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Microsoft Windows 8.1 review

Gordon Kelly




  • Recommended by TR

1 of 17

Windows 8 Modern UI
  • Windows 8 Modern UI
  • Windows 8 Help+Tips
  • Windows 8 Start Button
  • Windows 8 Snap View 2
  • Windows 8 Search
  • Windows 8 Search Paris
  • Windows 8 apps view
  • Windows 8 Windows Store
  • Windows 8 Windows Store empty
  • Mail
  • Windows 8 Skype
  • Windows 8 Skype contacts
  • Windows 8 setup
  • Modern UI
  • Resize
  • IE11
  • SkyDrive


Our Score:


User Score:


  • Better melds desktop & touch UIs
  • Superb new search functionality
  • Lots of new functionality
  • Upgrades galore


  • Desktop & touch UIs still jar
  • Start button doesn't change anything
  • IE11 still playing catch up
  • Windows Store still sparse

What is Windows 8.1?

This is the long awaited update to arguably Microsoft’s most ambitious and controversial operating system to date, Windows 8. In previous generations it would’ve been referred to as a Service Pack, but these days the trend is for decimalisation.

Its task is arguably as difficult as the initial challenge of building Windows 8: merge two individually admirable but jarring OSes, the traditional desktop and ‘Modern UI’ for touch. 8.1 also needs to fill gaps in the finger friendly ‘Modern UI’ that forced you back to the desktop and take the edge off some of the desktop’s more eccentric elements. Yes Start button, we’re looking at you.

SEE ALSO: Windows 10 Review

Windows 8 Modern UI

Windows 8.1 – Setup

The days of Windows Update are long gone as Microsoft has neatly folded OS updates into the Windows Store and users are automatically prompted to update. The download process (clocking in at a hefty 3.4GB for the 64-bit version and 2.1GB for the RT edition) thankfully takes place in the background, only stopping you from working when it is time to install.

Windows 8 setup

This is a lengthy process (a pair of laptops and a high powered desktop took between 20 and 40 minutes to complete) but for Windows 8 users it is seamless returning you to everything as you left it. If, like us, you have been using the Windows 8.1 Preview, however, you’re in for a nasty surprise. You will be informed your ‘apps’ must be reinstalled after the update, the problem being this is ‘apps’ in a post-Apple App Store world.

What Microsoft really means is your Modern UI apps will need to be redownloaded, but what you have will be remembered and this is a minor inconvenience. More crucially all desktop software and its preferences will be removed for beta testers so you’ll need to go through the process of reinstalling everything from Chrome to Spotify. All our third-party drivers did continue to work, but it is worth remembering beta testing nearly always carries a price.


During our upgrade process the desktop installation failed, but safely reverted to Windows 8. The laptops encountered no problems and the desktop installed without a problem at the second attempt. We haven’t seen widespread reports of upgrade problems so we’ll assume this was a rare occurrence until we hear differently. Let us know your experiences.

Once up and running you are treated as if you’re running the OS for the first time and, given the changes made, this is no bad thing. You will be asked to choose your colour scheme (a wider range is now available), login and re-verify your Microsoft account via email or SMS (you don’t need an Outlook address) and setup SkyDrive. Users are then put through a navigation wizard to explain design modifications and basic navigation including how hot corners work. If you get stuck there is also the new ‘Help Tips’ app, but more on that later.

Windows 8.1 – Modern UI changes

Of the design changes, the biggest come to the Modern UI. Your first boot will take you to the contentious start screen (though you can now choose to go directly to desktop) and it is worth pointing out boot times are just as fast, if not faster than Windows 8. Machines with an SSD will get there in 10 to 20 seconds and anyone running Windows 7 need not fear their machine will slow down with an upgrade. If anything it is likely to speed up.


Once into the start screen the first thing you will notice is it is more like Windows Phone than ever. This is primarily due to the introduction of two new tile sizes ‘small’ and ‘large’ which are added to ‘medium’ and ‘wide’. You can fit no less than 16 small tiles into the size of the large tile allowing for more creative layouts and better fits with both tablets and extra large monitors and multi-monitor setups.

The tiles themselves also look better. The Windows Store tile is animated to provide app recommendations, the Weather tile can display up to three days of forecast and the Calendar app will show your schedule. For the first time tiles for desktop apps can also be animated, which in time should further improve aesthetics. Another nice touch is the introduction of animated backgrounds that take their visual cues from Android’s sliding homescreens.

Windows 8 apps view

The next major change is the introduction of the ‘All apps’ view. This drawer lives up its name by showing everything installed on your computer or tablet with a simple swipe up on the Start Screen. Those without a touchscreen can call it up using Ctrl Tab. Again, Android and Windows Phone are the obvious inspirations here as mobile OSes continue to influence PC platforms far more than vice versa.

Windows 8 Help Tips

For anyone still confused by the changes, Microsoft has introduced the useful ‘Helps Tips’ app. This breaks down into six convenient sections: Start and Apps, Getting Around, Basic Actions, Your Account and Files, Settings and What’s New. It is well-designed and quite frankly something that should’ve been in Windows 8 when the radical changes from Windows 7 were at their most confusing. We'll give Microsoft credit for correcting its mistake, but a mistake it was.

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Prem Desai

October 18, 2013, 5:05 pm

Always impossible to make everyone happy but kudos to Microsoft for stepping back and listening. Must be very hard for the software giant to do this.

Also, it's great news that it's free and that it hasn't become Windows 9.


October 18, 2013, 10:48 pm

The integration with Skydrive is all well and good especially those who are new to the service but those of us with existing Skydrive paid accounts whose logon credentials differ to their Microsoft user accounts seem to have been left up a creek without paddles. Windows 8.1 offers no way to reload Skydrive using different logon credentials. This leaves us without access to our files and backups.


October 19, 2013, 1:33 am

Boot times are NOT just as fast as in Windows 8.0. They're actually more than twice as slow for me. From 20 seconds with 8.0 to 45 seconds using 8.1.


October 19, 2013, 1:11 pm

Actually to be fair, my boot times do seem to be reducing. Last boot was about 30 seconds, so maybe I was jumping the gun with my criticism.


October 19, 2013, 2:12 pm

for me, with all the apps and desktop applications installed, the boot time is ~15 seconds.

Hugh Bear

October 20, 2013, 12:36 am

Longer boot times mean shorter boot times for everyone, thanks Microsoft!

Hugh Bear

October 20, 2013, 12:45 am

Exactly! Microsoft only released Windows 8.1 because they love their customers so goddamn much. We all know how Microsoft's big heart gets it into trouble sometimes, even so, they really went the extra mile for us here and they deserve our thanks, love, respect and admiration.


October 21, 2013, 7:33 am

:-) nice one.

Gordon Kelly

October 21, 2013, 11:15 am

First few boots normally involve a lot of configuration. I've seen no decrease on the 2 laptops and 1 desktop I installed 8.1 onto.

Gordon Kelly

October 21, 2013, 11:17 am

It is a big step in the right direction. I don't think Windows 8 can ever truly be the OS some people imagined, but I think history will show it to have been a bold, ambitious bridging platform to later and greater versions.


October 21, 2013, 3:12 pm

The fundemental issue about users getting blank screens (nothing but the cursor flickering) when they have the latest version of the Intel graphics drivers is an absolute pain in the ass though - I've had to format via recovery media to get back to 8.


October 21, 2013, 6:39 pm

my vaio boots from cold to the start screen in under 4 seconds.. now that that is the new normal I suspect 8 seconds will drive me insane, which looked at objectively is just ridiculous, but I really hope it doesn't get longer..


October 30, 2013, 9:12 am

I am surprised the review fails to mention the lack of two finger tapping (not click) for right click function being missing from most touch-pads since the 8.1 update. The forums are full of users complaining about this removed feature. Someone in the press needs to get onto Microsoft and ask why this has been removed, as clearly the different touchpad manufacturers did not all drop support for this at once unless directed.


January 5, 2014, 2:28 pm

8.1 adds the worst of the Windows button (the button itself), but the most time-losing change is that it now leads you to save to skydrive by default, and you can't change that. More steps for a very frequent activity for desktop users....

Have installed windows 8 again... And may change to windows 7 as it still gives more errors when copying and moving folders...

Steve Stunning

February 26, 2015, 1:12 am

​Anyone who claims that Windows 8 is anything but a Microsoft disaster is as much of a techno-fool as the geeks who designed this disaster with 10 million 500 thousand and counting complaints about Windows 8 on Google alone! So who's wrong, 10,500,000
customers who hate it, can't understand it, can't navigate it, etc. or Microsoft?
It was created by techno geeks as a Frankenstein mesh of iPhone android
operating systems that have totally left the world of PC computing. Millions of people who were forced into this "no alternative" disaster have spent whatever money it took to purchase a copy of Windows 7 and pay another geek to wipe their hard drives of this horrific mistake called Windows 8 and reinstall Windows 7 to salvage their investment in their new PC or Laptop. Microsoft will be very fortunate indeed if it doesn't face a multimillion dollar class action suit for ruining the ability for people to use their brand
new PC's and Laptops with this blight on the Microsoft name. Computing operating systems should be designed for users, and user friendly, not just by and for techno geeks, or people you think should be forced to learn a new difficult skill just to use another company's device that Microsoft didn't build, and doesn't own or manufacture. Computing was supposed to save time, and not require ordinary users to spend most of their valuable time trying to figure out how to work it! Especially when people in
businesses completely unrelated to the computer tech industry with no background in it have wasted their valuable time and money only to end up aggravated, stressed, disappointed, and stuck with a useless and expensive piece of equipment that they used to be able to use, but no longer can because of Microsoft, and the blunder they forced on us called Windows 8. I would ad that given the unreasonable multimillion number of complaints and damage cause by Microsoft, they should at the very least be made to give a FREE copy of Windows 7 to anyone stuck with the "no alternative" Windows 8, along with the cost of replacing the operating system preventing the use of a newly purchased computer. When a car manufacturer makes a mistake in their product, the government makes them replace and repair it at their cost. It's called a "recall" This is the only corrupt industry where it happens regularly, and the "fix" is called an "upgrade" and the consumer is stuck with the bill. In this case, Microsoft will do what they did with "Millennium" and "Vista", and make call the fix, a new and improved operating system and make the consumer pay again. I suggest everyone disappointed with Windows 8 contact your local or State District Attorney, and bring small claims law suits all over the country against Microsoft. I did exactly that years ago when Microsoft sent out a virus security update that infected computers with a virus. They settled with me for $2,000. Which was more than my HP computer cost.


May 6, 2015, 3:30 pm

Wow. Animated tiles. and up to THREE weather forecast days. being able to search on the internet from another place. Either windows 8.1 has some very minor points very hyped up, or this review is sorely under-appreciative. Are we really in an age where the selling point of a OS is how many apps I can download in its store?
It feels so underwhelming that I can hardly think of any else to say about it.
And personally, I prefer skype desktop over that other piece of junk. Sure, it looks sleeker, but if I can no longer distinguish online contacts from offline ones, screw it then.
Finding a desktop version of skype was the first thing I did when I got my new laptop.


January 8, 2016, 12:13 pm

Windows 8.1 interface is hard to get use to but it is more stable than Windows 7. I formate and reinstall many computers. I can confirm that Windows 8.1 it more enjoyable to use. When I install it, it simply detects the hardware better. No need for extra drivers for usb 3.0. People who think Windows 8.1 is bad, do not like changes. I have installed Windows 8.1 over 100 times within two months and can confirm that I have not faced any errors. Simple, Windows 8.1 works better with hardware. The only thing that is bad is about the name. It should have been called different. Maybe something like Windows 8 Star.

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