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Microsoft Windows 8.1

Gordon Kelly

By Gordon Kelly
Reviewed:

Awards

  • Recommended by TR
Windows 8 Modern UI

Summary

Our Score

8/10

User Score

Review Price £99.99

Windows 8.1 – Desktop UI changes

Windows 8 Start ButtonChanges to the desktop UI are less obvious, but they do arguably contain the most hyped change in Windows 8.1: the return of the Start button. That said this isn’t a return to the much loved (by some) tree menu of past Windows versions, but simply a shortcut back to the start screen. In fact, it isn’t even that much of a shortcut since pressing the Windows key is faster.

Still, it provides a point of reference for new migrants and again should have been in from the start. Arguably this isn’t so much a climb down from Microsoft as a reluctant concession: you can have your Start button back, but it will still operate in the way we want.

Of more substance are the reinvigorated Snap Views. Now you can snap Modern UI apps and desktop software together in virtually limitless combinations, though screen size will make more than three fairly impractical on anything other than a large desktop monitor. This still doesn’t represent the true Modern UI multitasking many crave, but these virtual page breaks are a step in the right direction and particularly useful for users with multi-monitor setups.

Windows 8 Snap View 2

The desktop is also home to arguably the best cheap trick in Windows 8.1: the option to match desktop and Modern UI backgrounds. This is done via right clicking the taskbar, going to properties, then navigation. It sounds trite, but the optical illusion it creates when jumping between desktop and Modern UI is easily the most powerful thing Microsoft has done to unite the two platforms. It isn’t a fix, but it does make things infinitely less jarring.

Taskbar properties are also where users can choose to boot straight to the desktop. You still can’t avoid the Modern UI entirely but you do get to spend more time in a desktop which remains Windows 7 v2.0.

Windows 8.1 – New functionality

Then again we’d argue spending time in the Modern UI is now genuinely useful rather than what once seemed something of a party trick. And the biggest reason for this is down to the overhauled search.

Windows 8 Search

Start typing in the Modern UI to automatically begin searches and you will find Windows 8.1 now integrates both local and web search results. Furthermore click on a popular result and you will find a beautiful, horizontally scrolling results page that combines all results with smart, dynamic data.

For example, our search for chameleon indie rockers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows local results on the left, a biography, links to top tracks within Xbox Music, illustrated discography, video links and finally thumbnails of websites for popular related websites. We also did this for the term ‘Paris’ which brings up local files including personal photos via metadata, contacts, web images and again thumbnails of popular related websites.

For purists more interested in a list of search results this may grate, but for the majority it is a beautifully put together interface that will likely do more to convert users to Bing than all Microsoft’s previous efforts combined.

Windows 8 Search Paris

SkyDrive also gets a major overhaul and it is now the backbone for Windows 8 with real benefits for users over rivals like Dropbox and Google Drive. In Windows 8.1, SkyDrive automatically stores your ID information and user preferences (like iCloud) to sync them across your devices. Unlike its rivals SkyDrive on Windows 8.1 also won’t download every file to your computer by default. Instead it keeps thumbnails and file property information and downloads the files you need only as you need them. Critical files and folders can be set to download for offline viewing, but overall it is a clever way to save storage – especially for tablet and Ultrabook owners with less capacious SSDs.

Internet Explorer also gets some love in 8.1. Now hitting version 11 it brings readability and offline reading modes to combat the likes of Instapaper and Pocket. It can also now sync tabs across PCs, but not phones and tablets like Chrome, Firefox and Safari. WebGL support is finally brought in too for better browser-based gaming experiences.

IE11

The Modern UI edition of IE11 gets a visual refresh as well with improved handling of multiple tabs, but infuriatingly it is only available to users if they select IE as their default browser on the desktop. In our opinion, for all its improvements, IE11 still lacks the extensions and performance of its biggest rivals to make that deal a welcome trade-off. Though for Windows RT users unable to use alternative browsers there is no downside.

Microsoft’s $8.5bn 2011 deal to buy Skype is also coming together with Windows 8.1. The Modern UI Skype app is now installed by default and phone number detection in IE11 now automatically roots to it. The app itself doesn’t work flawlessly (it failed to pick up profile photos of many of my contacts, for example) but it is good enough that installing Skype’s forever ugly desktop software no longer feels a necessity. It is a glimpse of the future Microsoft will no doubt hope to further with Windows 9 in 2015.

Windows 8 Skype

Strategically interesting is the addition of Miracast support. The open alternative to Apple’s AirPlay allows for full HD and lossless audio streaming to devices using Miracast adaptors. Given Google adopted Miracast with the Nexus 4, used it in Chromecast then built support into Android 4.3, Microsoft’s move could well confirm the standard as the next big thing. With Apple keeping AirPlay all to itself this is much needed and we eagerly await third-party peripherals and wider manufacturer support.

Lastly, Microsoft 8.1 brings support for 3D printers. You’ll still need their third party software to access their full array of functionality, but in giving this exciting category the same basic driver support that standard printers have enjoyed for years it can only help a push into the mainstream.

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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.

Peter

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.

Paul

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.

Paul

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.

utg001

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.

Sharky66

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.

mothergoose85

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.

danielfrisbee

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..

MikeX

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.

Valma

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.

John Arce

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.

DardaniaLion

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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