Windows 8.1 Review – Is It Worth the Upgrade?

windows81reviewTo understand Windows 8.1, let’s look at its predecessor first. Windows 8 represented a big milestone for Microsoft, being the first release of a hybrid operating system aimed at closing the gap between computers, tablets, and smartphones. Its strong point is the Metro interface and the introduction of apps, making it crystal clear that Microsoft’s final goal is to create a seamless experience when you switch back and forth between devices. Did they succeed? A simple Google search will reveal that the vast majority of users that initially tried Windows 8 were not happy, to say the least. The main reason may have been the fact that Windows 8 is completely different from everything Microsoft ever released before, thus making users confused (if you haven’t had the chance to try it yet, check out this Windows 8 introductory course to learn just how different it really is). However, we put our money on another reason – Windows 8 was just a test dummy. Even though the idea might sound a bit absurd at first, if you think about it for a second you might notice that it actually makes sense. Microsoft has a long history of releasing great operating systems every second release: let’s take Windows 2000, an awesome operating system at its time, followed by the disastrous Windows Millennium; along came the popular Windows XP, followed by the horrible Windows Vista; Windows 7 saved the day, followed by Windows 8, which brought nothing but confusion – notice a pattern here? So, basically, the bad news is that Windows 8 was “the bad” version, while the good news is that, according to tradition, Windows 8.1 should be the good version. Let’s see if that’s the case.   

Introduction to Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 is more of an update to the previously-released Windows 8 than an operating system of its own, as you can easily tell by the fact that Microsoft offers it as a free upgrade for Windows 8 users. Also, its installation process is as simple as making a few clicks; no driver-hunting, no painful software installations afterwards, no hassle – it’s all there. If you want to give Windows 8.1 a try and you come from a Windows 7, you need to get a full install of Windows 8.1, while upgrading from an older operating system such as Windows XP or Windows Vista will require you to buy and install Windows 8 first, and update it to Windows 8.1 afterwards. It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not, as the whole installation and update process are very simple and straightforward. If you want to make your transition to Windows 8.1 smoother, this free Windows 8.1 online training course is the perfect place to start.

Welcome to Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 is different from Windows 8 right from the moment you start it up. I’m not talking about ‘ok, where’s the manual?’ different, but rather a more subtle type of different. The biggest and most noticeable difference is that Windows 8.1 doesn’t force the Metro interface on you anymore, as Windows 8 did. You can now choose whether you want Windows to boot to the Metro interface or to the classical desktop. Awesomeness points awarded for giving back the power of choice to the users.

Whichever boot option you will set, you will notice some further differences from the original Windows 8. In desktop mode, the most notable change you will see is that the Start button is back. Microsoft tried to remove the Start button from the picture with the introduction of Windows 8, but that turned out to be a very bad idea, as a lot of users complained about this aspect and started looking around for tweaks and alternative options to bring it back. Understanding that users love the Start button and are not keen on giving it up any time soon, Microsoft made a compromise and brought it back in Windows 8.1. It doesn’t come with the exact same functionality as it did in previous versions of Windows, but it’s still there, which is better than nothing. More awesomeness points awarded for this tiny yet important compromise.

The bigger graphical changes in Windows 8.1 targeted the Metro interface, though. In the initial release of Windows 8, Microsoft felt so confident in the ease of use and user-friendliness of their new graphical user interface that it didn’t bother too much on guiding users through it. The Metro interface is indeed simple and intuitive, but not intuitive enough for everybody, so while some users strived to find their way around, others simply gave up and switched back to their previous operating systems. Noticing the trends, a few computer manufacturers that delivered computers with Windows 8 tried to come with a solution of their own, including simple user guides on how to use the new interface. Taking an online course that covers both the basics of computers as well as the basics of Windows 8 is another great way of learning the insights of Windows 8. Microsoft came with its own solution to this issue in Windows 8.1, including a very useful guide under the shape of an app: Help + Tips. The app is a highly-detailed walkthrough, covering all the new features of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, making it easy even for the non-technical users to get used to the new features and interfaces.

Another complaint Microsoft addressed in Windows 8.1 was the one regarding multi-tasking in the Metro interface. While Windows 8 only allowed two apps to share the screen simultaneously, on a fixed 25%/75% proportion, Windows 8.1 allows you to have up to 4 apps sharing the screen and adjust their size as per your requirements. It’s not the biggest improvement in the world, but it does remove a limitation, and we all know just how much everyone hates limitations. Speaking of apps and sizes, the tiles of the Metro apps now come in various sizes, allowing for better grouping and improved usability.

A tweak that might go unnoticed is the possibility of setting your desktop wallpaper as a background for the Metro interface. Why is this important, you might ask? Well, since Windows 8 is all about creating a seamless experience between multiple devices, it is only logical that you should have a seamless experience when using two different interfaces of an operating system running on the same device, something that didn’t quite apply without this tiny tweak. Windows 8.1 wins again.

Enough on the visuals, though; let’s move on to the things behind the scenes and see what’s new in Windows 8.1 feature-wise.

Improved Sky Drive Integration

Microsoft’s initial implementation of its cloud-based hosting, AKA Sky Drive, was not bad in Windows 8. However, a few tweaks it received in Windows 8.1 make it one of the base pylons of the whole “one operating system for all devices” philosophy. In Windows 8.1, all the documents you create are automatically synced with the cloud, and you also get more control on how the rest of your files are synced. By default, some files are automatically synced to the cloud and only the basic information needed to identify the file is kept on the local machine, the file being automatically downloaded when it is needed. This can prove to be very effective when you use Windows 8.1 on a tablet that has limited storage capacity. You can also set up advanced option on how Sky Drive syncs certain files and folders, indicating which files you want stored in the cloud and which ones you want to be stored locally. If you want to learn more about cloud-storage, check out online course on cloud technology, and how you can use it to your advantage.

Improved Search

One of the biggest changes in Windows 8.1 is the way the Search function works. While the initial Search feature of Windows 8 only scanned through local files, Windows 8.1’s search just got a lot more awesome by combining local search with Internet search. Punch in the name of your favorite artist and not only will you find the music files in your local collection or cloud collection but you will also get access to his or her biography, latest news, images, video clips and audio files, all instantly pulled from the Internet, directly onto your desktop, courtesy of Bing.

Even though with such an easy-to-use Search function it might be tempting to keep your files all over the place, you might consider having a look over this course on how to organize your files. It may not be all that useful for your personal files, but it might prove to be golden for organizing your work files, and your boss will definitely appreciate it.

Internet Explorer 11

It seems like Microsoft really disliked all the jokes about Internet Explorer that were circulating on the Internet, because they sure put a lot of effort into making it a worthy browser. Internet Explorer 10, which was included in Windows 8, established itself as a great browser because of its perfect integration with the new interface, but Microsoft proved that it can do even better. Windows 8.1 brought Internet Explorer 11 into the scene, putting a stop to all the mocking once and for all by crushing all the other browsers in terms of performance. Yes, you’ve read correctly – Internet Explorer 11 outscored all the other browsers in terms of page load speed, scoring an average page load time of only 155 milliseconds, whereas the notoriously fast Google Chrome only managed to pull out 220 milliseconds.

The interface of the Metro version of Internet Explorer 11 also suffered a few modifications, the most noticeable being the positioning of the address bar and tabs, which are nowhere to be seen. Well, not exactly; instead of appearing on the top of your screen, as you would normally expect them to, they were all moved in the app’s status bar, at the bottom. They are hidden by default, but a simple tap on the status bar will bring them in sight. This is especially useful on tablets with small screens, where every pixel counts.

Apps

Windows 8 introduced apps. It shouldn’t have. At the time of its release, the included apps were so poorly polished that it was more than obvious that they were created in a rush and just for the sake of being there, not to actually be of any use. Windows 8.1 saves the day once again by polishing and upgrading pretty much every single app Windows came with. The Mail app for example comes with a complete redesign, being optimized for both touch or keyboard and mouse control. If you also add the improved Calendar and the People apps into the scene, you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for actually being productive.

An interesting addition is the built-in version of Skype, which replaced the Messenger app. The app comes with most of the features you are familiar with, and it integrates with Windows 8.1 quite nicely, allowing you to take calls directly from the lock screen.

Windows 8.1 – Is It Worth It?

Windows 8.1 is definitely a lot different from Windows 8. Despite the fact that most of the changes are tiny and sometimes barely noticeable, they are the exact type of changes that make the whole thing work as it is supposed to. Windows 8.1 is not designed to add new functionalities to Windows 8, even though it does that as well to some degree, but rather polish and improve the stuff that’s already present in Windows 8, so if you liked Windows 8 already, chances are you’ll like Windows 8.1 even more.

For those who are on the other side of the barricade, and still hope for a desktop-only version of Windows, Windows 8.1 is not what you’re looking for. The next version of Windows won’t be either, as it is clear at this point that Microsoft didn’t invest so much in its Metro interface to just toss it away and go back to the classical desktop.If you’re set on a desktop-only interface, Windows 7 is still your best bet, but if you’re open to innovation, Windows 8.1 is definitely worth a try. Don’t be scared about the accommodation period – Windows 8.1 is intuitive, and with the help of a simple guide to Windows 8.1 that will teach you everything you need to know, Windows 8.1 will feel like home in no time. So, what are you waiting for?