Windows 8.1 review

Reviews 6 Dec, 2013

Updated: The free upgrade has dropped and we take a look at the Windows 8 problems it fixes.

4
Price: 
Free
Pros: 
It's free; Customisation options added; SkyDrive tightly integrated
Cons: 
Start Button not fully functional; Still no unified inbox; Upgrading from Preview can be troublesome
Verdict: 
If you're on Windows 8 we definitely recommend updating to Windows 8.1 as soon as possible. It rectifies a number of issues which plagued the original release and whilst it's not perfect, 8.1 is a step in the right direction.

Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 is now available to download from the Windows Store for free and addresses a number of criticisms levelled at the Windows 8 operating system.

Microsoft has enhanced basic features such as search, improved built-in apps such as the Mail and increased the customisation options ten-fold. 

Installing Windows 8.1 varies depending on the version of the operating system you have. Consumers with regular Windows 8 are able to download the update directly from the Windows Store. However, Windows 8 Enterprise users, volume licensees, and MSDN and TechNet subscribers are required to obtain 8.1 as an ISO image and install this. 

So what benefits does the 8.1 update bring?

Latest Windows 8 apps

As of 6 December, Microsoft has launched a Bing Maps Preview app, which is built-specifically for Windows 8.1. Users can navigate views in 3D and at street-level, search within the app and see traffic information.

Microsoft has also updated its Lync app. Users can now run the app side-by-side with any other program, answer calls from the lock screen and even take control of a presentation started by another colleague.

The Start button

The Start button has returned to the bottom left hand corner of the desktop but don’t get too excited. A traditional left click switches users between the Live Tile interface and desktop, whilst a right click brings up the power user menu (Win + X).

These features were already available on Windows 8 - Microsoft has just added the Start Button icon into the corner. There's only one material difference. When you hit right click on the button – you get access to more programs including Device Manager, Control Panel, Network Connections and even have the option to shutdown the machine.

It’s not possible to access programs from the Start button – so you’ll either have to pin shortcuts to your taskbar/desktop or go to the Metro interface to open them. It would have been nice to see Microsoft allow users the option to reinstate the Start Button's original functionality.

Boot directly to desktop

The desktop is where the majority of enterprise users get their work done, so it was baffling when Microsoft forced users to navigate through the Live Tile interface on Windows 8.

To enable this setting hit right click when on the desktop followed by Properties. Click on the Navigation tab and then check the box next to the “Go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in” option.

There is another option marked “Show my desktop background on Start”. If you tick the box next to it, the Start Screen will now have the same background as your desktop when you switch to it. It’s also possible to configure your machine to boot directly into an app or the app view if you wish. 

Desktop users may also wish to disable hot corner features as it can get distracting when the mouse hovers over these areas. To do this go to PC settings > PC and Devices > Corners and edges.

Improved multitasking & resizing

In Windows 8 it was only possible to use two Live Tile apps on screen at the same time.  You were also restricted to an 80:20 split. Windows 8.1 allows users to open up to four apps on screen at the same time – and change the size of each window to suit your needs. This allows you to make better use of your displays.

Microsoft has introduced more Live Tile resizing options too. You can have giant tiles for frequently used apps or tiny squares for not-so-commonly used ones. It's possible to select multiple apps at the same time and resize, uninstall or rearrange them.

Internet Explorer 11

Microsoft has been hemorrhaging web browser market share in the face of strong competition from Chrome, Firefox and Safari for years. Will the introduction of IE 11 do anything to convert users back to the default Windows browser?

The signs are positive. Not only is IE 11 one of the most touch friendly apps on the market - with easy to hit icons and plenty of options accessible from the address bar, but it's also the fastest according to the Sunspider benchmark. IE 11 loads pages in an average time of 155ms, compared to 220ms for Google’s Chrome.

You can open an unlimited number of tabs in IE, and snap browser tabs together side-by-side. Microsoft has finally introduced tab syncing between devices. Just open a new IE tab window, and then look for the names of your other PCs at the bottom of the page.

Another user friendly feature is the Reading List – so you can bookmark articles to read later. To activate this – click on the Star icon in the address bar, then the Share icon.  

Mailbox

Microsoft has made numerous enhancements to the default Mail app to make it finger friendly. Tapping on an email brings up a wealth of options including the ability to move, flag, mark as unread, delete or open up the email in another window. It’s also possible to sync and print emails by tapping on 'more' options button. 

The sidebar has more options allowing users to quickly switch between flagged emails, folders and favourite contacts. We’re still disappointed at the lack of a unified inbox, which has become a common feature especially in mobile devices.

Smarter search

Searching on Windows 8 was not user friendly. Launching the search menu made a list of apps pop up and searching itself was defaulted to look through apps. Not ideal.

In Windows 8.1 the search menu no longer hijacks the whole screen. Instead it pops out of the right-hand side leaving the majority of the screen unobstructed. Searching in Windows 8.1 is superior too. The OS is now set to search everything so it will search Settings, Files and the web – thanks to Bing.

Enhanced support for BYOD

Microsoft claims Window 8.1 will make it easier for businesses to implement BYOD policies by increasing the device management options.

Windows 8.1 has New Open Mobile Alliance Device Management (OMA-DM) support built in. End users can access network resources from any internet connection securely. Devices can be enrolled in management policies so users will be able to get access to enterprise portals, work files and corporate apps.

IT admins can control the way the Start Screen looks - giving employees a consistent experience across devices. Admins will also be able to enforce dynamic control access policies. This means that when a device is removed from the network, users will no longer be able to access enterprise data.

Despite initially stating that Windows 8 would be made for 10in+ screens, Microsoft has expanded support for smaller devices. There are a number of 8in tablets in coming including the Dell Venue 8 Pro and and Lenovo Miix2.

Automated app updates & SkyDrive syncing

This was another feature which was left out of the original OS. It’s easy to activate. Go to the Store, swipe from the right-hand edge to bring up the Charms menu and select Settings. Then choose App Updates and switch them on.

All documents are now saved to Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud repository by default. Of course it’s still possible to save files locally, but if you’ve got multiple devices the ability to pull them from the cloud is invaluable.

Users are given 7GB of cloud storage for free – and it's possible to get increments of 10GB at £6 per year.

Better connectivity and security

Microsoft has beefed up connectivity in Windows 8.1 – with tablets and PCs now able to connect to VPNs automatically when users click on an internal application or URL.

Windows 8.1 devices with built-in 3G/4G connectivity will also be able to act as a portable hotspot.

NFC support is enhanced too. Users can theoretically pair their device with peripherals without having to go through a complex syncing process. Microsoft claims users will be able to attach an NFC tag to a printer and connect to it by tapping their device, for example.

Overall

Windows 8.1 brings a wealth of upgrades to Microsoft's OS, enhancing the user experience by increasing customisation options and beefing up touch support. There is still work to be done, but if Microsoft continues to listen to customer feedback then the latest edition of Windows should start to win over consumers and the enterprise.

Specifications: 

Min system specs: 1 GHz processor or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
2 GB RAM / 20 GB available hard disk space
1024 × 768 screen resolution
DirectX 9 graphics processor with WDDM driver

Disqus - noscript

To be honest the only really awesome new feature is the cloud integration (if u use the ms cloud).

I love the start button since the right click on it is an awesome way to access options. I dont need a button to click on if the same option works moving the mouse 25px further to the corner.

I dont need to boot to the Desktop if i can install a tool that does it on 8.0.

I dont use metro apps apart from checking mails.

I hate that theres no CONSISTENT window management but i guess they will find a way to go on with metro and its gonna be good.They improved already but its no match to classical windows/mac/linux window management.

I LOVE AND NEED the speed of w8 and w8.1 feels even faster and snappier.

Its a 100percent install if u own w8 and its a 100%go and learn to use it if u still think that w7 is the best os in the world and u wont have to starve because u paid for w8.

Microsoft broke Windows and they call this a fix! What is it with these programmers? Apple did the same thing when it released IOS7. Why can't they learn to leave well enough alone?

I am not upgrading to 8.1 until Microsoft fixes all the things they broke. This half-baked effort is just not good enough. I got m start button back with Classic Shell and will stick with it for now.

Ballmer is gone. It's now time to get rid of the jerks who designed W8. I never thought I would ever say this, but come back Bill. We still love you!

I hate windows 8.1 . Microsoft Corp should look forward for Windows 9.

Windows 8.1 broke my gaming ability and is not working with any Logitech programs without crashing. If I new it was going to do this I would never have taken the update. Best part is you can not go back to just 8. I might be getting a Mac after this.

I do admit to being one of the Win8 Nay sayers, but honestly once installed I took to it immediately; so much so I think its the best OS Microsoft have produced. My machine is significantly quicker than it was under XP. Yes I was an XP die-hard and stuck in the past when it came to insisting on the start button, However, although I missed the it at first, I quickly realised how easy it was to organise my programmes into groups. Used daily, weekly, occasional etc. a quick tap on the windows key and click and away we go; brilliant! Yes it required a rethink on how I work, but that's okay, it was worth it!

Furthermore, I recently did some work on a Win 7 machine and suddenly, it felt outdated, even antiquated. However, my experience with 8.1 hasn't been quite so, shiny! It began with the installation. After the restart it did not detect my keyboard therefore, I was unable to login and complete the installation. This was resolved after much annoyance; plugging it into a USB3 port seemed to cure the problem.

It had a few issues with a card reader which 8 was fine with. However, most significant is the fact that it loses my network settings constantly dropping my internet, and although it re-establish internet quickly, this is a problem that so-far, I have been unable to rectify. Furthermore, I have been unable to find anything online which helps. Lots of suggestion but none have worked.

So overall, the updates to 8.1 are okay, BUT, I wished I stopped with 8. I may actually use the installation CD to refresh back to 8 as I did not see an option to do a system restore.

Tiles are still rubbish, after using them for a year. I wish they had never happened.

I updated to windows 8.1 and did not like that pop ups kept appearing and preferred the full screen instead of browser bar. I put my computer back to windows 8 using my recovery stick...

I just upgraded to 8 from 7-64 and have been pleasently suprised at how little trouble I had. Even the start screen hasn't been that big a deal other then all the extra garbage installed like Weather, Bing and what not.

For me, broken apps are a thing of the past due to a little checking instead of just blindly updating things. This time around, I was quite pleased as the Upgrade Advisor only listed 4 apps that weren't compatible, so I uninstalled then before hand. Now I'm in the final clean up stage of seeing what didn't transfer over completely such as one of my games but everything else seems to be working fine.

I, and many others, have found that upgrading from W8 to W8.1 has broken our printer drivers for which there is no easy solution. I am deeply regretting ever putting on 8.1 and cannot recommend it.

Small price to pay. Its a major update and it is expected that some things may need to be reloaded. So uninstall your printers and download the correct drivers from the manufacturer.

i had some of my programs messed up when updating to 8.1 - so only if your board do it - or if you have time to reinstall some programs.... don't upgrade (yet!) but if computer is new i guess its ok...