Windows 8.1 Review

Does this help heal your wounds?

I knew a guy who went “LOL LOL LOL Wait for Windows 9 where Metro will be gone and the Start menu will come back” when Windows 8 came out. I privately LOL’d to myself because I knew that no such thing would happen – for better or worse Microsoft have selected Metro as their game-plan and that’s the way it’s going to be. Windows 8.1 is out now, either for outright purchase, or as a totally free upgrade for anyone with Windows 8. Really, it’s more of a Service Pack masquerading as a full operating system. It does not remove Metro, it does not change the fundamentals of Windows 8, it is not Windows 7’s UI with the new Windows 8 kernel. If you thought it was going to be any of those things, you either didn’t read about Windows 8.1 before its release, or you’re delusional. What it does do though is fix and tweak a few things to make for a somewhat better experience. It’s an evolution rather than a revolution – think Windows 98SE from Windows 98, if you’re looking for a 90s analogy. Alright, let’s have a look.

The Good and New

Behold! Backgrounds!
Behold! Backgrounds!

The Start button returns. That’s the button, not the menu. The Start menu is dead and gone, and it isn’t coming back. Now though you’ve got a button sitting down the bottom left corner, instead of relying on the hot corner from Win8. You can turn it off if you don’t care (and honestly I’m used to it by now). Right clicking the Taskbar, selecting Properties and going to the Navigation tab will allow you to force the OS to boot directly into the Desktop, bypassing the Start screen. That’s much more useful for those of us who rarely use the Start screen except as a giant Start menu. Windows Explorer also has a few changes, and depending on how much you like Skydrive, you might not like them. Skydrive integration is now much deeper, with Skydrive appearing in Explorer’s left pane by default. The Library folders are missing by default, and the folders labelled Pictures/Music/Whatever literally point to the corresponding folders in your user profile directory. You can add libraries back but this looks like a sign that MS want to kill them off. You can however change the default location for the various folders, which is useful for someone like me who has a small SSD as their primary and store their files on another, larger SSD (or HDD).

But let’s talk about Skydrive. Skydrive is actually a pretty decent cloud storage service and it’s actually my pick, but then again I rely heavily on Microsoft Office so it makes sense. Remember that if you have a Microsoft account you’ve got 7GB of free space by default, which isn’t a bad deal. Skydrive shows up in Explorer by default on the left pane, and it actually functions just like every other folder… except not all of it is synced to the local computer. Unfortunately it isn’t made clear what is available for online access unless you pay attention to the status bar at the bottom, or to the Details column if you’ve got it enabled. Even then, every folder reports as Online Only although its contents can be offline. How do you change what is or isn’t synced? To be honest the only way I know to do this is through the Metro SkyDrive client. There doesn’t seem to be a way to do it through Explorer, and the SkyDrive desktop client isn’t used on Win8.1 (in fact it’ll uninstall it if it’s installed during the upgrade). While I appreciate SkyDrive integration by default (since I use it extensively) I don’t like how ambiguous it is whether something is available offline, nor that I have to use the Metro client to change what is or isn’t synced. In fact when I attempted to use the Metro app I ended up with a few sync errors. But more on that in a bit.

Not quite as useful as you'd think.
Not quite as useful as you’d think.

In terms of Metro apps, a few things have been given an overhaul. Firstly, you have much more freedom to change how large or small apps are – under Win8 you could have one that took up ¾ the screen, and one that had a tiny (practically useless) slither on the final ¼. Now you have much more freedom to change how much space apps take up – here are three practically unusable apps taking up a third of the screen each. A more sane example is having two apps take up equal amounts of space, so that they’re both functional. This catapults Win8.1’s Metro implementation to the head of multitasking – neither iOS nor the various half-baked Android solutions manage this. Honestly I don’t make much use of Metro apps but if I did, this would be very useful.

Here, see my junk mail.
Here, see my junk mail.

In terms of the Metro apps, most of them have been somewhat updated. The Mail app is probably the best of the lot, but it’s still no Outlook (or whatever). You’ve got a much more useful bar on the left to manage folders, but otherwise you’ve just got a few visual tweaks and that’s more or less it. The same goes for most of the other built-in apps. There are a few new additions. The Health and Fitness app pulls news on – you guessed it – health and fitness, while also having a tiny bit of medical news, and a few neat things like a diet tracker and workout suggestions. It’s more “fitness and popular medicine” than a true medical app (speaking as a clinician) but it’s fun to play with. It also has a “Symptom Checker” which I seriously don’t recommend you use. There’s a new Help and Tips app to make the transition to Windows 8 less painful, but if you’re using Win8 you’ve probably figured this all out by now. There’s a Food and Drink app for all things food related (ugh), and a new Reading List app that allows you to save links from any Metro UI app which can be stored here. Which is helpful, I guess? You do this from the Share charm. The Weather app has had an overhaul and (along with many other Tiles) now has an oversized mode that displays detailed weather forecasting. There’s a new Sound Recorder, Alarms, and Scanner app (which I can’t test since I don’t have a scanner handy).

To round off the new features list (ignoring some features which you probably can’t even use, like out-of-the-box 3D Printer support) the Search feature now also incorporates results from Bing, everybody’s not-favourite search engine. In fact the Search feature is just a whole lot better – by default it searches in every category – apps, files, and online – rather than forcing you to swap between them. Finally, and more as an aside than anything else, the Maps app seems to be using Nokia’s data, which for reasons that escape me happens to include a detailed interior modelling of one of my local shopping centres. The latest version of Google Maps, for reasons that scare me, doesn’t include the interior (the old Google Maps did). I don’t know what to make of that, except to note that Nokia’s maps weren’t bad at all.

This confuses me.
This confuses me.

The Bad

There isn’t much I can label as being bad unless you don’t like Windows 8. It’s just a bunch of improvements and tweaks. If you’re entirely opposed to Metro UI being a thing, Win8.1 doesn’t fix that, and the last MS OS you’re likely to use will be Windows 7. The desktop isn’t significantly different, just as it wasn’t when Windows 8 turned up – the only major difference is a new Start button which does exactly what the hot corner did. So that more or less sums up what’s ‘bad’ about Win 8.1 – it’s still Windows 8 at the end of the day, and if you didn’t like it, you won’t like this one.

There is one other thing – SkyDrive integration. The desktop implementation has been crippled. Again, I like how it’s well integrated. That’s a good thing. What I don’t like is how they’ve screwed up the desktop’s display. It’s a mess – from the desktop I can’t readily tell what’s synced, what isn’t, and what’s available offline, unless I have the Details column enabled. This isn’t much of an improvement, guys. Also I’m reliant on using the Metro app to set what is or isn’t synced. It’s a mess. Although I like how seamlessly it’s integrated with Explorer, it’s too seamless. Something that doesn’t clearly state whether you’re using an online or offline copy isn’t good design for cloud computing. Yes, in the ideal world, it shouldn’t matter and we should have internet access everywhere. We do not live in that world, so finding out that my ultra important presentation didn’t sync because I had no idea whether it was available offline or not isn’t good design. It’s bad design, and I don’t like it.

Overall: Good

It’s Windows 8.1 in every sense of the word. There are a number of improvements I haven’t covered properly, but that’s more or less what you’re getting with the update. It’s more of a Service Pack with a few extra things tossed in, which is why it’s free for Windows 8 users. If you didn’t like Windows 8, you won’t like 8.1 – it won’t fix that for you. Otherwise there’s literally no reason not to update to 8.1. My only complaint? SkyDrive. Fix that and I can’t really complain.

 

Windows 8.1 is out now as a free upgrade from the Windows Store for existing Windows 8 users, or for purchase. It’s also out for Windows RT devices (though at the time of writing it’s having issues).

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