Microsoft did another 180 yesterday by releasing Windows 8.1 early to MSDN and Technet subscribers. The company planned initially to make the new version of Windows available to subscribers at the same day it hit the stores and availability in Windows Store on Windows 8 systems.
I had no issues upgrading from Windows 8.1 Preview to the Windows 8.1 RTM after I removed a small file from the ISO image using a lightweight tool that did that for me. It meant that I could keep my apps, programs and all settings. If I would not have done so, I would be left without my installed apps and programs, a huge time waster as I would have to install them all over again.
Anyway, I have been running Windows 8.1 Final since then on my second PC in preparation for this article.
Windows 8.1 is like a service pack, but it is not called that by Microsoft. It is an update according to the company. It introduces several core changes to Windows 8 that improve the operating system's usability. One of the first things that you will notice in this regard is a new hint system that aims to provide users with additional clues on how to operate the operating system.
On the first restart, I got the following subtle hint on the start page that let me know about the Charms Menu.
Since I used the trick to update, I was able to keep all my apps installed, as you can see from the screenshot above. Here you also see one of the two new tile sizes that have found their way into Windows 8.1 You can create tiles that are half the smallest size or double the largest size of Windows 8.
Especially the smaller tile size is handy as it lets you add more icons on the screen at the same time.
You may also notice that newly installed apps or programs are not automatically added to your start screen anymore. I'm not a fan of this, especially if you install apps from the store. You need to click on the small arrow icon on the start screen to open the "all apps" listing. Here you can select apps and desktop programs that you want to add to the start screen.
It is still not that practicable once you reach a certain amount of apps or programs. While new apps are highlighted with "new" next to their name, it is just too noisy which prevents you from making use of it effectively.
Microsoft did improve the available customization options. You can now share a wallpaper between the desktop and the start screen, which helps a little bit when you are transitioning between both interfaces. It is still possible to use individual images though.
Windows 8.1 ships with additional background patterns including some that are animated. Animated simply means that the background will change when you scroll horizontally on the start screen. It is not the same as animated wallpaper images (Dreamscene) that Microsoft introduced in Windows Vista.
One of the core concerns of many users was the use of two interfaces in Windows 8. That has not changed, and while it is perfectly possible to ignore the start screen for the most part, or the desktop, you will sometimes need to switch between the interfaces unless you install third party software that takes care of most of that switching (for instance to provide search access on the desktop directly).
One of the things that I found most confusing were the two control panels or PC settings that Microsoft implemented into Windows 8. I do not really understand the logic behind that as it means that you will have to open the right control panel to change functionality in Windows 8.1
The desktop control panel and the PC Settings are still there, but Microsoft has improved the PC Settings a bit by adding more control options to it.It is still not a 100% replica of the desktop control panel though, and you won't find some of the PC Settings preferences in the control panel on the desktop. So, it still means that you will have to use both.
The structure of the PC Settings makes it difficult to navigate though, as it makes heavy use of menus. PC and devices for instance displays nine menus when you access it, Search and apps five, and Ease of access six.
One welcome addition in Windows 8.1 is the improved snap feature. You may remember that you can snap two windows side by side in Windows 8 so that one takes up 2/3 of the space and the other 1/3 of it. In Windows 8.1, you can snap them 50/50, or add additional windows to the selection.
I usually align two windows side by side on Windows 7, and this improvement makes it available on Windows 8 as well. You can still snap desktop windows like in Windows 7, the snap feature is only for apps.
If you have used search a lot in Windows 8 you will notice quite a few changes in Windows 8.1. It is still possible to type right away when you are on the start screen to search and Windows will provide you with results on the same screen that you can open right away.
The default search will find programs, files, settings and include web results or suggestions as well, but no longer options to pick an app that you want to search in.
The option to search applications has been moved, and is now only available when that app is open on the screen. You may also notice that most apps displays a visual search bar now. Before, you had to open the Search Charms to search.
As far as web based results are concerned, the search has been integrated into Windows 8.1 so that you get results right in the operating system (as opposed to the default web browser).
Some results have been prepared specifically. If you search for a major city for example, you get custom pages that provide you with detailed information right on the page. The same is true for other search terms. A search for a music group will provide you with information about it, and direct links to play the top songs in Xbox Music.
This can be useful, especially for Windows RT users and users who work on Start most of the time. Desktop users on the other hand may still prefer to use a web browser for this kind of search, as it provides them with greater flexibility, for instance the option to open multiple search results in tabs on the screen.
The biggest change on the desktop is the new Start button. What's new here is the button itself, but not its functionality. Windows 8 shipped without a start button which led to some confusion. First, the start menu was part of every version of Windows before 8, and second, some users did not really know how to get back to the start screen or launch their apps without it.
The new start button visualizes this. If you click on it, you are taken to Start. If you right-click on it, you get a menu that looks similar to the Windows-X menu that you got in Windows 8.
When you open File Explorer (the old Windows Explorer) on the desktop, you will notice a couple of changes as well. Libraries have taken a backseat here for instance, and while it is possible to add them again to the display, it is not clear why Microsoft decided to make that change. This is especially true since some apps, like the Photos app, seems to use the Pictures library as the default location to display contents.
You will notice that SkyDrive is now deeper integrated into the system. You can use it to sync additional settings and preferences. You can now also view your SkyDrive storage and buy additional storage right from the Start screen control panel.
If SkyDrive integration has been enabled during setup, it will become the default save location for documents that you save on your system. This is important to note, as Windows won't use the My Documents folder anymore because of it.
SkyDrive gets its own link in File Explorer's sidebar, and when you click on it, you will get the folder and file structure right there. Most files are available online only, but you can make some available offline with a right-click and the selection of "Make available offline" in the context menu.
Windows 8.1 improves the Windows 8 operating system in many regards, there is no doubt about that. Microsoft has tried to improve the usability quite a lot in Windows 8.1, and while it still falls short in many regards in my opinion, it is a step in the right direction.
The new start button may be inferior to a full start menu, but it improves how you switch between interfaces or shut down the PC, as you can simply click to do so now. Before, you either had to know shortcuts to do so, or use the Charms Bar.
As a desktop user, I'm still not happy about the two interfaces, or the focus on Start that Microsoft seems to still have. I do not really need the Start interface at all, and ignore it for the most part except for search. But that is really only been used due to a lack of desktop search options.
It is fair to say that Windows 8 users will benefit from the upgrade to Windows 8.1, while it won't convince users of older versions of Windows to upgrade their systems to it.
We will have to see if Windows 8.2 or Windows 9 will continue the path that Microsoft has taken, or if the company will reverse its course and produce a system with wider appeal to desktop users again.
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