|Introduction, Upgrading, The New Start Screen|
For Windows users of all kinds, the Windows "Blue" 8.1 update has been long-awaited. Those who've been using the base OS since launch have no doubt been anticipating some of the enhancements that are coming, while many others have been waiting patiently to see if the update manages to right enough wrongs to help persuade them to make the move. Has Microsoft succeeded in either of these cases? That's what we hope to find out.
At the moment, Windows 8.1 is available only as a preview, and if you are looking to give it a try, there are a couple of things to be aware of. The most important is the fact that once you upgrade, you can't easily downgrade - so you may wish to try the update in a virtual machine or on a test machine if possible. In addition, your current product keys will not work, so you'll effectively be turning your activated OS into an evaluation (it's assumed that once 8.1 goes final, we'll be able to update using our original keys).
Currently, there are two ways to install Windows 8.1. Microsoft's recommended method is to download an update, install it, reboot, and then hit-up the app store within the Start Screen. The alternative route is to download the ISO image, which you can either burn to a DVD or create a bootable thumb drive with.
If you're installing the Windows 8.1 Preview as a stand-alone install, you can do so as normal. If you're upgrading an OS already in place, you'll want to make sure that you choose the "Keep Windows settings, personal files, and apps" option inside of the installer (as seen above). This will assure that every single application you have installed will remain installed after upgrading, and your personal documents will be left intact. That said, select applications may not immediately work after the upgrade. VMware was a sticking-point for me, but a simple reinstall fixed the problems I encountered. Our beloved managing editor Marco also encountered a couple of strange issues; the main one being that the default high DPI setting on a Kabini-based notebook strangely affected text and images in some apps. Dropping the slider back to normal resolved the issues, though.
When Microsoft first introduced the Start Screen with Windows 8, it had expected its users to spend a great deal of time there. On tablets, this is especially the case. It makes sense, then, that the company took some strides to make the interface attractive, and for the most part, it did a great job. There were a couple of sticking points for a lot of people, however, such as the very limited customization and the somewhat bland way that desktop applications are showcased.
With 8.1, Microsoft takes care of most of those complaints. The level of customization still isn't what I'd consider to be "great", but there's no denying that some nice improvements have been made here.
Originally, desktop applications in the Start Screen would all share the same tile look - a solid color to match the background, and then the application icon centered inside. With 8.1, Microsoft decided to color these tiles based on the dominant color in the application icon. Adobe Photoshop's tile is tinted blue, for example; Nero, red; uTorrent, green; Steam, grey, and so forth. Whether or not you prefer this over the old design is going to depend on your personal taste. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that you're able to revert back to the old style - a bit of a downer if you happened to prefer it.
Perhaps more so than the colored tiles, one of the most obvious changes seen in the shot above is that the desktop wallpaper sits behind the tiles rather than one of the vectorized wallpapers any Windows 8 user has become used to. This is an option I've wanted ever since I began using Windows 8, so I'm glad to see it make its way into 8.1. However, there is yet another unfortunate thing about this: you cannot choose a specific wallpaper for this screen; it has to be the one on your desktop. This is a weird move, since users can easily customize their Lock Screen with a specific wallpaper. We suspect Microsoft has done this to make it less jarring when launching the Start screen from desktop mode.
Enhancing the Start Screen flexibility further, Microsoft has introduced two additional tile sizes to help you perfect your layout and organization. As seen in the shot above, standard tiles can be cut down to 1/4th of their original size, while select tiles can be exploded from "wide" to "large", such as the Desktop. Not all tiles can be resized to the large format, but many from the Store can be.
To customize the Start Screen in the base OS, you'd hit-up the "Settings" option in the Charms bar and deal with it there. In 8.1, the location has moved; now, you need to click on "Personalize" in the Charms bar instead of "Settings", which will slide this out from the right side:
This is pretty self-explanatory overall, but anyone who's customized Windows 8 in the past is likely to notice some immediate differences. Rather than be limited to 10 or so base colors with no flexibility beyond that, you can now choose between 18 base colors and then 18 tones inside of each. This goes not only for the base color, but the accent color as well. While it'd be nice (and it would be possible) to choose from "millions" of color combinations here, it can be assumed that Microsoft is keeping it simple on purpose so that tablet users won't have difficulty in fine-tuning a specific color. Plus - this is a major improvement nonetheless.
The above is an example of another feature that I wanted with the stock OS: easier group naming. Any set of tiles can be named simply by right-clicking a blank area in the Start Screen and clicking "Customize". While all of my personal tile sets come in groups of two, you could break them apart into rows of one and name each individual group just the same. The end result, as seen with the full Start Screen shot in this article, clearly shows what sort of improvement this simple addition has made.
On Android and iOS, many of us like to create folders and toss a bunch of icons into each. With 8.1, Microsoft still hasn't given Windows users the same option. In some ways, it's a little bizarre, but in others, it's fine. Many of us have dozens of apps crowding up our smartphones and tablets, for example, while on Windows, that's not likely to be the case. Plus, because of the Start Screen's design, you're already able to store many more icons - ahem, tiles - to the Start Screen than you can to your Android or iOS device.
That doesn't quite wrap-up the Start Screen improvements yet. Going to the "All Apps" screen, to me, used to be a bit of a pain. You had to right-click the Start Screen and then click on the "All Apps" button in the bottom-right corner. Now, you can simply click an arrow that sits underneath the left-most tileset, as seen in the shot above. Much better.
|Improved Search, Boot to Desktop, Quicker Shutdown|
Of all the improvements discussed so far, it's this next one that causes me to exclaim, "Thank you, Microsoft!".
In earlier versions of Windows, I became accustomed to hitting the Windows key to launch the Start Menu, then type out something quickly that I needed - either an installed application, a system tool, or a document, then hitting enter. With Windows 8, extra steps were added - after typing in the query, you'd then need to choose between settings or files, made easier with a mouse (not a great thing). Admittedly, I considered this to be a major pain, especially given how simple it was before. Well, behold:
Now, when you type in a query, you are given ultra-quick access to relevant documents or applications. In this particular case, I wanted the Folder Options, and it's displayed at the top simply by me typing in "folder". This improvement allows me to access a tool or file through the search without having to grab my mouse.
It goes without saying that one of the biggest complaints about Windows 8 was the removal of the Start button, and that's yet another complaint that's going to be no more once 8.1 hits the mainstream. The verdict is still out on whether or not the masses like its design, because it's not quite what we're used to seeing. It's almost subtle... perhaps too subtle.
After hovering over this Start button, its background transitions into a darker gray, and the logo turns blue. Does clicking it reveal a Start Menu? Nah, of course not. Microsoft has definitely changed what it needed to, to help appease those who weren't too pleased with Windows 8 at launch, but it still wants us to use the Start Screen. Third-party Start Menus can still be installed, of course, as unfortunate as that may be.
Even Quicker Shutdown / Restart
The first time I used Windows 8, I couldn't figure out how to shutdown and restart. As bizarre as that might seem, given I've been using Windows for over 20 years, it was absolutely true. By now, any Windows 8 user is going to know how to do this, but with 8.1, it's made even easier. Simply hover your mouse over the bottom left-hand corner, right-click, and voila:
This quick-access menu existed before 8.1, but it didn't include the bottom two options. With these here, it allows people to cut out an entire step, so shutting down and rebooting will be made much quicker - and probably less annoying, since the Charms bar won't have to be dealt with.
Boot to Desktop
Yet another common complaint surrounding Windows 8 was the inability to boot straight to the desktop; that's been fixed here. As seen in the shot below, you're also able to enable the "All Apps" view by default, if you'd rather see everything that's installed all at once.
While this is a great addition, I admit that it's one I used to care about, but I'm not too sure about it now. Generally speaking, the first thing anyone does after booting into their OS is launch an app, and with the Start Screen displayed automatically, that was a task quickly done. Of course, if you choose the desktop for most of your application shortcuts, then booting directly there is going to be useful. Either way, it's nice to finally have the option.
When Windows 8 first launched, Microsoft's future intentions for its SkyDrive cloud service became clear. The OS makes it easy to sync your data with the cloud, and in 8.1, the integration becomes even tighter. There's now an entire section in the Start Screen settings dedicated to the service.
Here, you can turn SkyDrive's auto-sync on or off, and have it automatically upload your photos in varying quality, so that you can access them pretty-well instantly on any device (the level of "instant" depends of course on your Internet connection). As before, your SkyDrive / Microsoft account can be used to sync your PC's settings, such as personalization options, passwords, apps and so forth.
"Computer" Becomes "This PC"
The next change is hard to explain, because it seems so unnecessary. Prior to Windows Vista, the location to access all of our hard drives was called "My Computer"; post Vista, it was simply named, "Computer". Well, in Windows 8.1, Microsoft changed it once again, this time to "This PC".
As the image illustrates, another minor change has been implemented here: your six library folders precede the storage drives. A small change, but a useful one if you happen to use those folders more often than the actual drives. If you don't, that entire section can be collapsed - but not removed.
Many had speculated that Windows 8.1 would ship with an assortment of new apps -- and it does. Finding these is a simple endeavor, as they're marked as "New": Alarms, Calculator, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, Help & Tips, Reading List, Scan and Sound Recorder.
All of these are pretty self-explanatory, and not all of them work at the moment (they will when 8.1 goes final). Of them all, I'd have to say that Help & Tips is the most intriguing. Alas, this is all that's shown inside so far:
Alright - "Help & Tips" is as simple a thing as it can get, but consider the fact that one of the biggest beefs new users have with Windows 8 is not knowing how to do anything. Post-install, a short tutorial is shown, but it covers only two very basic things. Everything else, the user has to discover on their own, or hop online and search for (which to me, shouldn't be a requirement).
It's hard to say what this tool is going to become, but as the tile is being placed right inside of the Start Screen after the install, I assume it's going to be a one-stop shop for folks who want to learn more about how to get the most out of their OS. This is another feature I feel should have been in Windows 8 since day one, but the fact that it's coming shouldn't be scoffed at. Microsoft realized its fault and is doing what it can to correct it.
Revamped PC Settings Screen
A personal complaint of mine regarding the launch Windows 8 is that a lot of the typical Control Panel functions could not be found inside of the Start Screen's settings area. Well, with 8.1, some of those functions have made it in, such as the ability to configure a proxy server, adjust time and date formats, configure power options and so on.
Oddly, you still can't configure things like Windows Defender or the Firewall, but chances are if you need to do that, you'll know how to easily get to them.
We just took a look at a large number of enhancements or new features to Windows 8.1, but there's little doubt that there are others we overlooked simply because we didn't know about them. If you happen to enjoy a feature not discussed here, please hit up the comments and let us know.
Now for the big question, will 8.1 help steer Microsoft's latest OS in the right direction?
|Does 8.1 Fix All of Windows 8's Problems?|
Without wasting time, let's make one thing clear: the Windows 8.1 update is fantastic. If you're already a Windows 8 user, the update is going to be a no-brainer. While the inability to switch back to the old tile designs (in the event you don't care for all the color) is a bit disappointing, it's a limitation that's greatly overshadowed by everything else the update brings to the table. And judging by the "Help & Tips" app, it appears the update isn't even 100% complete.
A quick recap: Windows 8.1 brings a boatload of new features to the Start Screen. You're now able to use your desktop wallpaper as the backdrop if you like, or if not, you gain a greater level of flexibility with the color schemes for any of the vectorized choices. You now can turn traditional "wide" tiles into full-blown squares, or take a standard "medium" tile and make it 1/4th of the size. In addition, to you can more easily name your groups, access the All Apps section quicker, enjoy an improved search, and access a number of new configuration options in the Settings area.
Start Screen aside, we also gain the ability to boot directly to the desktop, have quicker access to our libraries after opening up our Computer - ahem, "This PC", and shut our PC down quicker thanks to the hidden menu behind the Start button (oh right - that too!). Of course, we can't discredit the number of new apps that have made it into 8.1, especially Helps & Tips which I am looking very forward to checking out once it's finished.
As much as 8.1 packs in, I do feel that Microsoft's decision to keep it as a free update is a good one. The reason being: this is how Windows 8 should have launched. If it had, then complaints might have been far fewer. But of course, we can't overlook the biggest beef a lot of people had with Windows 8: the Start Screen.
Given the fact that 8.1 packs in a ton of Start Screen improvements, it's obvious that the update is not going to do a lot for some people - namely those who didn't care for the Start Screen before. There's just no reason to believe that your opinion will be changed with 8.1, because it's still the same Start Screen, just better. Microsoft had a chance to reintroduce the Start Menu here, but didn't. In effect, the company is asking you to meet it halfway. It knows you might not love the Start Screen now, but it hopes that it might grow on you in time.
Even still, I never liked the fact that Microsoft in one-fell-swoop decided that the Start Menu was no good, when millions of people have been perfectly content with it. While I believe the company should have reintroduced it here, I'm just glad that the company's gone the extra mile to make the Start Screen better.
Not to mention, some of its apps have seen improvement as well, including the Store:
Check that out... there's actually a search field up there! Yet another example of how Microsoft is trying to make the overall Windows 8 experience a more intuitive (and better) one.
There are still a couple of limitations that are a bit bizarre, however. Many equate the Start Screen to being an interface squarely designed for a mobile device, and I can't disagree. Given that, you'd imagine that renaming a tile would be a simple matter - but not so. While Microsoft could easily give that option alongside the other ones when right-clicking (or holding down) on a tile, it doesn't. Instead, you must go to the "Open File Location" option when you access the tile's properties, and then rename the shortcut there. Hardly elegant.
Further, while adjusting tile sizes is nice, some might prefer to place regular sized tiles inside of a folder to help keep their Start Screen a bit cleaner. As I mentioned before, the sheer size of the Start Screen allows many tiles to be used, which is likely one reason Microsoft doesn't care to implement the functionality, but I'm of the belief it should be an option for those who want it.
Other functions of Windows 8 will still continue to bother some people, like the process of shutting down. Microsoft did improve quite a bit here given you can simply right-click the Start Button and access the option in there, but again, this isn't an elegant-looking solution. To be fair, it doesn't really have to be, but nothing stops Microsoft from putting a shutdown / restart button right inside of the Start Screen, negating the need for people to hover over the Settings icon in the Charms bar and doing it that way.
Admittedly, all of these issues are fairly minor, but they do highlight simple things Microsoft could have added / changed if it wanted to. It clearly didn't, as it would prefer all of us to adjust to the "modern interface". It's not a great thing, but at least major improvements have been made.
Given all we've discussed, coming up with a conclusion as to whether or not 8.1 is going to suddenly fix Microsoft's image or sales should be simple - but it isn't. As mentioned above, the Start Screen is still here, as are some minor niggles, so there's no reason that anyone who disliked those before is suddenly going to feel different with 8.1. However, because 8.1 is such an improvement, the reaction is likely to be very good, which may cause some to reconsider Windows 8 as their next OS, despite the caveats.
As a Windows 8 user since launch, I can honestly say that I'm extremely pleased with what the 8.1 update brings to the table. I'd even go as far as to say that it's a refreshing update. It's clear to me that Microsoft has some determination to right its wrongs and make sure it's doing all it can to encourage people to give Windows 8 a try. While I wouldn't call all of the moves it's made ideal, I do believe we're headed in the right direction.
What Windows 8 really needs now to succeed is improved developer support. The Store for Windows 8-specific apps is still littered with middling and sub-par apps, and that's not a great thing. Things are undoubtedly improving, but I do feel that some developers are doing little to help the OS. Instead, it seems like some developers just rush an app out the door, just to put something in the store, and then forget about it. That's hardly a healthy thing to occur when Microsoft's greatest interest is developing a rich ecosystem a la Google's Play Store or Apple's App Store. Hopefully, these improvements will happen sooner rather than later.