Microsoft hopes to improve on Windows 8's lackluster first year with Windows 8.1. But is Microsoft's new OS right for you?

Michael Endler, Associate Editor, InformationWeek.com

October 17, 2013

8 Min Read

 Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes

Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes


Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes (click image for larger view)

Since debuting last fall, Windows 8 has attracted criticism arguably faster than it's accrued market share. Microsoft, now a year older and wiser, hopes to right its course with Windows 8.1, which began rolling out to current Win 8 users as an optional download at 7 a.m. Eastern time Thursday.

The protests against Windows 8 are legion. Some say it alienated desktop users with its Live Tile Start screen and redesigned UI. Others contend it bored desktop users with uninspired core apps and a weak library of third-party titles. It was also criticized for forcing a tablet OS and a desktop OS into one package, and for failing to revitalize the flagging PC market. And that's not to mention the implications of Microsoft's Surface tablets, an inextricable extension of the Win 8 strategy that has not only cost the company millions but also soured relationships with some of its partners.

Retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in June that Windows 8.1 would offer a "refined blend" of the original Win 8 vision, but given the original version's struggles, many commentators have questioned whether iterative enhancements will be enough. Should you upgrade to Microsoft's newest OS? Here are 10 things you need to know.

[ Will Windows 8.1 make the difference for laggards? See Windows XP Holdouts Hold On. ]

1. Windows 8.1 won't become available to all customers at the same time.

Microsoft began a staged rollout to current Win 8 users Thursday morning, which means Windows 8.1 is already available to many via the Windows Store. For some current Win 8 users, though, the update might not appear until later in the day. The update is optional, but Microsoft will stop supporting Windows 8 with security patches in two years, which should push stragglers along.

For those using an older version of Windows, the retail version of Windows 8 will become available Friday. The core version is $119.99 and Windows 8.1 Pro is $199.99.

2. Windows 8.1 should offer a better desktop experience.

With a boot-to-desktop mode, the ability to disable hot corners, a reintegrated Start button and other features that allow users to banish Live Tiles from their workflow, Windows 8.1 might offer enough to appease disenchanted desktop users. After changing a few settings, the OS can be treated largely like an updated version of Windows 7. There is one significant exception, however. Read on.

3. The Start button doesn't have a Start menu.

Unlike Windows 7's Start button, the Windows 8.1 version doesn't summon a Start menu; instead, it takes users to an "All Apps" view.

This issue has made many Win 8 critics skeptical of the upgrade's prospects. Nonetheless, the new Start button still preserves many Start menu-like functions. If users right-click the Start button, or hold down on it when using a touchscreen, a list of additional options will appear. They include access to programs, settings, files and the Task Manager, as well as the ability to power down or restart the device.

4. Windows 8.1 is an update to both Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Microsoft has downplayed the RT branding lately; the company dropped the RT designation with the Surface 2, and Microsoft Surface product manager Jack Cowett admitted in a recent interview with ARN that the company's original marketing confused consumers.

Nonetheless, Microsoft remains committed to Windows RT in spirit, if not in name; Windows 8.1 updates both Win 8 and Win RT. The upcoming Surface 2 will run the 8.1 version of RT, which adds support for Microsoft Exchange, as well as many of the other Modern UI tweaks that will debut in the full version of Windows 8.1.

What remains to be seen: Will any manufacturer other than Microsoft make an RT device?

5. Windows 8.1 should offer a more cohesive user experience.

Moving between the desktop and the Modern UI could be smoother in Windows 8.1 thanks to a variety of new features. Users can set the same background for both interfaces, for example, which should make it less jarring to jump back and forth. Microsoft has also integrated a tutorial app to help users learn how the OS works, which should help speed up whatever remains of the original Win 8's infamous learning curve.

Windows 8.1 should also be more cohesive for users who prefer to stick with one UI or the other. Those who opt for Live Tiles can now access more settings and controls in the Modern UI's settings menu, eliminating the need to pop over to the desktop. Those who prefer the desktop, meanwhile, can essentially lock off the Modern UI, as mentioned above. 6. Windows 8.1 offers improved core apps, including Internet Explorer 11 and better SkyDrive integration. But it also removes a few features.

Some of Windows 8's core apps, such as the Bing News app, have gained a following. But others, such as the bare-bones Mail client, have provoked particular derision.

Windows 8.1 will offer not only improved versions of existing apps, but also several new titles, such as Windows Movie Maker. Many additions are sure to delight, such as the Camera app's new panorama mode, or Internet Explorer 11, which supports new Web standards and can allegedly open up to 100 tabs without a performance slowdown. But other new features will face scrutiny, such as the decision to remove Facebook and Flickr integration from the Photos app.

This removal stems partly from the fact that SkyDrive is fully baked into Windows 8.1; now that users can easily store and access photos both locally and in Microsoft's cloud, the company evidently feels hooks to third-party photo hosting sites are no longer necessary. The move could upset some users, but if Bing Smart Search is a hit, Microsoft might end up being right.

7. With Bing Smart Search, Windows 8.1 combs not only your computers but also the Internet and SkyDrive.

Unlike Windows 8's Search Charm, the new Bing Smart Search function doesn't separate query returns into categorized lists -- e.g. apps, files and so on. Instead, it aggregates results into a single fluid page that includes not only local files, but also returns pulled from SkyDrive, Bing Web search and more.

The results, which include vivid image previews, could encourage users to make use of the cloud. Bing Smart Search includes Microsoft's optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which can search for text in images and gives users with thousands of images a new way to sort through the chaos.

8. Windows 8.1 introduces better Modern UI multi-tasking.

Microsoft's Windows 8 TV commercials often point out that iPads can't multitask but Windows tablets can. But in the original version of the Modern UI, the multitasking feature -- called App Snapping -- only allowed apps to be viewed in one configuration -- one app occupied 75% of the screen, split vertically, and the other app occupied the rest.

Windows 8.1 allows up to four apps to be snapped together, depending on the device's resolution. It also allows users to dynamically alter the size of each app window, eliminating the earlier version's constraints.

9. Windows 8.1 adds lots of small touches.

Though Windows 8.1 largely resembles its predecessor, it adds a number of small touches that could add up to a more enjoyable user experience. Additions such as the boot-to-desktop mode and UI-unifying wallpapers already speak to Windows 8.1's expanded customizability, for example. Other examples include twice as many ways to resize Live Tiles, the ability to organize Tiles into groups, and more controls for unpinning or deactivating given apps.

Windows 8.1 also enables automatic updates by default, adds useful business features such as Miracast, and supports intriguing emerging technologies such as 3-D printing. Stubborn Live Tile skeptics might not be converted, but for some, Windows 8.1 could form a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

10. Windows 8.1 will launch with much nicer, and much more attractively priced, devices.

Windows 8 launched with a dearth of touch devices, and the few that were available were expensive, hampered by hardware flaws, or both. The story will be different for Windows 8.1. Highlights include Microsoft's Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, which will hit stores next week; Dell's powerfully spec'd and attractively priced Venue tablets; and Lenovo's 8-inch, $299 Miix2, unveiled this week.

Desktop-oriented users might be intrigued by an emerging variety of touchscreen all-in-one PCs or ultrabooks, meanwhile, or even docking stations and external monitors that turn tablets such as the Surface Pro 2 into desktop PCs.

About the Author(s)

Michael Endler

Associate Editor, InformationWeek.com

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 and, pending the completion of a long-gestating thesis, will hold an MA in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State.

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