Windows 8.1 review, a fresh start

Windows 8.1 Start screen close up

It’s incredible that Microsoft introduced Windows 8 a year ago and today Windows 8.1 is ready for download and install on every compatible PC. Windows 8.1 represents not only Microsoft vision to where the future of the operating system is heading, but it is also the first of many rapid releases the company is planning (you can think of it as a Service Pack), and be sure that “Windows 8.2” or whatever the name Microsoft chooses for the next release is already on the works and it will probably roll out at the end of 2014.

What’s Windows 8.1? Update or upgrade?

Windows 8.1 can be defined as a refined and more polished product that is set to overcome many of the issues found in the original release twelve months ago. As many of you already know Windows 8.1 is technically an update for both, Windows 8 and Windows RT, many people will also refer to this version as an upgrade and still a fair statement for all the enhancements, refinements, and features you’re getting. Previously the software giant explained that they didn’t use the word “upgrade”, because if they did, you would have to pay for it, and 8.1 is a free update for all current Windows 8 users.

What’s the price for new users?

New users wanting to upgrade will have to pay the same price as Windows 8: $119.99 for Windows 8.1 (core) and $199.99 for Windows 8.1 Pro. (For more information about pricing, read this previous article.) Though, Microsoft isn’t offering any big discounts as it did with the release of Windows 8.

Did Microsoft discontinued Windows 8.1 upgrade option?

Yes, if you’re looking to buy the upgrade version of Windows 8.1, you’re out of luck, the company is not longer offering this product, from now on only full versions.

Does the update requires new hardware?

Windows 8.1 has exactly the same requirements as Windows 8. So no, you don’t need to buy new hardware, the operating system will run on pretty much every system designed for Windows Vista, Windows 7 and later releases. Although, it’s worth noting that the OS shines most on new system with touch-enabled displays and state-of-the-art processors, such as Intel’s Haswell.

Note: Microsoft has already updated its Compatibility Center, in case you need to check if hardware or peripherals are compatible with Windows 8.1.

What’s new

One of the biggest complaints without a doubt was the user interface design, which for many people this was a step backward. It was difficult to switch back and forth between the desktop and Metro environment, and configuring it was unpleasant. Windows 8.1 changes all that, after listening to feedbacks from users, companies, and many other sources, Microsoft made the necessary changes — to more than just get operating system back on track.

Lock screen

Let’s begin this Windows 8.1 review with the Lock screen, because it’s obviously the first screen you’ll see after booting your PC or mobile device. The Lock screen as pretty much every experience received new changes. In the featured pack update, Microsoft made the Lock screen more customizable, you can now display a slide show, instead of a single picture. Images can be locally stored in your PC or they can be from SkyDrive. You also have the option to get access to your device camera by dragging the Lock screen down, as you would do when closing a Metro app, and there is a new feature called “slide to shut down”, but it’s only available on new devices.

Start button

Perhaps the most asked question in Windows 8 was: Dude! Where is my Start button? There has been many critics about Microsoft removing this iconic button that for years represent the single most important element to navigate the OS. In Windows 8.1, the company is finally bringing back the popular Start button, even though it doesn’t work in the same way it did before. Now it only works to switch back and forth between the Metro and desktop environment (and Microsoft isn’t restoring the Start menu).

Also the hot corners have been streamed line for better navigation. For example, when using the mouse, Charms will appear closer to the corner you’re pointing.

Boot straight to desktop

In the new update, Microsoft added a highly requested option to boot into the desktop directly bypassing the Start screen. To enable the option, right-click on the Taskbar, select Properties, go to the Navigation tab, and check the option Go to desktop instead of Start when I sign in. Don’t forget to click Apply and OK to save the settings.

Windows 8, navigation options, boot to desktop, start background, and edges

SEE ALSO: Windows 8.1 Guide: Boot to desktop and all the Navigation properties

Start screen

One of the areas that Microsoft has really improved is the Start screen. In the past, the new home screen was a limited experience, you couldn’t configure and personalise really much. In Windows 8.1, you can now set your own desktop wallpaper for both environments. To do this use the steps I detailed above and check the option Show my desktop background on Start.

Start screen with background Windows 8.1

Live tiles now offer more sizes (e.g., Large, Wide, Medium, and Small) allowing to fit even more apps, locations, or web links in the same physical space. And you can uninstall one or a group of apps with a single click. To do this simple right-click or tap one or multiple tiles, then from the app commands click the Uninstall option. Other choices include: Unpin from Start, Resize, and Turn live tiles off.

Quick Tip: Live tiles available options will vary on each app, so make sure to select one app at a time to see the options available.

App commands, new live tiles sizes and other options

In the new update, you can group live tiles in a more meaningful way, for example, you can create a group for all your work apps and another for entertainment. To create a new group simply select one or multiple tiles and drag them together toward another group or to the far right side of the screen to create a new group, then simply name your new group.

For those using a keyboard and mouse, Microsoft has added a new button to the Start screen that appears only when the mouse is closer to the bottom-left corner of the screen, which will get you access to all apps.

Apps button that only appears with the mouse pointer

While in Apps you can sort apps by name, date installed, most used, and category, and you’ll also notice a search box which will help you find applications much faster. Another important improvement worth noting is that in Windows 8.1 any app you install (Metro and desktop) will no longer appear in the Start screen, now they will be listed in the Apps screen. This is a good change to keep your Start screen unclutter and to keep it more personal.

List of all apps install in PC

Personalization

Windows 8.1 has more personalize option than before and now they are really easy to access. By using the Windows 8 Key +i keyboard shortcut, and selecting Personalize, you can get access to all the new options. If enabled from the Taskbar and Navigation properties, you can choose to use your desktop wallpaper as the Start screen background or you can use one of the new parallax effect that Microsoft has bundled, including the fire dragon. Unlike previous version, you can also choose from virtually any background and accent color too.

Personalize  Start screen

Hot corners

In the original version of the operating system, Microsoft included the concept of “hot corners” to navigate between apps and to perform basic tasks like search, share, print, and access different settings. Although hot corners are useful, many users didn’t share the same enthusiasm in Windows 8. So, Microsoft added new options to partially disable hot corners when pointing the upper-right or -left corner, however they will remain accessible from the bottom-right and -left corner.

To change these settings you can go to the Navigation tab from the Taskbar properties. Or you can use Windows 8 Key +i to bring Settings, then click or tap Change PC setting, from PC & Devices, go to Corners & edges, and change the Corner navigation settings.

Automatic apps updates

Windows 8.1 comes with the ability to update apps automatically. This is the new default behavior, but you can always disable it, just open the Windows Store, use Windows 8 Key +i to bring Settings, go to App update and tap the Automatically update my apps option.

Automatic app updates settings Windows 8.1

PC settings

Another big change that I wanted to include in the Windows 8.1 review is Microsoft bringing virtually all the Control Panel settings to PC settings. Now you don’t have to go back to the desktop to change an option, however there is a drawback, at times PC settings can be somewhat difficult to navigate. Entering to one of the categories can disconcert you to where you’re standing and making you second guess which settings are available to you, maybe this will improve over the course of time.

PC settings screen in Windows 8.1

Productivity features

Windows 8.1 really improves productivity, for example, in this new version, Microsoft has made Snap more useful, now you’re not limited anymore to snap only two apps in a 70%-30% view, you can now snap two apps in a 50%-50% view or even 3 and 4+, if you have a multiple display setup.

Snap two apps 50/50

In the Mail app, as another example, you click a link from an email and the screen will split in half opening the new web page, and when you close it down, the screen will automatically go back to full screen — a small change, but they do really impact productivity.

As a bonus, Windows 8.1 also included pop-ups to help users get started with the OS. Additionally there is a new Help + Tips app that has a few “how to” guides to teach users how to navigate Windows 8.1. Although, it is pretty basic, the apps is really useful and should have been included with Windows 8.

Of course there still a lot of room for improvement, for example, few of the apps now include a narrow bar with three dots in the right side, indicating that there are options available for the application, but not all apps have this, and others have the Apps Commands always visible. So it can be confusing, because it isn’t consistent through all the apps. To be safe remember to always use the Windows 8 Key +Z to bring the Apps Commands.

Smart Search

Microsoft is integrating Bing deeply into Windows 8.1, perhaps this is the biggest change of them all. Now when you do a search, you don’t have to specify what type of search you’re doing, results will be sort out automatically. And searches aren’t just locally anymore, now Bing will do a lookup in your documents, apps, settings, SkyDrive, and on the web — Yes! That’s right, content from the web will also show up in your results — furthermore, Microsoft is adding advertisements to your searches, so be careful what you click.

If you don’t want to do a global search, clicking “Everywhere” at the top of the search box will let you narrow the look up to local files, settings, web images, or web pages. Which honestly is really useful. Though, I think some users will still have some difficulties finding the search functionality, because no too many users realize that one just need to start typing in the air in the home screen to start a search. To be safe, simply use Windows 8 Key +S to begin to use the updated search.

SEE ALSO: How to personalize the Search experience on Windows 8.1

This is how a search result powered by Bing looks like in Windows 8.1. You get the local results in the far left, you can also see a large thumbnail with relevant information on the right, with links to apps (e.g., Travel, Maps, etc.), follow by web results when scrolling to the right. Keep in mind that features will vary depending on the apps you have installed and the search you are making.

Bing search in Windows 8.1

Desktop

The desktop in Windows 8.1 has a few changes as well. For starters the Start button is back and as I mentioned earlier, boot to desktop is a new option available, but not enabled by default.

Opening This PC (formerly known as “Computer” and “My Computer”) you’ll notice that Microsoft has added a new section called Folders. Basically this section list all the primary system folders: Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, and Videos. They cannot be disabled, but there is a workaround, which I detailed previously.

In the File Explorer, Microsoft is trying to retire Libraries; by default in Windows 8.1 the feature is disabled, but you can easily bring it back by right-clicking on an empty space in the left pane and choosing Show Libraries.

The Power User menu also received a couple small changes. Now you can access to Network Connections and you can also shutdown Windows from this menu. Very useful for old school users who still feeling blue about the Start Menu.

Power User menu Windows 8.1 with Shut down menu

Finally, Microsoft added some improvements to deal with high-DPI scaling issues on high pixel density displays where Windows elements appear too small, making the OS almost impossible to use. To fix this problem, Microsoft added two new display options: Larger 150% and Extra large 200%, which the software giant assures will make images and text crisp and clear.

Apps

Of course I couldn’t move forward with this Windows 8.1 review without talking about the new and updated apps.

Windows Store

In Windows 8.1, Microsoft is introducing a new Windows Store that features a new refresh design, it brings up top free and paid apps front and center. There is a new section with apps that you might be interested on getting (or at least that’s what Microsoft hopes), and now you can pick from over 100,000 apps — This is a big jump from a year ago when there were only 10,000 apps.

New Windows Store

On paper everything looks good, but if you ask me the Store still feels incomplete, as the visual user interface is concern, you’ll notice this while browsing and trying to pick an app, and even though there are more than 100k apps to choose from, still feels that the store lacks of choices as Bing names apps like Flipboard, Facebook, and others still missing.

SEE ALSO: Microsoft demos Windows 8.1 devices, apps, and a new Windows Store

Everything said aside, Microsoft indeed is proving that is working hard to improve, the Windows Store is better than the previous version and the feature to update apps automatically is a big plus.

SkyDrive

I’ve been thinking whether to included SkyDrive as an updated app or as a new feature in this Windows 8.1 review. The Microsoft’s cloud storage service is so fully integrated with the operating system that this may be the last time I refer it to as an “app”. SkyDrive has really change in the new version of Windows, for starters in Windows 8 you opted to install the app, in Windows 8.1 the app becomes part of the operating system and it even has its own settings screen with options like Storage Management, Sync settings, Camera Roll, and whether or not use SkyDrive as your default location to save documents (this is the default option).

I recommend you to read my previous review: Windows 8.1 Guide: SkyDrive app, a seamless integration to the cloud, there you’ll find information and changes Microsoft has made. Also check how to disable SkyDrive in Windows 8.1, if you were looking to uninstall the app, which you cannot.

Another change in the Microsoft’s cloud storage service integration with the operating system is that now you can change the root folder to any location you want, including another drive or network folder.

Internet Explorer 11

Windows 8.1 also comes with Internet Explorer 11. This is a big deal for Microsoft, although the desktop version of the popular web browser looks practically the same as its predecessor, IE 10, many changes has been included to the Metro version of the software. A big difference is that Internet Explorer 11 shows taps at the bottom now, includes support for unlimited open taps, and open tabs can now be accessed remotely from other Windows devices.

Even more, IE 11 also has been optimized for touch, there is a new Reading view option that repackages articles into a new unclutter way to read content from the web. You can make the address bar always visible with the permanent tabs option, really useful feature for those working more with the Metro version of the web browser, and IE 11 is also capable of highlighting phone numbers on web pages and open Skype when you click a phone number.

Internet Explorer 11 with open tabs

Favorite center is a new addition that allows you to save bookmarks and make them available at any time in the Metro version of the web browser, as silly as this feature may sound, Microsoft didn’t have a place to view saved links in Internet Explorer 10.

Now you can pin your favorite sites to the Start screen with support for live tiles, which will show the latest headlines for a particular site.

Microsoft’s new version of its web browser is faster than IE 10, it supports more web standards, and brings a new F12 tools to help developer troubleshoot their sites to make work better on any browser.

To learn all the new features in Internet Explorer 11, make sure to check my previous review: Windows 8.1 Guide: Discovering Internet Explorer 11 new features.

Mail

The Mail app is one of those apps that received a really good attention from Microsoft this time around. The Mail app for Windows 8.1 has been streamlined, it has new color scheme, simplified view for All Folders, drag & drop, email styling, and multiple windows support.

Drag and drop Mail for Windows 8.1

If you use the Mail app with your Outlook.com, you’ll notice some additional features, such as automatic filtering for newsletters and social updates, a Sweep feature to keep your inbox clear of unwanted emails. 

For more details on the Mail app, check out these two previous articles: Windows 8.1 Mail app shines with Outlook.com features and Windows 8.1 Guide: The Mail app, overview and improvements.

Reading List

One interesting addition to Windows 8.1 is the Reading List app. This is an app that allows you to bookmark content for later reading. But the coolest things is that it works with many apps, you can bookmark a web page, you can save for later a song in the Xbox Music app, a game, a recipe, and from many other sources. The only limitation is in the app, some have the support and other don’t, but ultimately virtually any app will have Reading List capability.

Reading List app

Using Reading List is really easy, just open the modern version of IE, select a song from the Xbox Music app, or a recipe from the AllRecipe app, use +H, tap Reading List, click the send button at the top-right corner of the screen and that’s it. When you want to catch up on everything you have saved for later just open the app.

Even more apps

In total Microsoft will be bundling more than 20 apps and services with Windows 8.1. The company not only updated all the Bing branded apps such as Weather, Maps, Finance, and Sports, but it is also introducing new ones like Food & Drink, which features hands-free navigation, and Health & Fitness. Other non-Bing apps include: Help+Tips, Sound Recorder, Calculator, Alarms, and Camera.

SEE ALSO: Apps and services bundled in Windows 8.1, Skype is also included

Miscellaneous

One overlooked feature in Windows 8.1 that is worth noting is that Microsoft has also added new way to close Windows 8-style apps. You see, in the past, you would simply grab the app from the top, drag down and release. In Windows 8.1 that still an option but to move away from app, most apps now will just stay in memory. To really close an app in Windows 8.1 you now have to grab the app from the top, drag down and hold until you see a twist, only then you can release and the app will be closed completely free up system resources. In the same way, you can wait for the twist and dragging the app back up will restart it without having to go to the Start screen to reopen the app.

Wrapping up

Looking back it’s fair to say that Windows 8 was sort of compromise, despite to what Microsoft said. Users found at times difficult to understand and navigate the new operating system. Windows 8.1 is a more mature software that without a doubt puts Windows once again in the right direction.

There is always room for improvement, but what Microsoft has accomplished in a year is nothing short of great. Whatever is next that is the job of “Windows 8.2”, which looking into the rapid release cycle, it could be some time at the end of 2014.

There was a lot to cover in this Windows 8.1 review and we’re just starting to scratch the surface to what this update brings to the table. So be sure to check back for more Windows 8.1 updates.

After so much reading, now is the time to install. Here is all you need to know upgrading to Windows 8.1 from any operating system.