It’s been less than nine months since Windows 8 was launched to the public, but it feels a lot longer. The radical redesign remains a source of frustration for many long-time Windows users, as the split personality is both confusing and jarring.
See also: Windows 8 review
Windows 8.1 addresses some of these problems by refining the interface and adding new features, such as the familiar Start button on the desktop.
Here, we’ll look at the main features and changes in Windows 8.1. We’ve based the review on the preview version, so bear that in mind: Microsoft might make significant changes before 8.1 is released later this year.
See also: How to try Windows 8.1 Preview
Windows 8.1 review: Start button and Start screen
For tablet users, the new ‘modern’ interface is exactly what Windows needs. It’s designed to be operated with your fingers, unlike the fiddly desktop which really needs a mouse for fine pointer control.
The lack of a Start button (and corresponding menu) was a huge change in Windows 8. Add to this the hidden nature of the Charms bar and search facility and the result was disorientated users who couldn’t figure out how to perform basic tasks such as launching an application or finding a recently used file.
Fundamentally, nothing has changed in Windows 8.1. There’s still the desktop and separate Modern UI, and two versions of Internet Explorer (more on that later). It’s best to think of the update as a series of refinements, rather than any major changes, backtracks or retreats.
One feature which will undoubtedly be seen as a U-turn is the return of the Start button in Windows 8.1. However, it’s just a shortcut to the modern Start screen which, if you think about it, is really a replacement for the old Start menu.
On the Start screen you can click on a shortcut to a desktop application and it will launch on the desktop (you could do this in Windows 8, of course) but now the experience can be made less jarring by setting your desktop wallpaper to be the background on the modern Start screen.
There are a couple of subtle changes to the Start screen, too. One is a downward pointing arrow which, when you swipe down or click on it displays all your apps. It’s also easier to customise groups of icons on the Start screen, and there are two new icon sizes: large and small.
When you right-click on the Start button, you get the 'power user' menu which was present in Windows 8 (and can still be called up using Windows+X). However, a new entry is Shut down, allowing you to use the old-style menu options to power down, restart or put the computer in to sleep mode.
Windows 8.1 review: Snapping windows
Although it was possible to have two modern apps on screen at once, one had to occupy a thin strip at the side. Microsoft has seen sense and now allows two apps to have half of the screen each, but you can drag the divider line to, say, give one app three quarters of the screen if you prefer.
Depending on the resolution and size of your screen, you might be able to have four modern apps next to each other, but on a tablet such as the Surface Pro, you’ll be limited to two apps.
Those with multiple screens will appreciate that apps can now use both screens to show different content. For example, an image editing app could have the tools on one screen and the image could occupy the entirety of the other screen.
Windows 8.1 review: Search
Search has changed, too. Where previously the system-wide search facility defaulted to searching for Apps (and you had to click on other categories such as Files or Settings if you weren’t searching for an app), it now sensibly searches everywhere, including the internet.
The results you see will be dependent on what you search for, but searching for Madonna would produce a Wikipedia link, a list of tracks to preview, videos, photos, news stories and more. A search for PC Advisor, meanwhile, results in a list of Word and Excel documents which contain this phrase, plus web links and a map.
Clicking particular results will launch the relevant Modern UI app, desktop app or web browser. As the results are provided by Microsoft Bing, it could provide a much-needed boost for that search engine.
One big advantage of the change is that you can open the search on the desktop (by pressing Windows-S) and launch a desktop app or file without seeing the Start screen at all – a bit like using the old search box in the Start menu.
Windows 8.1 review: App updates
The original Photos app was one of the better Microsoft creations, but lacked on key ingredient: editing. That’s remedied with a new editor which allows you to apply quick fixes, remove red-eye, crop, rotate and even more advanced adjustments such as colour correction. You can undo your changes step by step, and choose whether to save a copy or overwrite the original photo.
We’ve never been tempted to use the built-in Mail app. It looked clean and fresh, but had extremely basic features.
In the final version of Windows 8.1 (but not in the Preview) are a bunch of features that should give Mail a power boost. In the left-hand pane will be shortcuts to your inbox, a VIP-style inbox containing emails from your favourite contacts, flagged messages, contacts and other inbox folders.
You’ll be able to manage email from multiple accounts and Microsoft is working to get information from Google Calendar as well. Other new features include options to keep only the most recent version of a newsletter you regularly receive, and deleting all messages from a particular sender.
Mail also gets its own search field, which you can use to search the current folder or your whole inbox. This is in addition to the generic Search Charm which lets you find anything on your computer (or the net) while you’re using Mail.
If someone emails you a web link, a preview of the page is now shown in pane on the right-hand side, which could be convenient, but might also pose a security risk.
The app store has been given a small facelift, and is all the better for it. Navigation has been vastly improved by putting the list of categories in the app bar (visible when you right-click) instead of forcing you to scroll endlessly through them all.
Windows 8.1 review: New apps
Windows 8.1 introduces a couple of new apps: Reading List and Food & Drink.
Reading List is really just a list of bookmarks, but takes advantage of the Share Charm. You can share content to Reading List not just from the web, but also from other apps which support it (such as Mail and People). It’s particularly useful if you have multiple Windows 8 devices as, by default, your Reading List is synched between them.
Food & Drink is a recipe app to which you can add your own recipes (you can use a webcam to take a picture of a recipe in a book) or simply as a portal to search for recipes online.
Within the app is an interesting new feature: Hands-free mode. This is designed to prevent dirty hands touching your tablet or laptop when you’re cooking. It uses your webcam to detect when you’re swiping in front of the screen and scrolls in that direction to the next page of instructions (which are displayed in a nice, large font).
Windows 8.1 review: PC Settings
More settings have found their way into the Modern UI settings ‘app’, and there are now fewer reasons to go to the old Control Panel. However, settings are still heavily pared down and you’ll probably find that the Control Panel is still necessary for advanced settings.
One addition under the Network heading is Workplace. When you to bring your Windows 8 device to work, this will allow you to join a corporate network but without requiring you to have a separate user account that’s joined to the company ‘domain’.
Combined with another new feature called Work Folders, you can synch work documents to your laptop or tablet. Should you then lose your computer or leave the company, the IT admin can revoke access remotely.
Windows 8.1 review: Customisation
If you’ve read anything at all about Windows 8.1, you’ll probably already know it provides more scope for customisation. You can choose a much wider variety of hues for the Start screen. You can also choose to display a photo slide show on your Lock screen.
More importantly, there’s a new tab called Navigation when you right-click on the desktop Taskbar and choose Properties. This menu contains options which address some of the biggest complaints about Windows 8.
One is the new ability to boot straight to the desktop, bypassing the Start screen. Another lets you force the Start screen to show on your main display when you have more than one monitor. Before, the Start screen would appear seemingly on any screen.
The final option is to show desktop apps before Modern UI apps on the Apps list when sorted by category. It sounds like a minor feature, but it makes a considerable difference if you predominantly use the desktop.
Windows 8.1 review: Conclusion
As we said at the start, Windows 8.1 is a refinement of Windows 8, not a revolution. It tweaks a few things, adds a few requested features and options and introduces a redesigned Store and a couple of new apps.
It doesn’t change the fact that Windows 8 is still an operating system of two halves. It’s less jarring when you enable all the options on the new Navigation tab, but it’s essentially a spit and polish job.
The fact remains that Windows 8 is a fast, stable OS that can be used just like Windows 7 on a PC or laptop. It takes a bit of adjustment living without the old Start menu, but little has changed in most other respects.
In terms of the Modern UI, you can completely ignore it if you want to, but anyone with a Windows 8 tablet should appreciate the updates. Possibly the most important is the ability for two or more apps to share the screen without one being consigned to a useless vertical strip.
A significant problem remains the dearth of apps in the Windows store. Microsoft has improved the built-in apps to the stage at which they should have been when Windows 8 launched, but there’s still work to do. And if Microsoft can’t get it right (where’s the Modern UI version of Office, for example?) then how can it expect other app developers to jump on board?
Those who put off buying a new laptop or PC because of having to re-learn Windows might do well to try Windows 8.1.
Windows 8.1 is a refinement rather than a revolution. Those who put off buying a new laptop or PC because of having to re-learn Windows might do well to try Windows 8.1.