Microsoft Reacts But Did It Get Windows 8.1 Right?

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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.

Windows 8.1 - Upgrading to 8.1

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.

So, just be warned - upgrading may not be a totally straightforward process for everyone. With that said, let's take a look at some of the best features or enhancements that Windows 8.1 brings to the table, and then evaluate whether or not it's enough to get the OS on the track Microsoft's hoping for.

The New Start Screen

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.

Windows 8.1 - Start Screen

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.

Windows 8.1 - Adjustable Tile Sizes

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:

Windows 8.1 - Personalize

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.

Windows 8.1 - Creating Groups and Naming Them

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.

Windows 8.1 - All Apps Shortcut

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.

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It's ok. The start button is dumb, and they took away the "all apps" function when you right click on the metro menu.

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As mentioned in the article, that ability was replaced with a circled arrow that sits below the first row of tiles (it takes about a second to appear after entering the Start Screen). If you happen to prefer the All Apps view, you can make it so that it displays by default when you enter the Start Screen (it's in the same options area as the Boot to Desktop option on page 2).

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it crashed my system

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its OK I guess but 8.1 does still have windows 8. Just to let you know I have been a beta tester for Microsoft Windows since prior to the release of Windows 95. I have used windows 8 on the pretrial beta and disliked it so much I did not even ask to be on the beta or test it even during the free test. I have also built a couple of pc's since windows 8 came out and bout one for someone in which the only choices were Vista and 8.0 and I chose Vista for my mother even just so she did not have to deal with 8.0. I ordered parts for a new PC yesterday because one of my families pcs is dieing and refuse to put windows 8 on it. So I will just keep using 7 until 9 comes out most likely just so I don't have to deal with 8!

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Sorry, but the modern UI is not going away. It will be present in Windows 9. This is Microsoft's strategy.

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Some people aren't smart enough to use the new interface, quite sad, but as you said the less capable people can use outdated stuff like Windows 7.

I have used 8 for a while now, and liked it's improvements so much I actually convinced the right people to get it installed in my work computer. Zero problems with all my programs, including a few CAD programs and Matlab, as well as games (still haven't tested the old Windows 98 era ones though) and multimedia programs.

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Some people aren't stupid enough to use the new interface, quite understandable, but as you said the more capable people can use stuff like Windows 7 that actually allows them to use their PCs the way THEY want to rather than a bastardized version of iOS or android.

There. Fixed it for you.

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I have one issue. The preview is kind of buggy on my device (asus vivotab), but I can deal with it and fix most of them. However when I search for the control panel, the utterly useless modern ui pc settings that hides everything I need access to is the first choice. This is super annoying. I got around it by typing panel. But pc settings does not contain the word control, so it should never, ever pop up in that circumstance, and if it does, definitely not the first choice.

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I simply don't want Modern UI. I had enough qualms about giving up XP for 7, but I refuse to "upgrade" to 8 or 8.1. If they keep pushing they're going to undermine their entire business model. They're killing off their stable business foundation in the hopes that they can succeed in a gadget market, even though they've always failed when they tried in the past. And a Start Button isn't what people wanted - they wanted a Start Menu. If I wanted an app store I would buy a Mac. I want a computer and not a toy.

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People actually wanted a broken UI item from the early 90s that was already outdated when XP came out?

Hell, most people never open the start menu at all! All they do is clutter their desktop with application shortcuts and files because it actually is faster than clicking five times to open the program you want.

Start screen is hands down faster than start menu for everything except restarting, and since 8 is many times more stable than XP you'll practically never need to do it manually. With 8.1 and the charms based search (as opposed to only start screen, it'll be even faster than start menu searching.

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