Can the 8.1 update save Windows?

The Windows 8.1 update sounds great on paper, but after living with the Preview release for a fortnight, Tony Horgan decides whether it's enough to sway him back
Windows 8.1 Preview

For me, Windows 8 was a disaster. It was the most perplexing operating system I'd ever come across, and I'm no idiot. I've used just about every operating system known to man since 1980 but never encountered a user interface as baffling as that of Windows 8.

Hamstrung by two totally different interfaces (the Desktop and the "Modern" front-end), a catastrophic lack of signposting for touch input and a "sweep it under the carpet" approach to streamlining the Desktop, Windows 8.0 did very little to convince me that it was the way forward.

Interface irritation

Sure, Windows 8.0 can look smart but it's a convoluted world of dead ends and blank stares, constantly challenging the user to make the next move, like Rowan Atkinson in the classic hi-fi shop sketch from Not The Nine O'clock News. "Ah... No clues!" So has the recently released Windows 8.1 Preview done enough to change my mind? 

The Start Button Lie

Windows 8.1 Start button

As we reported in our inital forray into Window 8.1 the return of the Start menu turned out to be a false dawn. Details of how you can reinstate the Start menu via a third-party app can be found in that link, but what you get as standard is a new button in the bottom-left corner of the Desktop which switches between Desktop and Modern modes. If you right click it you get a seemingly randomly ordered list of links to various control panels and settings, but still no list of installed desktop apps. This is certainly a welcome move, but why is it hidden away under a right click? And while we're on the subject, where are my Desktop apps anyway?

Bing still hasn't found what I'm looking for

Bing search, promoted listings first
8.1 Bing search: sparse
Pin app to Start

One of the biggest changes is the way the search works. Previously it would give separate results for installed apps, then settings, then files on your computer, drawing a blank if none of those got a hit. Now it lists results from all three of those plus Microsoft's own Bing search engine, alongside other categories that it doesn't consider to be "files", which includes music, emails, games and all sorts of other items you might have on your machine. 

The search works much better this way, although the new Bing app isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's more visually appealing than in 8.0 but feels dumbed down, often giving you just three search results per page, sometimes preceeded by ads for content that Bing wants to push at you. For example, a search for "The Italian Job" brings up a full-screen front-end designed to persuade you to stream the 1969 movie via Microsoft's Xbox Video service. To get to the proper search results you have to swipe it off, but which way? Ah... no clues.

The search can also be pretty stupid at times. If you want to investigate the new recipe app that comes with the 8.1 update, searching for "food and drink" yields no results, because the app uses an "&" sign, not the word "and". Also, when you do find that app, even though you're presented with an icon in the search sidebar, it's not possible to drag this straight onto the Start screen. Instead you have to use a context-sensitive menu and choose "Pin to start".

More from the store, and also less

Windows 8.1 app store redesign
Windows 8.1 app store

Of course there are zillions of regular desktop apps out there, and that's great. That was the main reason I held off using a Mac outside of my Mac-dominated journalism work until fairly recently. However, Microsoft knows it's way behind the curve when it comes to its own app store, through which all apps designed for the "Modern" interface must be sourced. 

The app store front-end has had an 8.1 makeover although you might not notice at first. Now it offers suggestions for apps it thinks you'll like, and usefully has a button marked "Not interested" that you can click to tell it not to flag up that and similar apps in future. Like the new Bing search app, the app store now displays fewer results on each page, so it can feel like there's more scrolling involved in getting to the bits you want.

Now there's less feedback while you download and install an app. In fact, there's almost none at all. While Windows 8.0 gave you a row of animated dots and a text note to say that your app was downloading, 8.1 just goes silent until the app has installed, upon which it flashes up a message to say that it's done. The button you pressed to install the app changes to grey but remains labelled "Install", so it can appear that your request to install an app hasn't registered. Let's hope this is tweaked for the final release. Unless you catch the brief notification when an app is installed, there's still no way to launch an installed app from the app store front-end.

Playing catch-up

Windows 8.1 app store: games

Microsoft claims that "... the majority of top iPad and Android apps will be available by the time Windows 8.1 releases." Depending on how you define "majority" and "top" that might be true, but there's far too much ground to be made up in that time for the Windows app store to come anywhere near to offering the quantity and quality of apps available to iPad users. There's still no magazine portal along the lines of Apple's Newsstand or the magazine section of Google Play. Perhaps it will catch up over time.

Token gestures?

Windows 8.1 Photos app
Bing Food and Drink app

Microsoft is attempting to push the app store in the right direction with some of its own apps. The Photos app, previously a very basic image viewer with crop and rotate functions, now has options to adjust colours and lighting, and for removing red eye. True to form you have to go searching for these features within the app, revealed with inward swipes from the screen edge. Once you figure this out it's quite a useful app for tweaking photos, so long as your pictures are stored in either the Camera Roll or Pictures folder.

Two new apps have also appeared from the Microsoft stable for 8.1: Food & Drink and Health & Fitness. Beset by the user interface issues we've come to expect, they're OK but hardly flagship killer apps in the vein of Apple's GarageBand, iMovie and Keynote.

Food & Drink introduces a potentially hands-free gesture mode, designed to allow you to flick through pages of a recipe without touching the screen with sticky fingers. In our tests using a Lenovo Yoga 11s it was at best erratic and at worst completely unresponsive, although it's the sort of feature that's likely to have varied performance depending on the hardware you're using.

Is it time to drop Dropbox?

Windows 8.1 Skydrive integration

If you're in the Desktop side of the operating system you can now access your 7GB of free SkyDrive cloud storage from the regular file browser, just as if it was local storage or part of your network. Getting things onto that SkyDrive storage from the Modern interface isn't so simple because most of the touch apps don't like to offer you a "Save as" option. Nevertheless there's a SkyDrive app which allows you to browse, access and move files that you've already placed there.

From a Desktop angle it works very neatly. If you deal with a lot of media files you'll fill up that 7GB pretty swiftly but even so it compares reasonably with the competition; Dropbox offers 2GB for free, Apple's iCloud has 5GB plus your iTunes purchases and Google Drive dishes out 15GB. Additional storage is available for each of those services if you're willing to pay.

At last, proper multitasking!

Windows 8.1 multitasking

The ability to run more than one app on the same screen in the Modern interface was one of Windows 8's best features. Now it's even better because instead of being limited to a 30/70 split, you can give each app exactly half the screen. Not all apps can function when they've been cut in half (some games, for example) but it's nice to be able to have, say, a browser window open with a photo editor beside it. It should also be possible to display up to four Modern apps on higher-resolution devices or via multiple monitor set-ups.

And finally...

Windows 8.1 new Settings menu

We'll round off with some more good news. Altering the machine's settings in 8.0 often required the user to fall back on the Desktop side of the OS and dig around in the terribly dated Control Panels. Now you can get into all of that from the Modern interface, drilling down to all the little options and checkboxes that make such a difference to the power user. It sounds like a boring thing, and it sort of is, but it's important because it allow you to spend more time in the Modern interface, if that's where you feel most at home.

Do I like it yet?

No, but I certainly dislike Windows 8.x less than I did before the 8.1 update. There's only so much you can expect from a 0.1 update, but even so Microsoft has clearly listened to its customers' feedback and delivered a lot of improvements in a short space of time. While this update doesn't address the deeper issues of user-unfriendliness in the operating system it does make it more palatable for the more technically savvy Windows user.

The full Windows 8.1 release is expected to be available towards the end of 2013.

Article by Tony Horgan.