Windows 8.1 review

Windows 8 continues to be a product that attracts a lot of complaining. Some of that complaining is justified - at least to some extent - and some of it isn't. But no matter what we think of Windows 8, if the customers aren't on board, then the operating system has no chance.

Microsoft seems happy though, W8 is selling well enough, although it's unlikely to eclipse Windows 7 anytime soon. And you know what, that's fine. If you like Windows 7, then don't upgrade unless you know Windows 8 is something you want in your life. After all, something that's not broken is better left that way.

But, what you all want to know is what does 8.1 add to the Windows world, and should you upgrade to it, or use this as the time to move over to Windows 8. We managed to get access to the full, final release a bit ahead of its official release, and here are our thoughts. 

People, music and email apps updated, mixed results

In Windows 8, the "People" app was horrible. It still is, but they've tidied it do it doesn't look like your address book was sick on a brightly coloured jumper anymore.

The new email app is better, it looks more like a real email client, but we don't see non-tablet users making much use of it, because it forces you into an fullscreen mode - unless you use the new resizable multitasking mode to consign it to the left or right of the screen.

The music app too, is brilliant now. Its layout is clear and easy to navigate and things are split up far more logically. It's called Xbox Music, which makes some sense if you subscribe to the music service, but none at all if you don't own a console, or subscribe. What it does do, is present your collections of music well, and give you access to radio stations. Everyone now gets 10 hours of free streaming per month too.

MS has also added some new apps, like a sound recorder and calculator that use the Modern UI. The calculator is good, and the sound recorder does what it's supposed to, but neither really needs to be a full screen app.

The on-screen keyboard has matured too, with better access to special characters by pressing and holding a button.

Best third-party apps

To save you some time, the Facebook official app for 8.1 looks great, and will suit those on touchscreens. The Netflix app was amazing in 8, and hasn't really changed here, it's perfect really, and suits fullscreen as that's mostly how you would use a video app. The Sky News app is also worth looking at, and you can stream live Sky News through it too, which is nice to see.

We also really like Hyper, which is a YouTube app. It's free, and gives you massive control over how you view videos. It uses your profile to present video you want to see, and you can lock the quality to 1080p if you want, which the YouTube website refuses to allow.

Updates automatically

Previously, when apps updated they would prompt you to install them, but usually only when you opened the store. If you never opened the store, you might be running out of date apps for a long time. This has now changed, and apps will update in the background. We haven't tested this, but presumably if you tell Windows you're on an metered connection, it will be smart enough to disable this. If not, you can do it yourself.

Search fixed

Search drove us mad before. This was, in fact, the stupidest decision MS had made. Because typing would search apps, but not, say, configuration options. So if you typed "Windows Update" you would get no results, unless you selected the "settings" group on the right of the screen. This was tedious, and we're very pleased to see it has been sorted now.

Search is, in general, much better too. As well as being better for finding what you want, it will also search the web in a sensible manner. Search for Windows Update, and you get the app, the website and common users searches from Bing. That's far more like the approach we wanted microsoft to take with Windows 8 from the start.

Windows 8 reviewed simply

Here is the deal with Windows 8. We've been using it for ages. Through the beta phase, into the pre-release window where journalists had access to formulate their reviews. It has also been our main OS since launch, on the desktop machine on which these words are being written. And this isn't a touchscreen either, it's a standard twin-monitor desktop.

What have our findings been? Well, the Start Screen is no problem at all. We don't use it. We don't really use Metro apps, it's really just there for when we want to search for something. It's a bit pointless, but it's really no worse of different than any other way to find apps. If you customise it, then it can be useful. If you like full-screen applications, or watch a lot of Netflix, then the whole thing is great.

Many, many people have moaned about the new interface. Honestly, we really don't know why. Aside from Microsoft's insistence that it remove the Start button, and then fail to clearly indicate to anyone how they get back to that interface, it's actually a pretty way to deal with things. We like live tiles, they can be a great way of seeing what's going on in various apps.

Developers, developers, developers...

...As Balmer screeched as he monkeyed across the stage at Mix '08 in an incident that is mocked since. But the fact is, never has a more appropriate endorsement been made. Developers are all that matters on a computer OS. Without them, the whole thing will just die - sometimes it will struggle, even with them.

Windows 8 has not, if you ask us, had a massive influx of great developers pushing the Modern UI as far as it could be pushed. The fact is, most Modern apps are rubbish. Look at Twitter's, man alive that app sucks so immensely hard it risks pulling the moon into the surface of the planet. The same is true for apps like Skype, it looks like a bit of a joke, and it works nothing like the desktop app, there are masses of essential features missing. It's fine on tablets, but if you're on a desktop, both are going to give you a really bad impression of Windows 8.

What the new UI offers is full screen apps that put graphical content first. Massive images look fantastic, so where are the apps that make use of this? The 500px app is nice, well worth checking out, but none of them seem to have the balance and quality control right. These apps have great potential, but they're not managed or curated well, so what you end up with is a quite amateur looking.

So, for all that mocking of Steve Balmer and his ape-act, perhaps he should get on it again and enthuse the developer community about Windows 8 apps.

Return of the Start Button

For some, the removal of the Start button was too much. It's somewhat amazing that in the 18 years since the Start button was introduced, users have got so used to it that its removal from Windows 8 caused a near-global meltdown. Happily, it's back. But the problem for some is that the Start Menu is still a thing of the past, and pressing the all-new button just flips you to the Start screen. But, this still solves a major usability issue in Windows 8, namely the uncertainty about how to get back "home" once you landed on the desktop.

But, Microsoft has also improved how the Start screen works. firstly, you can now name groups. For some reason this makes us happy, and it feels a bit like the old Start menu, because that too allowed named groups. How you work this is up to you, but we have common apps close to the left, and then have groups along with the more commonly used ones on screen where you can see them quickly.

The key improvement though, is that you can now swipe the Start screen upwards, to reveal all of your apps below. This means that your Start screen doesn't get cluttered. Apps are not installed there by default, you have to pin them there, which is great because it gives you control and makes it easier to keep a neat home screen.

There are still problems, for example, you have no choice where they are pinned, so you have to move them to a location that suits you once you've selected the ones you want pinned. The good news is that you can move more than one app at a time.

Boot to desktop

Those who don't see the point of booting into the modern UI can ignore it, and go straight into the desktop mode. This makes sense for desktop and non-touchscreen users, and we think it will be popular.

Should I upgrade?

If you're a Windows 8 user, then absolutely. There are massive advances being made here and there is pretty much no reason not to upgrade. It is free, after all. 

If you're on Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7, we'd say you need to think carefully about what it will mean for you. If you think you might enjoy the new interface, then go for it. And remember, Windows 8 is a faster OS than any of the previous versions, so for that reason upgrading is well worthwhile.

If your PC is older, it's also well worth checking the specs to make sure yours is powerful enough to cope with it, but you knew that already, didn't you.

Verdict

No doubt lots of people will say that 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been from the start. To be fair to Microsoft though, it deserves some real credit for listening to the complaints people made about 8 and acting on them. While this sounds like basic customer service, it's enormously rare for companies to take feedback and use it in their products. Within a year, Microsoft has taken Windows 8 from a stable and speedy operating system, into one that has far better usability.

On a touchscreen device, Windows 8 makes lots of sense. We can't speak highly enough of devices like Samsung's old Slate, the Surface Pro and Dell's amazing XPS 12. On these devices, 8.1 is fabulous and the modern interface is something you'll want to use.

Things still make less sense on a desktop computer, but the core of the operating system, the desktop, is better than ever. It's easy to forget that Windows 8 is a massive jump in performance for Windows. We've got some Windows 7 laptops around, and simply rebooting proves what a jump forward Windows 8 is.

Don't listen to the hype about it being a disaster. Like Windows Vista, Microsoft's latest OS has been maligned by those who didn't like the change in interface. That doesn't make them right, and while we accept that Windows 8 does make things different, remember how much fuss there was when Microsoft started with the Start button? Or the move from Windows as a GUI, to a proper NT Kernel-based operating system. Those were all massive changes to the very foundation of Windows too.