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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.