- Editor's Rating
- Still swift and stable
- Great new search feature
- Offers more tweaks and options, all around
- Core apps updated and improved
- Offers better Start Screen experience, but still limited compared with Desktop
- Start Screen multitasking especially awkward
- Start Screen needs more apps!
Quick TakeWith Windows 8.1, Microsoft takes a bunch of minor steps in the right direction. However, the operating system is still awkward, and has a ways to go before its Start Screen experience trumps its Desktop.
Let’s get this out of the way first. If you already have Windows 8, go download and install Windows 8.1. There is no reason not to upgrade, mainly because Microsoft Windows 8.1 does not alter or radically change the Windows 8 experience. In fact, it adds a handful of new options, tweaks, settings, and apps that improve Windows 8 in small but meaningful ways.
If you are a traditional Windows holdout hoping that Windows 8.1 shifts the operating system away from the tiled interface formerly known as Metro, then you’ll probably be disappointed. Yes, Microsoft tossed a few bones to the Desktop diehards, including a Start button, but these are very minor concessions, as the bulk of the new features and effort went into making the Start Screen more productive and fluid.
For Windows Holdouts
There are three key Windows 8.1 additions that should please, or at least placate, traditional Windows users: a Start button, boot to Desktop option, and a constant background between the Desktop and Start Screen. Only one of these really makes any difference.
The Start button is the most minor of the three. In fact, it’s useless. It’s simply a new Windows icon, located in the bottom left, which brings up the Start Screen when pressed. It doesn’t bring back the old Windows Start menu tray as many likely hoped (there are plenty of third-party plugins available for that), and really only puts a logo over what was already a hot-corner cursor function in the original Windows 8. For the record, this same navigation can also be accomplished by hitting the Windows key on a keyboard, or accessing the Charms menu on the right-side of the screen; but since it’s a harmless addition, TechnologyGuide won’t complain too loudly.
Boot to Desktop mode is a bit more useful, as it saves a few seconds and an extra click. It’s turned off by default, meaning Windows 8.1 will automatically boot up into the Start Screen, and is buried in the “Taskbar and Navigation properties.” Again, it saves the user the time it takes to click “Desktop” from the Start Screen, but is nothing more than a minor convenience.
Finally, Microsoft added something worthwhile by enabling the option to keep both the Desktop and Start Screen background constant. In Windows 8, the Start Screen had its own background, separate from the Desktop, and felt like another operating system all together. Keeping the background steady makes Windows 8.1 a more unified experience. It may seem like a small thing on paper, but it has a noticeable impact in use.
For Windows 8 Users, a New Way to Search
Windows 8 had an excellent internal search feature. Simply begin typing a word or phrase from the Start Screen, and Windows 8 would search through virtually everything to find instances, including files, apps, and settings. It was perfect for finding those Desktop apps like Paint and Notepad buried in the new release.
That’s all still there, and with Windows 8.1, Microsoft adds Bing-powered internet results as well, essentially turning the Start Screen into a search engine. Unfortunately, Bing is baked in, so the user can’t switch the engine to Google, but it really isn’t that bad. In fact, the Bing results are quite good, and the presentation is so polished that users will likely find themselves using it more and more.
Rather than return a series of links, the Bing results are presented as screenshots and excerpts in a swipe-friendly carousel, along with any related videos and images. Search will also pull in information from installed Microsoft Windows 8 apps. For example, search for a band name, and relevant Xbox Music offerings are prominently displayed (song lists, band bio, etc), with the option to play tracks. Search for a city, and the Maps, Weather, and Travel apps will all pop up with appropriate info, in addition to the Bing results.
It’s all presented well, and offers a viable alternative to traditional web browsing and search.
About Those Apps
Windows 8.1 addresses one of TechnologyGuide’s main Windows 8 pet peeves by now allowing for automatic Start Screen app updates, whereas before, all updates had to be manually applied. Thank you, Microsoft.
Start Screen apps can now also be re-sized when running side by side. In Windows 8, apps split along a 30:70 ratio. Now users can split them between approximately 80:20 and 20:80. There are a few problems with this, including the fact that most apps don’t properly scale, or more likely, were designed for the 30:70 split and haven’t been updated for new sizes. The other issue that that they won’t dynamically re-size as they are adjusted(at least on the laptops and tablets we used for testing). So, it’s impossible to know which size works without trial and error.
The biggest issue, though, is that launching, managing, and navigating multiple apps running concurrently is awkward, both with touch and with a mouse – but especially with a mouse. Things get especially clumsy with one app open and the Desktop taking up the rest of the space.
It seems Microsoft badly wants to recreate the traditional Windows brand of multitasking in the tiled interface, and while they’ve made some steps in the right direction, this is still far from a viable alternative to Desktop multitasking, especially on laptops.
Worth noting, the app split is not limited to just two. With an external monitor, TG was able to open up and split five total apps, including three on a widescreen, high-resolution display.
There are three new apps that come with Windows 8.1: Bing Food and Drink, Bing Health and Fitness, and Reading List. Take a guess as to what the Bing apps are all about. There are hundreds of similar apps out there on various platforms, and the best TG can say about these is that they are two more.
Reading List is a lot more useful, and it serves as a depository for online articles the user may want to read offline. Again, there are dozens of similar apps on various platforms, but this one is baked into Windows 8.1 and works via the Share function on the Charms bar. Unfortunately, it’s only available when browsing in Metro mode, not through the Desktop.
Many of the traditional Windows apps, and the Windows Store, have received a fresh coat of paint. Most of it is window dressing, but Mail received a big overhaul. It’s a much-improved app, with better performance as well as more fluid navigation and message management. Skype also now offers extended functionality, as users can accept calls from the Windows 8.1 lock screen, and it seemingly replaces the old Messaging app, which is MIA. And TG noticed that the Pictures app now has some simple built-in editing capabilities.
Finally, Start Screen app tiles can be re-sized to large, wide, medium, or small (before, they were limited to large and small sizes); apps tiles can be easily grouped and named on the Start Screen; and app shortcuts can be “unpinned” from the Start Screen, and accessed via a small down arrow in the bottom left-hand corner. These are all decent additions, and you’ll never hear TG complaining about having more control over an OS.
Windows 8.1 offers deeper settings options in the Start Screen. Whereas before, the settings options were limited to very basic tasks like extending a display or adjusting its brightness, users can now mess with the mouse, touchpad, keyboard, power options, devices, and the Windows 8 hot corners, to name a few. Users can also change the default apps for mail and other high-level commands. Basically, all those tasks one had to perform in the Desktop Control Panel for day-to-day operation are present in Metro, and that gives users one less excuse to leave the Start Screen.
As TG stated in the beginning, Microsoft is putting its efforts into making the Start Screen the dominant mode in the new Windows. Windows 8.1 has plenty of little tweaks and additions that make a more compelling case for the Start Screen, and many on the TG staff have found themselves working within it more than before following the update, but it’s still a work in progress.
The lack of Start Screen apps is a major issue, and even though that will change in time, it doesn’t help as of the release of Windows 8.1. And there are also minor annoyances, like apps that don’t properly scale and are tough to juggle, a display that can’t be split lengthwise for running two apps, or the fact that it’s impossible to open two of the same browser pages concurrently.
It’s worth noting, however, that despite these annoyances, Windows 8.1 is a very stable and swift operating system, especially on new hardware. On an entry-level, third-gen Core i3-powered laptop with 4GB of RAM, it blazes. It even runs well on older devices. For giggles, we had it running on an old Lenovo netbook with an Atom processor, and it still booted up quickly every time, and performed better than the Windows 7 Starter Edition it replaced. For that reason alone, Windows 8.1 makes a compelling case for Windows 7 holdouts, even if the Start Screen does not.