Microsoft

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Eric Limer, Gawker Media

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Hey remember Windows 8? How could you forget? It was the biggest upheaval in desktop computing in recent memory, and even if you're not a user, its big colorful tiles are on your radar. Now, with Windows 8.1, Microsoft is giving its flashy new OS a first facelift. The changes are minor, but they're more than the sum of their parts.

What Is It?

The first major update to Windows 8. A free upgrade for existing Windows 8 owners. A $120 (or $200 for the Professional Edition) purchase for everyone else. A collection of tweaks to tighten up some of the wonkier bits of Windows 8. A resurrector of start buttons.

Who Is It For?

Everybody who's got Windows 8 already. Everybody who's been on the fence about a Windows 8 upgrade. Anyone who buys a new PC in the foreseeable future.

Why It Matters

Windows 8 was more than just a new way about thinking about the desktop interface for Microsoft; it was a major bet that touch was/is the future of computing. A bet that it could flesh out its meager Windows App store. A bet that people would come around to Metro's dramatic changes and not run screaming in the other direction. [MORE ABOUT WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED HERE, YEAH? THERE'S BEEN ENOUGH TIME]

Windows 8.1 matters because it represents dual opportunities for Microsoft: A chance to double down, and a chance to backtrack before it's too late. And it manages to do just enough of both to keep converts happy, and to lure its share of skeptics over to the tile side.

Design

When you first boot up Windows 8.1, you aren't going to notice many differences slapping you across the face; the user interface is pretty much exactly the same. Metro is still your colorful little landing page by default, and the traditional desktop still lives behind it. You've still got your Charms off to the right, your app drawer hiding away at the bottom. Live tiles can be smaller now, little one-by-one squares that remind you of Windows Phone, but other than that things look pretty much the same. At a glance, anyway.

Which frankly they'd damn well better. After an upheaval like the transition to Windows 8, the last thing anyone needs is more wild design changes. Windows 8 was/is Microsoft's future. The tiles are canon. There will not be any retcons. Not now, anyway.

What's New

That doesn't mean Windows 8.1 is just some Windows 8 rebrand. Tucked away beneath the now-familiar veneer of the desktop and Metro screen are pockets of beautiful new functionality. You just have to dig a little. Here's what you'll find.

Start Button!

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Hey, you want a start button? Fine, here's a start button. But if you're pining for start-menu-days-gone-by this is only half of what you're looking for. Windows 8.1's new desktop start button launches you right to your Metro screen, and really, it's just another way to accomplish something you could already do with the Charms bar and the Windows key. But if your muscle memory still has you gravitating towards that lower lefthand corner, it's a nice addition.

Boot to Desktop

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Boot to desktop just barely edges out the start button as the biggest concession in Windows 8. It does exactly what you'd expect; boots you right to desktop with no Metro screen in the way. And unlike the start button-which still involves Metro-boot to desktop is a pure bypass.

Bing-powered omnisearch

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Search has been elevated from a keyboard-centric way to select one of your apps to a place where you can interface with a firehose of internet. Instead of simply searching your computer, it now includes web search results as well (via Bing, naturally). The result is that the Metro desktop now doubles as your search engine, and a nice one at that.

If your search returns an installed app, it'll boot up on hitting enter, but for your average query (e.g. "puppies" or "when will sweet death come?"), you'll be shunted not to a traditional page of Bing results, but rather a carousel of screenshots from the web pages that were returned in the search, and some images if applicable. It's a more touchy, splashy, swipey way to search and it's lovely. Bing still doesn't have the best results, but this somehow makes them seem more palatable.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

But if you search for a city, or a band, or any other number of things Bing has the ability to recognize as things (e.g. New York City, Pavement, or Street Sharks), you get a different sort of result. Windows 8.1 will serve up a dashboard showing you the current weather and a list of attractions in said city. A list of popular songs from said band, linked right into Xbox Music. A list of YouTube clips of said show that was totally not a rip-off of some other cartoon about turtles. And if that info isn't relevant for whatever reason, traditional results are a just one swipe away.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

It's certainly a fancy update, and one that's nice to look at. But most importantly it does a good job masking that fact that you're using-and are stuck using-Bing. Likewise you're stuck using Microsoft apps for the quick-links the search returns. For instance, even if you change your default music app, the links open in Xbox Music.

If you genuinely just want to know more about a person, place, or thing, this pretty little Bing spread is useful. But there are only so many times you need to know the population of New York. More likely you just hammered a query into the search without half a thought, looking for the path of least resistance to a Wikipedia page. And in that case, Bing's little "look what I can do!" spread is all but useless, despite being both pretty and ostensible a good search result, even though none of that's what you were actually looking for. Fortunately it's not hard to ignore.

More options for split Metro apps

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Metro apps are no longer restricted to a 30:70 split when you're using two at once. How many option you have depends on the apps-some splits are scalable virtually to the pixel, others scale in larger "clicks"-but you're now free to do a 50:50, or a 60:40. That doesn't mean everything is perfect; Sometimes apps will load up more horizontal real estate than you can see in their sliver. Sometimes they won't resize to fit the block you make for them, and you get disgusting gray space.

The issue here seems to be that some apps just aren't ready for the increased number of split options. And in the meantime they'll stick to their 30 or 70 sizes. It should theoretically get better with time, but it's probably going to require updates from the app makers.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

But still, the option to resize here is a big improvement. It's particularly helpful for multitasking where both halves of the equation are equally important, like half-watching YouTube and surfing the web, or paraphrasing something from a Wikipedia article. Stuff where relegating one app to a lesser sliver just doesn't cut it.

The ability to maybe split three apps at once would have been even better, but we'll take what we can get.

A Metro background to match your desktop

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

A small change that makes all the difference in the world is the ability to make your Metro background match your desktop background. The effect is that Metro feels like it's popping up in front of your desktop, not replacing it. That does a lot to anchor you to a sense of place.

Single best update in Windows 8.1? Probably not, but god it's close. Easily the most underrated.

A new way to move Metro tiles around

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

It's easier to tweak your Metro screen now. Where changing the location and sizing of tiles in Windows 8 could be a little non-indicative, 8.1 pushes you into a more traditional-and mobile OS-feeling-"movin' stuff around" mode. And once you've activated it by holding down a tile, you can drag them all around the screen and resize them through the option bar at the bottom. But most importantly you can't actually engage any apps from here, so no worries of accidentally lunching into "Stocks" while you're just trying to remove it.

Being able to shrink live tiles all the way down to tiny squares gives you more freedom to pack stuff in if that's your bag. You also get to name app groupings. But you still can't change tile colors, and can make the control freak inside you sad.

App updates

Most of the Windows app suite is getting updated along with the new version of the OS, but a few in particular are worth noting.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Xbox Music has a brand new face. The framework behind the scenes appears to be pretty much identical to the original app, but the interface is much prettier this time around. Also, when you pull off a Bing omnisearch for a musician, the links it pops up will open (and play) in Xbox Music if you click 'em.

But perhaps Xbox Music's fanciest new trick is that it can parse text-based lists of songs and turn them into playlists. Just share an "OMG the 100 best songs of 2003" webpage to the Music app with the Charms menu and the app does the rest.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Windows Store has a brand new look. There's not much in the way of functional differences, but the layout's less dense this time around. There are more, bigger images, and it's overall more swipey, like a lot of things in 8.1. Hope you've got a touchscreen, or at least a good touchpad.

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

There are new apps too. Our favorite is Reading List. It's basically a Metro-style, read-it-later kind of app, and you can share webpages directly to it from your Charms menu. Handy, and all the moreso for being built right in. The only downside is that you can't share things to it from the desktop; you've gotta be in Metro for that.

There are also two new Bing apps, Bing Food and Drink and Bing Health and Fitness. The first has some hand-wavy controls that could theoretically be useful in the kitchen when your hands are covered in god-knows-what, the second has health, diet, and exercise information. Theoretically useful but basically bloatware.

More settings options in Metro

Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Last and probably least, settings get a nice revamp in Metro. You can now see and change things like the display resolution and mouse settings from inside the Metro settings app. You probably won't have to do that often, but the way Windows 8 shoved you to desktop to mess with a traditional Control Panel window was jarring and disorienting. This is better.

There are also a couple new options tucked away in the new Settings app. If you don't like hot corners, for example, you can now turn them off without the aid of any third-party software. Also you can finally give your apps permission to auto-update instead of always waiting for your go-ahead. You'll also find options to change your default apps for almost anything, maps, mail, music, etc.

Using It

Using Windows 8.1 is pretty much the same as using Windows 8. Pretty much. There are no huge overhauls. No changes to the logic of Windows 8. The small changes there are, though, add up to great additions for the kind of people inclined to use them.

People inclined to hide from the Metro interface as much as possible, for instance, will be incredibly relieved to have boot to desktop options, and to a lesser extent, a start button. These folks are the ones who will fight the Windows 8 future tooth and nail. Microsoft has heard your anguished cries, and it's thrown you as big of a bone as you can hope to get.

But on the other hand, Windows 8.1 seems more intent than ever to pull users into the Metro interface, and into its suite of built in apps. Things like a shared desktop-Metro background and increased control over your own personal live tile layout make Metro seem less inhospitable. As does the increased multi-app support, and the Metro-only omnisearch option. If you haven't sworn off Metro yet, 8.1 is Microsoft's newest attempt to lure you in, and it's a more tempting offer than last time.

Windows 8.1 is also designed to pull you deeper into Microsoft's suite of apps. Metro searches for music will provide links that pull you right into the Xbox Music app before you can say "Spotify." SkyDrive is now integrated directly into the traditional File Browser like any other drive. Reading List might win converts from Instapaper or Pocket out of sheer convenience. There's a lot to be gained by diving right into all that, which is exactly what Microsoft is imploring you to do.

Like

Windows 8.1 is Windows 8, but better. For everyone.

It's better if you want your Windows to behave like its forebears. Boot to desktop, use that start button, and you'll hardly have to notice the rest. You will still notice it, but it's easier than ever to shove it out of the way.

It's also better if you're down to embrace Metro. Using two Metro apps at once is now practical in virtually all scenarios, instead of just ones that lend themselves to a 30:70 split like browsing the web and looking at Twitter. Or watching a movie and looking at Twitter. You know, doing anything and looking at Twitter. Specialized search results for cities and people and bands and TV shows are striking, beautiful even, but they also don't get in the way of finding more traditional results. Even more gimmicky features-like being able to share websites that feature a text-based list of songs to Xbox Music and have it generate an actual playlist-are undeniably cool, and all the better for being built-in. Literally at your fingertips.

So many of these improvements, though welcome, do feel a bit like they're late to the party. Like this is the rest of Windows 8, rather than additional features. Why couldn't you just have your Metro and desktop backgrounds match in the first place? Or search the web from the desktop? It feels mostly like Microsoft is addressing its oversights instead of staking new ground.

But that's all said and done. The fact of the matter is that Windows 8.1 is a better Windows 8 in nearly every way.

No Like

Nearly every way. There are still gripes to be had. Windows 8.1 is noteworthy for not explicitly introducing many changes, but there are still things it hasn't fixed. Of course, as Windows 8.x progresses and Microsoft refines its vision more and more, there are fewer "problems" in a strict sense and more just "things you might not like." But here, with Windows 8.1, there are still both.

Windows 8.1 still has a problem with scaling, like Windows 8 before it. And in an update that seems so keen on giving users more options, it's a bummer to see this missing. Essentially, if you have one small but high-res screen, you will run into trouble because Windows 8 (and 8.1) will default to rendering things as tiny on these pixel-dense displays. You can blow everything up in settings to fix it, and embiggen your OS on the whole. That's fine, but it becomes a problem if you're rocking two displays, like a very small but pixel-dense one (like a laptop), paired with a larger, less-dense display. Instead of a good choice (which scaling option do you want on each display?), you're left with a bad choice (do I want my big display to look normal and my laptop tiny, or my laptop normal and my big display like a Fischer Price toy?). It's a problem that's only going to affect a subset of users, but it's a noisy subset that cares a lot about this sort of thing.

And then there's Metro in general. It's more viable than ever-especially for tablets, where it feels downright wonderful-but it's still just uncanny as an interface for a desktop PC, where it feels like you should be able to do more things at once. Splitting two apps however you want is a step in the right direction, but the whole Metro thing is such a step back multitasking-wise that it hardly even matters.

No, you don't have to use Metro if you don't want to. But it's clear that this is where Microsoft is devoting the lion's share of its energy. The start button and boot to desktop are two big wins for hardcore revisionists, but they're probably the last we'll see. Metro is clearly intended to be the future not only for mobile but for desktop-to whatever extent "desktop" continues to exist into the future-and it's still not clear how well it reconciles both of those worlds.

Test Notes

  • We did our testing on Windows 8.1 Preview Build 9431. So basically this is the meat of Windows 8.1, but not the absolutely final totally finished version that showed up in the Windows Store. Some features-specifically ones that involved Microsoft services, like sharing music lists to Xbox Music-didn't work on the preview build because Microsoft hadn't hooked up the pipes yet. We'd seen them in action though, and we're taking another quick sweep now that the final version is live.
  • We tested Windows 8.1 on a couple of different devices, including touchscreen laptops, a tablet, and a more traditional non-touch desktop set-up. Windows 8 was always at its best when a touchscreen was involved, and 8.1 is no different. There's now a Help and Tips app that will explain some of the more arcane hot-corner tricks for mouse and keyboard navigation, but no matter how serviceable that option is (very serviceable!) it just never feels right.
  • It's worth mentioning most of these changes are also coming to Windows 8.1 RT, the ARM-based version of Windows that's been all but abandoned by anyone who's not Microsoft. 8.1 RT will get all the same Metro-centric upgrades, but probably not boot to desktop because, well, duh. Still, you can expect most of these updates to roll out to your Surface RT if you have one, and Surfaces 2s will come with 8.1 out of the box.

Should You Buy It?

If you've already got Windows 8 then there's no buying involved. You can go download your 8.1 update from the Windows Store right now for free. And you should! Windows 8.1 isn't any sort of revolution, but its collection of little annoyance fixes are all well worth having, especially for free.

If you've been hiding from Windows 8 entirely and ignoring the possibility of an upgrade just because of Metro, now is a better time than ever to stop doing that. With the start button and the introduction of a boot-to-desktop mode, it's never been more easy to pretend that Windows 8 doesn't have a whole bunch of tiles.

Moreover, Windows 8.1 shows that while Microsoft is willing to make a few concessions to ornery users-like that start button-the basic premise of Windows 8 is here to stay. There's no avoiding it. So you may as well get on the upgrade train now, or find another ride.

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