoft goes a bit to the other extreme, however, in Windows 8.1. Now, when you start typing in the operating system’s Start screen, you get a default search of everything on your hard drive, period. That includes files, Windows settings and options, and, as a special bonus, an ever-present web search courtesy of Windows 8.1’s integration with Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
We appreciate the gesture, but note that not every time we type in “Diablo” are we really keen on seeing a web search related to the Lord of Terror. Sure, you can flick off the web-based search option within Windows 8.1’s aforementioned preferences. But sometimes we do like having a web search attached to our search. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; at the very least, it would have been pleasant if Microsoft allowed other search engines to populate its web search, but we suppose that’s a request of the “pigs can fly” variety.
All in all, we like the new search if for nothing else than the reduction to the number of clicks a user must perform when trying to find something. The trade-off, however, is that you can no longer search through the specific parts of apps by default—for example, you aren’t able to search through your email by simply typing on the Start screen. You now have to load the Mail application and perform a specific search within that in order to find, say, an Amazon receipt.
Close, but not quite, Microsoft.
Skydrive might look fairly simple, almost Dropbox-like, in its File Explorer integration, but there’s more to this cloud service than meets the eye.
We confess, we aren’t big users of Microsoft’s cloud service, but we do appreciate how easy Microsoft has made its SkyDrive integration in Windows 8’s big update. Take, for example, the fact that SkyDrive is now integrated directly within File Explorer (once you’ve attached your account to the operating system, that is). Like Dropbox, dragging and dropping things back and forth between the cloud and your local desktop is quite simple—the same kind of convenience you might have enjoyed had you, say, installed the SkyDrive desktop app on Windows 8.
That said, SkyDrive isn’t quite like Dropbox. For example, Microsoft has ingeniously built a fun little twist on synchronization into SkyDrive, whereby files are only loaded to your desktop— assuming you have an online connection to the net—when you want them. Sure, you get the icon and file details to suggest that the file, itself, is actually there every time you go to click it. Only, it isn’t. Not unless you’ve set it, or its containing folder, to always be available to your system if/when your system’s offline.
This “placeholder file” system, as explained by Microsoft, creates ghost files that “look and feel like normal folders and files. You can tap or click a folder and see all the folders and files inside it. You can tap or click a file and it will open, you can edit it and close it. You can move, delete, copy, or rename placeholder files just like you would any folder or file. But [it] only downloads the full file when you access it.”
Desktop users might not care much about disk space or bandwidth, but we definitely see the usefulness for those using SkyDrive access on, say, their laptops or tablets. Assuming that you don’t have a ton of stuff that will quickly fill up SkyDrive’s 7GB of free space per user, you can even set the OS to save your documents, photos, and files to the cloud by default.
On the plus side, Microsoft makes it fairly easy for you to see how much Skydrive space you’re using (and, of course, you can quickly buy more).
That all said, SkyDrive’s closer integration with the OS—including all those fun settings you can synchronize to your Microsoft Account, should you wish to tap into your version of your OS on another piece of hardware—do come with a bit of a price. For starters, the SkyDrive Modern app is still nowhere near as useful for non-touch-friendly users as is the standard drag-and-drop integration within File Explorer itself (Windows 8.1 still can’t escape its need to cater to the finger-poking crowd).
Secondly, Microsoft’s tighter integration of SkyDrive costs you one of its more useful features—Fetch, or the ability that users previously had to tap into the full drive architecture of their SkyDrive-connected systems to grab any file on the desktop they wanted. It was akin to a having a permanent network tunnel to one’s connected systems, and one that was as ideal for grabbing files as Google’s Remote Desktop app is for controlling one’s system from afar. Alas, Microsoft kills off this helpful feature in Windows 8.1. You can still use a Windows 8.1 system to grab files from a non-Windows 8.1 PC, but Windows 8.1 systems cannot have their files grabbed from.
A quick note on the Windows Store, as we’d have a bit of egg on our face if we didn’t mention the major updates to a part of Windows 8 that felt utterly lackluster at the operating system’s launch. While Apple and Google still win the day with the usefulness of their respective app stores, Microsoft has at least put noticeable effort into making its store more practical, more browse-able, and just all-around more user-friendly.
Hooray for a revamped Windows Store. Bring on the apps!
Loading the Modern app brings up the same ol’ familiar (and horribly horizontal-scrolling) interface one should be used to by now. However, Microsoft puts its app recommendations front-and-center, in addition to lists of trending apps, new apps, and the much-anticipated listing of top apps by price (free or paid). That’s much, much better than the crappy, categorical scrolling of Windows 8, in which it was extraordinarily annoying to sift through all in a pathetic attempt to find out what apps were worth a cursory look or installation.
Even better, right-clicking anywhere within the Windows Store app summons forth a topmost bar that’s filled with the aforementioned categories, should you now wish to peruse through specific chunks of apps. Each category gets its own trending, new, and top free/paid listing of apps, and the entire process is much easier to navigate than what was previously seen on Windows 8. Kudos to Microsoft for the changes; now how about getting to work on offering some popular apps? (Instagram, anyone?)
At the end of the day, Windows 8.1 is still Windows 8, with a little bit of pizzazz tacked on to it. If you didn’t like “Modern” before, there’s nothing dramatic in Microsoft’s first major update that’s going to turn you into a tile aficionado.
We can’t help but feel as though we’re sitting in a barrel stuck on the edge of a waterfall; that Microsoft is but one, tiny push away from giving users everything they’ve asked for (namely, a more explicit Windows 7 / Windows 8 split). We’re so close already—even that new little Start button in Windows 8.1, while somewhat pitiful, is a ray of hope.
We’re being a bit overdramatic, of course, as we do generally appreciate all the tweaks that Microsoft has brought to the table in Windows 8.1. While they mainly center on personalization, customization, and one’s core experience with the operating system, the updated search features and SkyDrive integration—for those who use it—are welcome additions.
Modern-based system settings are less of a pain in the butt (but could be further improved), and some of the other tweaks are still only really applicable to hardcore finger-tappers, like Microsoft’s improved split-screen treatment for its Modern apps.
And that’s really the core of it: Windows 8.1 is good, sure. If you’re running Windows 8, you really don’t have much of a reason not to upgrade. If you’re still a Windows 7 user stuck on the fence, it’s a little trickier.
Windows 8.1 is certainly more compelling of an experience than the now seemingly forgotten Windows 8. However, you’re still going to face off against a tablet experience packed into a desktop operating system. Modern apps, while improved, will still lack the power-user conventions (and speed) of their desktop-based counterparts. For desktop users, your standard monitor will be of little use for Windows 8.1’s touchscreen-themed tweaks. You’ll wonder why your system’s settings are split between two different environments. The list goes on.
Should you give Windows 8.1 a go? Given that it doesn’t look like Microsoft is going to give us a 100 percent desktop-centric Windows moving forward, you’re going to have to take the new OS plunge sometime; Windows 8.1 makes the water just a little bit warmer.