When Windows 8 was released last year it was touted as all things to all gadgeteers.
On the one hand, it was the Windows we knew and rather liked: the mouse and keyboard-friendly 'classic' desktop was still present, correct and, supposedly, streamlined to be better than ever.
On the other, Win 8 was also something new and awesome: its colourful, live tile-based Metro interface mode was a bold move into the brave new world of fingertip navigation, and it was a world away from the Android and iOS operating systems it hoped to usurp.
But it also got a lot wrong. The lack of a Start button in desktop mode threw users who were trying to find their essential programs. The interface was befuddling to navigate with a mouse and keyboard. And the Metro Start Screen was essentially an operating system unto itself, almost wholly separated from the Windows 7-style desktop. We weren't disappointed or angry, we were just confused.
While Windows 8 has sold well, Steam stats suggest that more than half its game-playing customers are using Windows 7, while a mere 15 per cent are using Windows 8. Fortunately, Microsoft has listened to the complaints of its loyal users, as well as the line of pitchfork-brandishing IT administrators who turned up at Redmond, and aims to fix everything which was wrong with Windows 8 with one fell 8.1 update. The good news is, it's done a very decent job.
Updating an Android or Apple device is child’s play compared to the hoops Microsoft makes you jump through in moving from Windows 8 to 8.1. If you’re logged into your account and Windows 8 is fully patched, you might, just might, see the Windows Update option when you fire up the Store – we found that swearing at our computer and threatening it with a blunt object helped. There’s no option to download it directly from the internet, nor can you apply it through Windows Update.
If you’re lucky enough (it might be worth buying a lottery ticket if it’s shown up) then you’re faced with a whopping 3.5GB download. Fortunately you can carry on working on your computer while it’s downloading, which is great for tech journos writing about the installation of Windows 8.1. The entire process took about an hour and a half on our aging Sony laptop, and it restarted a couple of times, before throwing us into a seemingly unending stream of passive-aggressive messages. However, it’s just about forgivable given the sheer range of esoteric hardware Microsoft has to deal with.
Of course, if you’ve yet to install Windows 8 you can buy the whole 8.1 shebang as a download for $219, or cheaper on DVD if you hunt around a bit. Slapping a disc in the drive and clicking ‘Install’ is less of a faff than waiting for a huge file which might or might not download.
Having it Large
Finally, we’ve entered the world of Windows 8.1, but aside from a snazzy new wallpaper, the Start screen hasn’t changed all that much.
The biggest difference is that you now scroll downwards to see everything that’s installed rather than right-clicking and choosing ‘All apps,’ and this is good. Tiles can also be resized to ‘Large’, so you can quickly glance at the weather without having to open the curtains.
Back to the Start
One of the biggest complaints about Windows 8 was the decision to remove the Start button, the little forty square pixels of genius that brought up a big hierarchical list of all your installed programs in previous versions of Windows. Instead, tapping the Windows key simply brought up the Start screen mentioned above.
Windows 8.1 restores the Start button to the lower-left of the screen, but, alas, it still brings up the Start screen. Fortunately this behaviour can be modified by right-clicking on the taskbar, then choosing ‘Properties’ followed by ‘Navigation’ and then ‘Show the Apps view automatically when I go to Start.’ Still not as useful or powerful as the Start menu of old – that would just be too handy - but it's a definite improvement.
You can also set the computer to boot straight to the desktop, and there are settings which stop annoying menus randomly popping up when you move the mouse around the screen. It means you can basically ignore the entire Metro user interface aside from the apps list: a boon for non-touchscreen desktops and laptops.
If you still want your 'proper' Start button back, you'd be much better off trying something like this.
Search goes super
The in-built search feature was another really weird part of Windows 8 - type in some terms and it would then ask you where you wanted to look, which kind of defeats the point of searching for something. It’s like looking for a parking space and being directed to the moon, which does, admittedly, have a fair bit of space going spare.
Search in 8.1 is massively, massively improved. Type in web terms and you get results from Wikipedia and YouTube as well as Bing, and type in a app and you’ll see it before web results. We really like it, and it’s testament to how good Bing is getting.
Windows 7’s incredibly useful drag-and-snap Windows meant that you could have two programs open side-by-side with each taking up half of the screen. While this functionality remained in the desktop bit of Windows 8, you simply couldn’t use an app and a program at the same time. For some reason Microsoft thought that a three-quarters/one-quarter split was acceptable, when it was just plain stupid.
8.1 gives us a nice 50/50 split option between both apps and programs, so you can have an app open in the left side, with a desktop program on the right. Perfect for playing Angry Birds during the boring bits of Breaking Bad. The functionality extends to Internet Explorer 11, where you can arrange open web pages side-by-side.
It’s telling that every single Windows 8 laptop we’ve reviewed has included a little card which tells you how to use the operating system.
But the world’s precious cardboard resources will no longer be drained thanks to Microsoft’s inclusion of a Help and Tips app, which tells you how to use everything with nice big animated icons and animations. The cardboard elves will be pleased, as will your confused mum and legions of other disgruntled Windows 8 users.
What’s in Store
If you’ve never seen Windows 8’s Store, Microsoft's equivalent to Google Play or Apple's App Store, you’re in for an unintentionally-hilarious treat. Accessed through the Metro interface, it's packed with really bad apps rubbing shoulders with quite good ones, so you’ll find Celebrity Nose Quiz alongside Skype (which you can rub in the face of Chromebook users). Windows 8.1’s update gives us a nice, fresh presentation with descriptions of the various apps and well-thought through highlights.
The Store is good, then, but it could be better. There's not enough of the good stuff to worry iOS or Android. It’s also still missing proper games as opposed to tablet ones: unsurprising considering every app available on the Windows Store has to work on every Windows 8-running computer, powerful or not.
And there's still woefully little synergy between mobile-style apps and the desktop mode – to-ing and fro-ing between two versions of Internet Explorer can make you pine for Windows 7, Mac OS X or in fact any other operating system.
The good news is that Windows 8.1 in desktop mode still supports all of your Windows 7 software, so you can stick Steam on and play Super Meat Boy to your heart's content. It's just faintly ludicrous that you can't play it in Metro mode.
Behind the Scenes
Despite its hefty 3.5GB download, Microsoft says that Windows 8.1 takes up less space than Windows 8, which is good for preserving precious SSD gigabytes.
SkyDrive support is now properly baked-in, with 7GB of free storage (and more if you're willing to pay). Any folders you choose to use with the service are backed up online automatically, and it cleverly scales files, so an icon resides on your computer until you download the content. It also saves apps and settings in the cloud, so if you switch to another computer you'll immediately feel right at home.
Internet Explorer 11 is provided with 8.1, and while it’s cosmetically very similar to Internet Explorer 10 the big change is support for WebGL, so it can now play many more advanced browser-based games. These may seem like minor tweaks, but we’re sure they’ll all prove essential in the future.
The internet’s rumour mill is at full power as to what Windows 8.2 or 9 will bring. We’d love to see proper, full-blown games in the Store, but with Metro's one size fits all approach, Microsoft is unlikely to challenge Steam’s dominance of PC gaming.
For Microsoft’s sake we’d like Windows 9 to run in pretty much the same way across computers, tablets, consoles and smartphones, something which was promised with Windows 8 but ended up as a bit of a fudge. Windows 8.1’s close-knit SkyDrive integration hints at this, with everything residing on and being pulled from the cloud, so we reckon this is where Windows is headed.
Little tweaks beat Windows 7
Even if you stick to the desktop interface, you'll see certain subtle improvements in Windows 8 and 8.1 over Windows 7. Boot times are faster (on powerful hardware it takes mere seconds to get up and running), file copying is much more informative (you'll actually get a proper status bar this time), and the Task Manager gives you more information on what's slowing your machine down.
Media enthusiasts will enjoy Storage Spaces, which lets you group your various hard disks into single, larger drive pools with built-in redundancy to safeguard your data in case of catastrophe. It's simple, functional and powerful, and means you don't need to fork out for additional software to turn your main PC into a home server. Should you want to do that sort of thing.
Microsoft has gone a long way in fixing all the problems we had with Windows 8, and in many ways it’s the OS we deserved from day one. The ability to launch straight to the desktop and the pseudo-Start button will please desktop users, improved search with Bing integration might give Google pause for thought and general tweaks to the Store and Internet Explorer solve some more minor concerns we had.
The fact remains, though, that using Windows 8.1 is still a fragmented experience. And now, you can choose to live your computer life completely divorced from Metro. Which, when you think about it, is quite a lot like having Windows 7.
If you want all the goodies in Windows 7, and you already have Windows 7 on your machine, you might just as well keep it: 8.1 doesn't do enough to make it worth the £120 box price. But if you already have Windows 8, 8.1 is a no-brainer download: it's much, much better than it used to be.