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Hands on: Windows 8.1 review
Post: 12/09/2013

Hands on: Windows 8.1 review

We've had plenty of hands-on time with an official build of Windows 8.1 - and yes, many of the rumours and leaks are accurate.

The Start button is back, you can boot to the desktop and use the same image as your desktop. SkyDrive is built in to sync files - on Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT.

But this isn't Microsoft backing away from what we still want to call Metro; key Microsoft apps like Mail and Xbox Music have been updated, there are new apps for food and fitness and there is a 'modern' version of Office on the way.

If you're reading this in the UK, note there have been some issues with installing the Release Preview on British English devices. Find out more here.

Move multiple apps

Microsoft is still convinced that Windows can scale from an 8-inch tablet all the way up to the 27-inch twin screens on your desk at work, so there are changes to the Start screen, new ways of laying out multiple apps side by side on screen and almost all the configuration options from the control panel make it into PC Settings (except for those boot to desktop settings, which stay on the desktop - right-click on the taskbar to get them). So how coherent does it all feel?

The Lock screen turns into a photo gallery, powered by the same Microsoft Research tech behind the screensavers in Windows Media Center and the Windows 8 Photos app, picking related and timely photos automatically. You can unlock the camera or answer a Skype call quickly without needing to fiddle with a password. If small tablets get popular, that will be useful.

Start screen

The Start screen gets new large tile sizes for select apps like Weather and Finance so you can see more information at once, although apps have to be specially built to use this. You can pick from far more colours to customise the Start screen backgrounds - some of which animate subtly as you scroll sideways - or you can use your desktop background, in which case your tiles scroll but your background is fixed.

Background colours

If you're used to the small swipe you use on the Windows 8 start screen to select a tile, get unused to it. That now swipes you down to the Apps screen instead (although the small swipe still works in apps like the Windows Store, at least in this version).

Start screen 3rd party

To select a tile, press and hold on it. You can still select multiple tiles and now you can do useful things to all the tiles you have selected. You can also select multiple tiles on the Apps screen and pin them to Start as a group. As this is the only place you get tiles for newly installed apps, it's a useful option.

Start screen groups

Sorting the Apps screen by how often you use apps gives you a quick list of frequent apps you haven't pinned yet. And once you've done all that work, you can have your Start screen sync across all your PCs so you don't have to do it again.

Windows 8.1 interface changes

Two big new interface changes are the new smart search and the way Windows 8.1 handles multiple modern app windows on screen – especially on large monitors. When you use the Search charm – which Microsoft refers to by the Windows-S keyboard shortcut more than the charms bar – you get the same suggestions of apps to launch, settings to open and other searches you might be interested in.

But now, those all show up in the Search pane itself, rather than in a distracting full-screen. And both apps and settings show up in the same list rather than separate lists that can fool you into thinking Windows doesn't have any way to change settings.

You can still see search results in a full-screen view but that's not just a boring list of tiles and titles. Bing combines results from your PC and SkyDrive, from the content inside your apps and from the Web. By the time Windows 8.1 launches smart search it will include email messages, though it doesn't yet. If you have documents that match your search, they show up first. But Bing will also try to find a person, place, band, album or other entity that matches what you're looking for and build an instant search 'hero' that's like a mini app full of content.

Search

What you get depends on what you're searching for; if it's a person, you get Wikipedia information (other apps will be able to suggest content like this but Wikipedia is the first) and photos; if it's a place, you get directions and reviews and opening hours and links to book on OpenTable or call them with Skype. For a band or album you get videos and music tracks – that you can play from Xbox Music.

You can swipe through the search view to see the full overview, pinch to get a semantic zoom view that shows the categories of results or tap to get more details (like a bigger map) without launching a different app. This is useful when you have a lot of information to look through as well as an appealing presentation for more fun information. And if you don't want a big-screen experience to browse through, remember you can get at individual results quickly from the search pane.

New snap views

When you do open Windows Store apps, you're no longer restricted to snapping them into one large and one small window. On a small screen like a 10" Surface RT or Surface Pro screen, you can make a window a third, half or two thirds of the screen or any other multiple of 50 pixels – but we could still only get two apps on screen at once.

Some windows pick their own size – opening an attachment from the mail app uses two thirds of the screen for an image or half the screen for a web page. Open another app once you already have two windows and the icon waits on screen for you to drag it into the window you want it to use. That means you don't get the new app straightaway, but it also means it doesn't replace something you were looking at without giving you a choice.

On a larger screen, you can have three apps open side by side, or even four (and again you can choose whether to have each window take up a third of the screen or have two wide windows and one skinny one or any other way of filling the screen).

And if you have two screens, you can put multiple Store apps on both of them, so with the right screens you can have seven or eight apps at once. Whether you see three or four apps on a screen depends not just on the screen size and the resolution but also the DPI and scaling ratio of the screen. At that point you're getting into complex calculations that are difficult to explain and it looks like the only way to find out how many apps you'll be able to have side by side on a screen is to keep opening them until you can't fit another app in.

The return of the Start button to the desktop is the most obvious change in the Windows 8.1 desktop (and no, in this build you can't turn it back off again). But there are other subtle differences.

Desktop with start button

You can turn off the trigger in the top right corner that shows the charms bar when you use your mouse and the one in the top left corner that shows a thumbnail of the next app running in the background.

When you use the Search charm on the desktop it opens the Search pane on top of what you're doing, rather than throwing you out to the Start screen.

Libraries no longer show up in Explorer automatically, even though they're still the way you put media into the Xbox Music and Video apps and the first place Mail looks when you add attachments. They're right there in the File Picker when you use Windows Store apps.

Libraries

When you right-click on folders in Explorer the option to add them to a library is still on the context menu, but if you want to find and work with them in Explorer you have to turn them back on in the navigation pane. Instead you see This PC where you're used to seeing Computer, along with SkyDrive which is installed as part of Windows (in both 8.1 and RT 8.1) and syncs some of your files automatically.

SkyDrive

To avoid filling all the storage on a tablet with a small drive, all you get by default is the Documents and Pictures folders from your SkyDrive. You can see your other folders and the names of all the files in them, and when you click on a file Windows 8.1 automatically pulls it down from SkyDrive and caches it offline and syncs changes to it.

Manual SkyDrive configuration

You can also select files in the modern SkyDrive app to use offline, but there's no longer a separate desktop interface for picking folders to sync.

Also key is Internet Explorer 11. The first thing you'll notice is how fast it is. Even with multiple tabs set as your home page, on a Surface Pro the browser opens and starts loading pages almost faster than you can time. That feels a little faster in the desktop version because you can see that your tabs are loading, but the immersive full-screen IE is equally speedy. It's also rather more powerful than the full-screen IE in Windows 8.

Instead of just 10 tabs you can have up to 100 tabs open at once, and you can open a second copy of the browser and have another 100 tabs in there as well. Switching between different tabs is extremely fast but it also didn't make our test machine use a lot of CPU or memory to keep the tabs open. Swiping back to a page you've already looked at is far faster than in IE 10 – you don't have to wait for it reload, it's just there pretty much as soon as you swipe. Another thing that speeds up performance, especially with the Flip Ahead option from IE 10 that works out what the next page in a multi-page story is going to be, is the way IE can preload up to two pages so they're already there when you swipe forwards.

IE 11

Here's one change that might take some time to get used to: When you press and hold on a link, instead of a context menu over the web page you get an app bar at the bottom giving you the choice of seeing it in a new tab or a new window – which is a quick way of opening a second browser.

You can see and manage a lot more information in the modern version of IE. What's more, you can see the folders you've organised favourites into, and you can move favourites into the right folder there, as well. You can also see which sites you've saved passwords for (which will sync between all the PCs you use your Microsoft account with) and remove them if you don't want the password saved any more. If you don't actually want full screen browsing in the full-screen version of IE you can have the address bar and small versions of the tab buttons on screen all the time.

If you were looking at a site on a different PC you can also go in and see the list of tabs there and open the site you want. You even get the 'back stack' so you can browse back through the pages you were on before you clicked the link to load the most recent page in that tab. If you know you'll want to refer to a page later you can share it to the new Reading List but this requires less planning ahead.

And there are a couple of improvements that just make life easier, especially on tablets with no keyboard or trackpad. Web sites that have hover menus and drag and drop work reliably with touch instead of you having to press and tap and fiddle to tap in exactly the right place – or have the menu activate and send you to a link on the hover menu when you only wanted to look at it. And when you hit an email address field or a phone number field in a web page that's been coded for it, you'll get the special keyboard layout for email or numbers.

Microsoft believes WIndows can scale to any deviceMicrosoft believes WIndows can scale to any device

That's the kind of convenience we're used to on a smartphone. There are a lot of ways Microsoft is trying to make small Windows tablets (7, 8 and 9" models, like the new Acer) feel like a very powerful smartphone, from Bluetooth 4 LE support to working with devices like the Sphero ball that have only worked with smartphones before. But even if you don't want your Windows PC to feel like a phone, IE 11 is an excellent update. Even if you don't use a single new feature, you'll love the new performance.

Xbox Music is much improved, as is Mail (although we've seen preview of later versions of both with more features that we're eagerly awaiting). There are some new great new apps.

New apps

We love the Reading List that lets you collect interesting links from IE and Windows Store apps to come back to later (perhaps on another PC as they sync) and the Alarms app has a clean, fresh look that's quirky and reminiscent of Windows Phone at its most appealing.

The Camera app now has Photosynth panoramas built in; tap the panorama button and start moving your tablet around (this would be very awkward on a notebook) to stitch together images into a scene that can cover as much of 360 degrees as you have patience for. The stitching is good – especially if you don't move too fast – although not perfect. This will shine on the smaller 8" Windows tablets we expect to see coming to the market if Acer succeeds.

Lockscreen

With many of the features from the Photos app moved to the Lock screen, it's now a very basic interface for viewing – but it also has far more editing options. The vignettes and filters are the kind of thing you find on smartphone apps but the Colour Enhance options are impressive.

Drag the marker onto a colour in the image and move the slider around the circular control to saturate or fade out that colour throughout the image. Drag it to another colour and choose a different level. You can use this to make an image more vibrant or give it a muted effect. The Photos app is also far faster. Microsoft is not planning to release the old Photos app for Windows 8.1, the new app replaces it.

But then there are apps that you have to wonder about Microsoft spending time on. Health & Fitness is a great dashboard for Microsoft's Health Vault service, but that continues to have few features outside the U.S. And Food & Drink is a nice demo of waving your hand in front of a webcam to scroll through pages when you have cake batter on your hands, but it's hard to see it competing with the dozens of other food apps on the market.

Desktop background as start screen

Early verdict

Windows 8.1 isn't a whole new operating system: it isn't the same leap as Windows 7 to 8. But it's more than a service pack as well. Built-in SkyDrive sync is very welcome – and transforms Windows RT 8.1 into a far more powerful system. Internet Explorer gets some significant improvements, on the desktop and in the modern version, too.

Performance feels generally faster, even for simple things like zipping up files. The interface changes won't please everyone, especially if you liked the Windows 8 Start screen and don't feel you need for yet another Windows key on screen - or if you were hoping for the Windows 7 Start menu back.

Some things, like customising tiles on the Start screen, feel a little more long-winded until you get used to them. But generally the interface feels more consistent and easier to learn. We love the new on-screen keyboard where you can swipe up on the top row of keys to type letters. And the expanded PC Settings gives the mass of control panel options a clean, simple interface that Windows has needed for years.

If you use the Windows Store you aren't going to be able to avoid the prompts and promotions to try out the Windows 8.1 preview. We'll need to run it for longer to see if it's stable enough to recommend as your daily operating system (it's been rock solid so far). We might have hoped for more major new features, but in eight months Microsoft has delivered a sensible and welcome update to Windows 8.