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Windows 8.1 review

Verdict

Microsoft's latest update brings the worlds of touch and desktop together more successfully than before, although there's still plenty of work to do

Review Date: 27 Jun 2013

Reviewed By: Barry Collins

Price when reviewed:

Larger screens can have up to four apps running simultaneously, but things start to get a little weird once you have more than two apps on the go. Attempt to open a third when you already have two running in split-screen mode, and an enlarged version of the app’s icon will appear on the dividing line between the two previously opened apps.

Windows 8.1

The first time this happens you may assume the machine's crashed, but this is actually Windows 8.1's way of asking which app you want to elbow out of the way for the newcomer: drag the icon left to replace the left-hand app, or right to swap out the other.

We suspect the average user would struggle to work this out for themselves, in much the same way that many Windows 8 users never uncovered the Charms, but Microsoft has learned its lesson: Windows 8.1's Start screen comes with a Help & Tips tile installed to guide users through the OS (although this is merely a placeholder in the Preview build).

App handling is entirely different when you flip into the much more natural portrait mode on compact tablets. Sensibly, Windows 8.1 only allows full-screen apps in portrait mode, rather than trying to divide the screen into narrow columns.

Windows 8.1

In-app behaviour is also different: where clicking on an email in landscape mode opens a reading pane on the right, in portrait mode the message itself opens full-screen. Altering views depending on screen orientation may sound confusing, but the decisions Microsoft has made are generally sound, and make Windows 8.1 a surprisingly pleasurable experience on smaller devices.

Search is much improved, too. As before, you can start searching simply by typing on the Start screen, but it now searches everything on the device – apps, settings, files, documents, the web – rather than merely apps. Clicking on a result other than a preinstalled app, setting or system file, takes you to a new app-like screen that presents web search results alongside Wikipedia entries, News, Maps and Photo results for that term, offering a much richer experience than the ten-deep list of links provided by the average Google search.

Windows 8.1

The search results are, of course, provided by Microsoft Bing, and there's no option to change the default search provider. (Note that the more visual search results are yet to appear in the Public Preview, but were demonstrated on more advanced builds at Build 2013.) It's still possible to search by category – apps or settings, say, if you require more specific results.

One final thing to note on the touchscreen experience is that the Settings menus have been massively improved, requiring far fewer visits to the desktop control panel, which was always awkward on pure touchscreen devices. New Personalisation options include animated wallpapers, although once again, these don't appear in the Preview build.

Windows 8.1 for desktop

Windows 8 has been widely accused of sacrificing desktop usability in favour of pushing the new tablet-focused side of the OS – and some of its most glaring issues have been addressed in Windows 8.1.

The immediately visible climbdown is the return of the Start button, which retakes its familiar place at the bottom left of the screen. This makes a lot of sense, in terms both of consistency and of discoverability.

Windows 8.1

Clicking it merely opens the Windows 8 Start screen, but the effect needn't be quite as jarring as it was before. This is thanks to the new option of using a dimmed version of your desktop wallpaper as the Start screen background, with windows and icons fading away whenever your tiles are visible.

Happily, there is now another way to find apps, files and Control Panel items: the Search charm, when accessed from the desktop, now pops open from the right-hand edge, leaving three quarters of the workspace visible. This is as close as Windows 8.1 gets to restoring the search function of the old Start menu – and it can be conveniently accessed using the Win+S shortcut.

Windows 8.1

Right-clicking on the reinstated Start button brings up the Win+X menu, revealing a new submenu that lets you directly shut down and restart your PC – and about time too. Another long-overdue improvement is the option to boot directly to the desktop, rather than having to go through the Start screen – although this is bafflingly hidden away within the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog.

It's also now possible to disable the "hot corners" that bring up the Charms menu and app-switcher, bringing you closer to that pure desktop experience, and to switch over to the All Apps view instead of the Start screen when you hit the Start button.

Windows 8.1

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User comments

Andy

So is it now possible for users to avoid Metro altogether?

By Shampoo4brains on 29 Jun 2013

No

By TimoGunt on 29 Jun 2013

At this rate, Windows 8 might be okay in 5 years or so

The ability to see several apps at once (albeit just in vertical stripes) is an improvement. If they could now give the Modern UI a list of all the applications I have open, so I can change to another window with a single click (a bit like the Taskbar in desktop mode) then it could slowly start creeping towards being a usable environment.

By ChrisH on 29 Jun 2013

Libraries

I've found you can add the Libraries folder back in to Explorer. Click the 'Alt' key then choose 'View' > 'Options' and under the 'General' tab click the 'Show Libraries' to reinstate them.

GD

By GhillieDhu on 30 Jun 2013

Can UK users install the preview yet?

Does anybody have any idea when UK users will be able to install the preview from the Updates section in Windows 8? I believe its only US users at present, or you need to re-install from an ISO image.

By beroscoe on 1 Jul 2013

Not the Start Button

>>Clicking it merely opens the Windows 8 Start screen
So it is not the Start Button at all. Actually I like Metro day-to-day, but for serious work on the desktop, the XP start button gave a much more comprehensive set of options. And I can get to the Start Screen pressing the Windows key, so for me this new button is just unwanted clutter.
Have they sorted out the woefully under-functioned Mail app?

By Merry_Man on 1 Jul 2013

@Merry_Man

The Mail App, and certain others are definitely getting a re-working for 8.1, but these are not in the preview.
Various Windows fan-sites around the Interweb have 'leaked' screenshots and write-ups, so a Bing search would probably track these down ....

By wittgenfrog on 1 Jul 2013

@Andy

Practically, yes. With Classic Shell!

http://www.classicshell.net/

By bet1001 on 1 Jul 2013

No start menu, just the button!
And NO revised explorer.exe that fully supports file paths longer than 255 characters.
AND it still lies about storage units! For instance, a 1TB drive is labelled as 931GiB when really it is 1000GB. Confuses consumers.

By danwat1234 on 4 Jul 2013

Previous comment has a typo

Previous comment has a typo, should say 931GB not GiB, because Explorere is wrong.

By danwat1234 on 4 Jul 2013

In desktop mode I find it annoying that you have to right-click the Start button to stay in that mode to access the menus. Often found myself in Metro mode unintentionally. In Metro mode no quick way to exit an app & lack of any sort of menus frustrating but then I have to remember it's not really designed for a hardcore desktop user. If you are using a mouse you find yourself often doing a right-click only to find theres no function. Having said all this there is a lot to like about the OS especially in desktop mode. Like the minimal look you can achieve & it does seem fast. I have it loaded on an old Dell Optiplex core Duo and it's very responsive. Not needing metro, part of me thinks I would be paying for something not needed even if I do find ways not to accidently stumble into it! Am warming to it but slowly but don't see myself updating anytime soon.

By gippeswyc on 4 Jul 2013

+For Business

I trust there'll be a policy template for remote desktop admins to manage their users' experience on a 2012 terminal server? No? Psshhhh.

By redziller on 4 Jul 2013

Balmer's Barrel scraping...

The irony of this whole accountancy driven process Ballmer is championing: Microsoft are trying to cull piracy and maximise return on product, whilst at the same time transitioning from strong product with high margin, to weaker product offered at giveaway pricing.

Exit Ballmer, roll on Windows X.

By Gindylow on 4 Jul 2013

Windows what

YYYYaaaaawwwwwwwnn

By linux1943 on 29 Aug 2013

What about text size?

As most of us already know, if you have a high DPI / small, high resolution (e.g. 1080p 13" or smaller) screen text is INSANELY small. So we are forced to increase text DPI size (e.g. to 150% or more). The problem is that this breaks the layout on many websites and many applications. e.g. Text becomes too big for boxes... Submit buttons become cut off or even invisible. etc etc.

Rumor has it that Win8.1 has a fix for this.

By ship69 on 19 Sep 2013

What about text size?

As most of us already know, if you have a high DPI / small, high resolution (e.g. 1080p 13" or smaller) screen text is INSANELY small. So we are forced to increase text DPI size (e.g. to 150% or more). The problem is that this breaks the layout on many websites and many applications. e.g. Text becomes too big for boxes... Submit buttons become cut off or even invisible. etc etc.

Rumor has it that Win8.1 has a fix for this.

By ship69 on 19 Sep 2013

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