Microsoft Windows 8.1 Review - Desktop UI changes & New functionality Review

Sections

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.