Windows 8.1 preview: Installed, explored and tested

We were pretty harsh about Windows 8 until we reviewed it. The problem for us, was that the user interface was just too much of a departure. Reviews are different from opinion though, and using the OS on a desktop computer made us realise that, as an OS, Windows 8 was the best Microsoft had ever made.

That's a controversial opinion, but besides a few graphical things that irk some, the OS adds so much to Windows that it's impossible not to like. In the end, it won our product of year in the 2012 Pocket-lint awards, voted for by our readers and an expert panel of technology journalists.

So, when Microsoft announced that it was making some changes in 8.1, and that those changes were to make the OS more friendly to Windows 7 users, and also to improve it for touch devices, and to get the user interface a bit more consistent, we were pleased.

If you're planning to try 8.1...

This is pre-release software, and while Microsoft has made it generally available, it could still cause damage. The best machine to install it on would be one that has Windows 8 already, and that has a recovery partition, so if things go south, you can just restore the PC to its factory conditions. You MUST back up all your personal files first though.

We had no real problems. UK users must do some additional steps to get the Store to trigger the update, but there are instructions for this if you need them, and it doesn't take long to sort.

Do this at your own risk, but we've had few - if any - problems with the update, and it seems stable. There are, however, several bits that don't work, settings that are greyed-out, for example, so it's worth bearing in mind if this is your only computer.

Hello Start button

We remember clearly when Windows 95 launched. This was another of Microsoft's landmark changes to the user interface. Although the OS was built on the DOS foundations still the GUI - as it was then - was a complete rethink of how Windows worked. Initially, even then, we weren't sure about a lot of the changes at first.

For example, the file manager was overhauled completely, and we prefered the one from Windows 3.11. That sounds ridiculous now - just look at an image of that thing, and it looks terrible - but when you've used something for a long time, it becomes undesirable to change. But looking back, Microsoft took Windows 95 in a direction that would work for hundreds of millions of people for 17 years.

And then, of course, there was the Start button. This was also new, and removed the old program manager from Windows entirely. Users of 3.11 will remember that setting up the program manager took a long time, and was super-personal. The introduction of the Start Menu really messed with that. The old order of your icons was changed, and auto-sorted by the OS.

But, again, we got used to the Start Button, and it became something that worked pretty much for everyone. So when Microsoft killed it off, in advance of Windows 8 launching, there was some outcry. And while we were among them, when we got the final copy of the OS, we learny how to optimise it for our use.

But as was announced some time ago, the Start button is back. People who didn't move over to Windows 8 because this was confusing will be pleased, and it works as you'd expect. It takes you to the Start screen of course, so the menu isn't back as it was in Windows 7, but it's navigationally helpful. That said, those who don't like the Start Screen will not be appeased by this direction, and it will still upset them that they're looking at something new. Honestly though, Microsoft can probably ignore these users safely. They are either making a fuss for no reason, or they're still using Windows XP and will continue to do so.

Operationally, the Start Screen works the same. But there are some nice changes too, that make it more of a pleasure to use.

The new Start Screen

Microsoft thinks that perhaps one of the things that put customers off using the Start Screen was that they weren't able to customise it much. So it has made some effort to improve things here too. The first change is that you can now select your own background to use with it. You can have it match your desktop, or pick some funky patterns or solid colours.

MS has also added the ability to have named groups too, so you could put "Video" together, with all the apps for catch-up TV and on-demand services. You know the score, but it brings back some of that Windows 7 Start menu that people seem to have been craving.

Control panel updates

One of the things that did need improving was the touch interface access to the control panel and, sure enough, this has now been tweaked and offers a much more comprehensive way to adjust the computer settings.

Windows update has had a tweak too, which brings weekly updates and the recovery of a damaged or broken system under one group of settings. In general, this is good because it gives you easier access from a tablet to make changes. The traditional desktop interface for non-touch users remains of course, and it's aimed at mouse users, and is a little fiddly for touch interfaces.

Store updates

There are two things that have happened in the Store that are important. The first is that it has had a minor UI refresh. There are a lot more options now to access you account more easily, and to track down apps. Pull down from the top of the screen, and you'll see shortcuts to look at your apps, both installed and those which you own but don't have installed. There's also a shortcut for your account information

The biggest update though, has to be the ability to update apps automatically. Previously you'd need to open the store, and select "update", now apps are simply upgraded in the background. We don't know what happens when an app wants to change permissions as we haven't encountered this yet, but hopefully it will just prompt you.

It's also worth pointing out that you can install apps on lots of machines, but there are some hoops to jump through. Before, you had to manage apps online, via Microsoft's dedicated security information for its services. Now, if you have a current mobile phone number, Microsoft will text you authorisation codes when you want to use a new machine with your account. It's quite good, although still a bit more restrictive than, say, Google Play on Android.

Xbox Music

As the kids say: OMG. Xbox music is nothing like the old app, and that's a really good thing because the old version was a complete mess. Not a mess like People mind you, but still a veritable dog's dinner. Now, you load the music app, and as clear as day is your music collection.

There is still the music discovery service, but it takes something of a backseat now, putting your music at the forefront. The way the app finds music is quite cool too. Obviously, it can scour your hard drive to find locally stored music, and it can search your home network for tunes stored on other Windows machines around your house. This is a great feature, especially if you have a lot of music that's not stored on your laptop, but you want to listen.

There is also a cloud service attached, something that doesn't seem to have been promoted much by Microsoft, and not discovered by many. Like other MP3 matching services, Xbox Music looks at your local library, and where possible matches it to music Microsoft has access to. Then, you can stream via your Xbox music app - or phone, if you're a premium subscriber - and listen to your music via the cloud. Great if you're away from your home network, and your music.

All Windows 8.1 users now get 10 hours of free music too, so you can stream radio, or your own cloud-stored tracks without having to pay. If you want unlimited access, then you simply subscribe. You will, occasionally, see an advert on the service too if you're a free user, and this is often video-based from what we've seen. It's not often, at least currently.

There are still some problems of course. There's still an issue for music stored on NAS drives, which still doesn't show up unless they are running Windows and can use the search indexer. If you have a Windows Home Server this might work. We also noticed that despite newly added music showing in our library on the desktop computer, it wouldn't sync back to our laptop though

Overall, Xbox Music is much improved in look, and there are more features promised for when 8.1 launches too, with Microsoft claiming there's another 50 per cent more coming for the final release.

Outlook

If you're an Office user of Windows RT, you're also due a nice surprise with the 8.1 update, because you'll be getting Outlook, in addition to the existing Office apps. The Office suite is still free on RT, but we don't know if this is a permanent thing, or if it will end with an update in the future.

This interesting tidbit of news applies only to Windows RT owners, and technically Windows RT is not really Windows 8, but it's well worth mentioning this one.

Office still runs on the desktop though, and although there are rumours that MS is working on a modern interface for Office, it's not in RT. Perhaps Office 2014?

Virtual keyboard

There have also been some changes to the keyboard for touch users. Although this has always been one of the best touch keyboards, it has also been improved. For example, if you want to type a number between 1 and 9, then you can do this by swiping up from the letters on the top row, these show with numbers on them, and in Windows 8 you were able to type special characters using this "swipe" method.

There are also some minor cosmetic changes which add cursors to the keyboard when you're logging in, and changes the size and location of the button. Minor stuff really, but part of a well thought-out update.

New touch gestures

Playing about with the new Bing Health app, we noticed that if you use two fingers on the touchscreen, and swipe either down or up, you get a new menu screen. On the health app, this doesn't actually work, there are buttons there, but they don't actually do anything.

 

The names on the buttons seem to imply that it's used for deeper information beyond what the app shows on the surface, but we wonder if it's going to be used as a way to change settings in the future - the text that shows currently could be a red herring. Either way, it seems like there's more coming to "modern" apps soon, and they will have

Conclusion

One interesting thing we noted was, as good as the updates for Windows 8 are in 8.1, Windows RT gets some really nice features. Photosynth is amazing, but it's also a bit silly to include it only on RT, because the cameras on those devices are often woeful. We also like the fact that RT gets Outlook now, that's likely to make RT devices even more attractive to business, especially now the RT comes with a free keyboard.

Some people have said that Microsoft has backtracked - as well as on the DRM in the Xbox One - but is this not what we all wanted? The Start Menu has never been a problem for us, but the lack of start button is irksome, even though the functionality is basically the same.

There are still some problems, People, for example, is an app that really should be fixed, and soon. The idea of tying all your social networks together and being able to access your contacts is a really solid one, but it's so poorly executed, both here, and on Windows 8, that we just can't bring ourselves to use it.

But things are going in the right direction, that's for sure. The little tweaks to 8.1 have made Windows an even more impressive operating system, with a foundation that's solid and that has a lot of impressive features. What's perhaps more impressive is the fact that this update is free. Arguably, it's a service pack, but with a lot of people snapping up Windows 8 for £30 or so, Microsoft isn't making nearly as much money on Windows as it used to.

There are, simply put, no reasons not to upgrade when Microsoft launches this update and even in its preview state, we've found it a joy to use.

Windows 8.1 will be free to all users of Windows 8, and will launch later on this year. 



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