When Microsoft launched Windows 8 (and Windows RT 8), reactions ranged from enthusiasm to cautious interest to total bafflement – not exactly what the company wanted to hear.
Fast forward almost a year, and with Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1, Microsoft is addressing a lot of the issues while maintaining the components that made people happy. The results are not bad, on the whole.
Windows vs Windows RT
Just a quick refresher before we dive in: Windows 8.1 runs on ordinary desktop and laptop PCs. Pretty much any software that ran on Windows 7 will run on Windows 8.1, as it did under Windows 8.
Windows RT 8.1, on the other hand, is the tablet software, designed for ARM processor-based devices (unlike your standard PC, with its Intel processor). It also only runs pre-approved apps from the Windows Store, not regular Windows software. One of the first big wins for RT in this update is that it includes several Microsoft Office apps, free: You get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and (new to RT 8.1) Outlook. With Windows 8.1 on your PC, you have to buy Office separately.
That comes with one big caveat: Just a few days after launch Microsoft pulled the update to Windows RT 8.1 from the Store to address installation "issues" on some systems. Reports in the media suggest the update "bricked" RT tablets of some users (in other words, the devices crash and users aren't able to be restore them on their own).
Even so, everything in this review applies to both OSes. The Windows 8.1 update is still available; I've upgraded several systems with no problems.
Let's get the biggest gripe out of the way first. Yes, the desktop now has a Start button. But it does NOT have the Start menu as it used to be in Windows 7 and earlier. Instead, if you click the button, it brings you back to the Windows 8.1 Start screen, and if you right-click it (or touch and hold on a tablet), you get a menu that quickly gets you to File Explorer, Control Panel, the command prompt, and various management functions. But if you think you'll find a menu item for Calculator, dream on – the best you can do is choose Search and let Windows hunt the program down for you. And then pin it to the Taskbar if you need it a lot. (You can also boot directly to the familiar Desktop mode, see here for how to do that and some other new features.)
Those tile things
Cosmetically, the Start screen starts out looking much the same as it did under Windows 8, but poke around a bit and you'll find some nice tweaks. As well as the original tile sizes, we now can make a tile extra-large (double the size of the Windows 8 large tile) or extra-small (one quarter the size of the Windows 8 small tile). That cuts screen clutter a lot. And to further clean things up, when you install a new app, it no longer automatically gets a tile on the Start screen. Instead, it's added to the Apps screen (now sortable), which is now accessible with a swipe up from the bottom of the Start screen (and you can make it your default view if you want to). If you really want a Start screen tile for an app, it's easy enough to add, but removing the default means you're not scrolling for miles on an increasingly expanding Start screen to find that new app.
Finally, some help
One new app that does have a home on the Start screen, and in our hearts, is the new Help and Tips app. Had this app been in Windows 8 from the beginning, I suspect much of the backlash against the user interface wouldn't have happened – it provides the sorely needed help with navigation, settings, managing apps, accounts and files, and other information that was absent from Windows 8. And for those who soldiered on with the original OS despite the dearth of information, there's a section enumerating the changes between Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.
Windows 8.1 hugely improves the search, combining a full system search with Web results for some surprising new features. Click on our slideshow to learn more.
Save to the cloud
Like Windows 8, Windows 8.1 defaults to saving your documents and photos to SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service. The difference: Windows 8.1 creates what Microsoft calls smart files: placeholders for documents and photos on your local device, so you can see what you have even if you're not connected. The smart files are even searchable. That's really handy when your primary device has a ton of storage, but secondary devices like tablets don't; you can stuff your files onto SkyDrive and have equal access to what you need from each device without having to make copies everywhere.
How many times have you seen the perfect picture, and lost it because your device was locked and you couldn't use the camera? Maddening, isn't it. Windows 8.1 lets you activate the camera from the lock screen with a simple swipe. You can crop and rotate photos within the enhanced camera app, or choose "Edit" to do basic fixes, add effects, or twiddle with lighting and colour. If you're not feeling creative, try "auto fix" and let the app figure things out. It's pretty simplistic, but you can still have some fun with it.
Some very important warnings before you update
The upgrade from Windows 8 should be straightforward: click on the tile in the Windows Store and follow the brief instructions. If you don't see that tile – which is huge, and impossible to miss – make sure the latest patches from Windows Update are installed, and it will magically appear. If you're running the Preview of 8.1 on a system previously running Windows 8, you'll have to do a system refresh to get back to the original OS before you upgrade. Oh, and back up your files! They should be okay, but paranoia is healthy in this case.
It's a good idea, once installation is complete, NOT to accept Express Settings. There are a few extras in those settings you will want to be aware of. For example, while Windows 8 installs Windows Updates automatically by default, Windows 8.1 adds automatic updating of apps. I like that. I'm not crazy about the defaults of sharing my account info, picture, and something called "advertising ID" with search and apps, however, so I turned that off. Location is another tidbit I'd often rather not share. Look at the options, and make your choices according to your privacy preferences.
In fact, that's a good thing to do with any new product. Default privacy settings tend to favour the vendor, which wants all of the information it can possibly gather. It's up to users to draw the line. For instance: The default privacy settings allow personalized results from Bing. Be aware, though, that at its most liberal, that setting sends Bing your location, search history, and some Microsoft account information. You'll have to decide if the exchange is worth it to you.
For those who took the leap and installed Windows 8, or who purchased a system with the OS pre-installed, the upgrade to Windows 8.1 is free; anyone else, including those who installed the Windows 8.1 Preview over an earlier operating system such as Windows 7, needs to purchase a license, at $119.99 for the standard edition, and $199.99 for Pro. The Windows Upgrade Assistant tells you if your system can run the OS, and will walk you through the purchase, or you can buy full Windows 8.1 on DVD.
It's worth the upgrade. Windows 8.1 files a lot of the rough edges off Windows 8, while not messing too much with what worked. (Did you look at that slideshow yet? No really, there are some more very helpful details in there, go now!)