Review: Hands on Windows 8.1

By Pat Pilcher

38 comments
Photo / AP
Photo / AP

It's an old tech industry adage that Microsoft takes 2-3 attempts before they really get it right. Take Windows - It wasn't until windows 3.11 that Microsoft finally cracked it. Similarly, the original black and green Xbox played second fiddle to the PlayStation right up until the release of the Xbox 360 which gave Microsoft a platform to really foot it with Sony.

Microsoft must be hoping that the same logic applies to Windows 8, which has even been blamed for slumping PC sales. After Vista, Microsoft really got Windows 7 right. Out of the box it was intuitive, quick and most importantly of all, it maintained many of the user interface conventions of its predecessors.

Sadly Microsoft doesn't appear to have maintained this trajectory with Windows 8, and appear to have gone for a touch friendly interface. Having reviewed Windows 8 when it launched I was immediately taken with its streamlined simplicity, but also a little worried that many would find its new quirks a source of frustration.

Some of the issues people have with Windows 8 may have dissipated, but other annoyances such as the schizophrenic relationship between windows desktop and Metro drives others to distraction.

Microsoft have thankfully been listening to the public and in a bid to right some of the perceived wrongs of Windows 8, they've launched a fix pack branded Windows 8.1.

It's back

Perhaps the single most hyped feature of Windows 8.1 has been the return of the Start button. This is understandable as it has formed the nucleus of all Windows operating systems going back to Windows 95.

Perhaps the most common Windows 8 annoyance cited by new users has been the lack of a start button. StarDock systems and several other third party software vendors even created their own Windows 8 Start menu replacements. Now the start button is finally back.

You'd think that clicking the start button would call up the start menu and all the goodies we've been so dependent on for so long, but sadly it doesn't, instead taking the user back to the metro desktop (which is arguably a full screen start menu). This is a brave move for the software giant given how much of an issue its absence was for so many customers. So has Microsoft taken three steps forwards and three steps backwards at the same time? - The other big question is will the StarDock start button add-on still work with Windows 8.1?

In the admittedly all too brief time I spent with Windows 8.1 I couldn't find how, but according to the not so-insignificant hype surrounding Windows 8.1, it is now also possible to boot straight to the desktop, bypassing Metro altogether. Here's hoping it isn't too complex an option to unearth as it is bound to appeal to the metrophobic. Avoiding Metro apps will however be another issue altogether.

App Store

Microsoft have also thankfully given their App Store a timely make over. Not only is it far more pleasing on the eyes, it is also far easier to find apps, given their rapidly expanding numbers filling the store.

From a design perspective, the stores layout is definitely cleaner. For a start the whole thing feels a lot less cluttered and there's a lot more space. The store also now makes recommendations which is a great way of finding apps you'd otherwise not notice. Another feature that mightn't set the world on fire but will be appreciated by many is the fact that Windows 8.1 apps update in the background, freeing you up to get on with more important tasks rather than watching an app take an eternity to update before you can continue on with whatever it is that you were doing.

The news is also good for app developers as the Windows Store now supports gift cards, which opens up the store those without access to credit cards. The 100-item in-app purchase limit has also been axed. If app stores are a barometer of an OS's health than the prognosis for Windows 8.1 is looking pretty promising.

App View

Another really nifty feature baked into Windows 8.1 is the apps view. Swiping up on the home screen fires up a page displaying all installed apps. These can be sorted and filtered in multiple ways (such as name, date installed, most used). If like me, you live in the app store and download several metric tonnes of apps on a daily basis, being able to quickly and easily find that app is nothing short of a godsend.

Settings and split-screens

A number of people also griped that tweaking settings in Windows 8 was too difficult. Their argument ran something along the lines of "there's too many steps" - to some degree this was understandable - tweaking Windows 8 required you open up the Charms menu on the right hand side of the screen, tap or click "Settings," then "Change PC Settings," and "Personalize". Microsoft has streamlined things with Windows 8.1 and the "Personalize," option is now placed in the Charms menu under settings. It may sound trivial, but in practice it makes significant sense for those who find multiple mouse clicks or screen taps too much of an effort.

Another gem I've not yet had a chance to fully explore is the addition of a split screen capability. To access it simply slowly swipe in from the left to slide across a screen you were previously using. The contents of split windows can also be zoomed and shrunk and it might be a boon for chores such as quickly referring to the contents of another document. Personally I still prefer the more intuitive dragging windows and resizing them, but at a pinch it looks like it could be handy. The modernmix app from StarDock systems still strikes me as a better compromise because it allows metro apps to run in a window rather than full screen, which seems an eminently more flexible option.

Customisation

One of the gaps between Windows 8 and Windows 7 that hasn't received a huge amount of attention has been Windows 8's perceived lack of customisability. Windows 8 uncluttered metro layout makes it a piece of cake to navigate on touch enabled hardware, but it isn't likely to be everyone's cup of warm beverage, so any customisation options are likely to be well received.

Microsoft has thankfully addressed this in Windows 8.1 by allowing you to tweak both the background colour and to upload your own user photo (as well as the addition of several other nifty customisation tweaks). It is now also possible to have the same scheme on the metro Start screen and the desktop - which makes things feel a little more seamless. The oft forgotten, but still cool animated Dreamscene backgrounds have also been semi-resurrected from Windows 7, and you can now have animated backgrounds that move as you scroll. It isn't a killer feature, but it is still a nice piece of windows dressing.

Perhaps the single most useful customisation however is an overhaul to the way Metro app tiles on the Start screen are able to be organised. Under Windows 8 grouping apps into logical clusters was somewhat counter-intuitive. Not so with 8.1, just press and hold (or click and hold if you're using a mouse) an app tile, and select other app icons ones to change their sizes. You also get a "resize" option at the bottom of the screen which will resize all tiles. This meant that apps I use a lot got bigger tiles whilst rarely used apps were given smaller tiles. The added side benefit of this is that searching for an app becomes for more intuitive. About time.

Verdict

Windows 8 represented a huge departure from the PC operating systems of old. In my original Windows 8 review I pondered the fact that the move to a touchy feely interface might be too much of a departure away from all the ingrained PC usage conventions people had come to take for granted with windows. Now it appears that Microsoft are tweaking things to appease frustrated PC users as they struggle with the new wrinkles Windows 8 brings to the fold.

For those buying a convertible touchscreen tablet/laptop hybrid the learning curve isn't nearly as steep (even if cleaning fingerprints and other smears off the screen is bit of a chore), but for die hard PC users making do with a mouse and keyboard the Windows 8.1 experience is likely to be a little less frustrating (even though all does eventually makes sense after a while). Here's hoping that Windows 8.1 is the first in an on-going series of tweaks and fixes to the Windows 8 platform.

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