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What’s New About Windows 8.1

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Microsoft released a major update to the Windows 8 operating system in October 2013, and it promised to fix a lot of the problems users had with the original release. So what’s new in Windows 8.1? In this article, Michael Miller gives you the rundown of Windows 8.1 and tells you whether the changes are worthwhile.
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Windows 8 was a big disappointment, which inspired most users to avoid the upgrade and stick with the previous version. Microsoft has a history of getting it right with a later update, however, and to that end has released Windows 8.1 just about a year to the date after the launch of Windows 8.

Is Windows 8.1 a major upgrade or more of a service pack? Does it fix everything that users hated about Windows 8? More important, should you upgrade your system to Windows 8.1?

Read on to see the answers to these – and other – questions.

Why the Update?

Windows 8 was foisted on the public last year on the first of August. With a full year under our collective belts, it’s now obvious that Windows 8 was not the hit that Microsoft was counting on. In fact, Windows 8 is more like disastrous Windows Me and Windows Vista releases than the more successful Windows XP and Windows 7 versions.

What went wrong with Windows 8? Unlike some past failures, Windows 8 actually ran quite well. Windows 8 was faster, more stable, and more compatible with more devices than even Windows 7. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the interface. Microsoft, fearing the transition from personal computers to tablets (and the loss of revenue to chief competitor Apple), decided it needed a touch-based interface that would work on all types of devices, from phones to PCs. Microsoft dubbed this the Metro (later the Modern) interface, and by all accounts and purposes it worked fine on the few Windows-based tablets that actually moved off retailers’ shelves. It wasn’t quite as suited for the hundreds of millions of people running Windows on their notebook and desktop computers. In fact, most people who were forced to use Windows 8 really hated the new interface. Really, really hated it.

What’s wrong with the Modern interface? For most users, it’s simply a change they didn’t want and didn’t ask for. The new full-screen, touch-enabled interface just doesn’t work that well with mice and keyboards; it also wasted a lot of screen real estate, especially on larger displays.

The loudest complaint about Windows 8, however, is how it doesn’t let users stay in one operating environment. If you’re using the desktop (as most people are), you have to switch out to the Modern Start screen to launch new programs; Microsoft removed the Start button and Start menu in Windows 8. Conversely, if you’re using the Modern interface and full-screen apps, you have to launch the desktop to manage files and use the old-school Control Panel to configure system settings.

These, then, are the major issues users have with Windows 8. It is these issues that Microsoft attempts to address with Windows 8.1.

The Return of the Start Button (Sort Of)

The most ballyhooed change in Windows 8.1 is the return of the Start button. You know, that little logo or orb at the left side of the desktop taskbar that you click to launch new programs. Microsoft took it out of Windows 8 – but it’s putting it back in Windows 8.1.

Well, sort of. Yes, there’s a Start button at the left side of the Windows 8.1 desktop taskbar. There’s even a Start button displayed in the lower left corner of every Modern screen. (Although you may have to hover over the corner to make it visible.) So, in strictest terms, the Start button is back in Windows 8.1.

Figure 1 The Start button returns to the Windows 8.1 desktop

But it’s not the same Start button you used to know and love, because the traditional Start menu is still missing in action. In Windows 8.1, when you click the Start button, you don’t see the Start menu; instead, you see the Modern Start screen. That’s right, when you click the Start button you’re taken to the Start screen. Can’t get away from that thing.

Now, this is an improvement over Windows 8, which had no visual cues on how to display the Start screen. As important as the Start screen is, you couldn’t figure out how to get to it. At least with Windows 8.1 you have that ever-present Windows logo on the Start button to remind you how to open the Start screen.

Other Ways to Make Windows 8.1 More Like Windows 7

So you get the Start button (but not the Start menu) back with Windows 8.1. That’s just one change that makes Windows 8.1 a little more like Windows 7 used to be.

Tired of booting into the new Start screen when all you want to do is work on the desktop? Windows 8.1 grants your wish with a new configuration option that lets you avoid the Start screen and boot direct to the desktop on launch. That’s a good thing.

Windows 8.1 also lets you use the same background on the Start screen as you do on the desktop. So while you still have to beam out of the desktop to the Start screen when you need to launch a new program, at least the transition is less visually jarring.

Figure 2 Display your desktop background behind the Windows 8.1 Start screen

Finally, Windows 8.1 lets you turn off some of the “hot” corners that, while useful for touchscreen users, are often problematic when using Windows with a mouse. Don’t want to inadvertently bring up the Charms bar every time you mouse over the top right corner of the screen (like you do when you go to close a window)? Then turn off that hot corner. Don’t want to bring up the app switcher panel when you mouse over the top left corner of the screen? You can turn that off, too.

More Customization

Windows 8.1 lets you personalize the Start screen in ways you couldn’t in Windows 8. Personalization took a giant step backward in Windows 8 because there just wasn’t much you could change about that darned Start screen. Windows 8.1 is much more configurable, with more color options, more Start screen themes, and that important ability to share the desktop background. You also get two new tile sizes, for a total of four. This helps when you want to minimize the presence of less-important apps.

Speaking of customization, there’s new stuff happening on the lock screen, as well. (This is the screen that Windows displays before you log into your computer.) In Windows 8.1, you can turn the lock screen into a faux digital photo frame, with a screensaver comprised of your personal digital photos. You can also access Skype and your computers’ webcam directly from the lock screen.

When it comes to configuring Windows 8.1, you don’t have to leave the environment you’re in. Just about anything you can do from the Control Panel (which is still there for desktop users) can now be done from the Charms bar and subsequent PC Settings screen. This makes it a lot easier for tablet and touchscreen users to configure Windows, without having to deal with that pesky, old-fashioned desktop.

Figure 3 Access more configuration options from the Windows 8.1 PC Settings screen

By the way, there’s also a little down-arrow on the Start screen that provides quick access to the Apps screen. Where the Start screen displays only those apps you want to see, the Apps screen displays all the apps installed on your system. You can even configure Windows 8.1 to display the Apps screen instead of the Start screen, which gives you kind of a full-screen Start menu when you click the Start button. Kind of.

New and Better Apps

Speaking of apps, Windows 8.1 does a good job improving the Modern apps included with the operating system, and in adding new apps you might find useful.

First, the improvements:

  • Mail adds new options for filtering messages, and makes it easier to create new folders.
  • The Photos app adds basic photo editing, a feature conspicuously missing from the Windows version. However, the Windows 8.1 Photos app for some reason loses the ability to manage and display photos from SkyDrive, Facebook, and Flickr.
  • Figure 4 Photo editing in the Windows 8.1 Photos app

  • The Xbox Music and Xbox Video are apps completely overhauled, with each making it easier to find and play your local files, as well as browse the online Xbox Music and Xbox Video stores. Xbox Music also includes access to streaming audio, as part of the new Radio feature.
  • Windows 8.1 adds both Modern and desktop versions of the Internet Explorer 11 web browser. It’s not much changed on the desktop, but dramatically improved in its Modern stylings. It now looks more like a browser, with easier-to-display tabs and favorite bookmarks – which are synced between the Modern and desktop versions. (They weren’t, in Windows 8.)

The Calendar and People apps also feature some interface changes and minor added functionality.

Next, the new apps. Here’s the new stuff you’ll find when you access the Windows 8.1 Start screen:

  • Alarms, which functions as an alarm clock, timer, and stopwatch.
  • Calculator, which offers basic and scientific calculators, plus a conversion function.
  • Food & Drink, which offers a bevy of online recipes and cooking techniques.
  • Health & Fitness, which offers a wealth of diet, exercise, and medical information.
  • Reading List, which lets you read web pages you’ve marked to read later.

(And, yes, several of these are utilities that should have shipped with Windows but for some reason didn’t. At least Microsoft gives them to you now.)

Microsoft also promises lots of new third-party apps in the Windows Store shortly after the Windows 8.1 launch. Look for full-screen Modern apps from the likes of Facebook and Flipboard, among others.

Speaking of the Windows Store, it’s completely redesigned for Windows 8.1. Many users found the old Windows Store difficult to navigate and frustrating to use; the new Store is more like a real store, with the focus on finding those apps you want. And all Windows Store apps now update automatically when necessary – no more manual updating when prompted.

Figure 5 The redesigned Windows Store for Windows 8.1

Other New Stuff

Microsoft pours a lot of other little upticks and refinements into the Windows 8.1 update. Here’s more of what you’ll find inside:

  • Ability to print directly to NFC- and WiFi-enabled printers.
  • Better support for saving files on Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, plus a more fully featured SkyDrive app (that can also manage local files).
  • File libraries, while still present, are no longer automatically displayed in File Explorer. You see normal folders instead of those virtual library folders (Documents, Music, Photos, and Videos) that most users found confusing, at best.
  • More “snap” options for full-screen apps. Windows 8 only let you snap two apps side-by-side, with a 70/30 split. Windows 8.1 lets you snap more apps on the screen – three on a 1080p display, even more if you have a larger monitor. You can also resize them to your hearts’ content.
  • My Computer is now called This PC. I don’t know about you, but I will sleep much easier at night with this change.
  • Skype is pre-installed and fully replaces the Windows 8 Messaging app.
  • So-called “smart” search, which aggregates web-based search results (from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, naturally) with those files and apps you find when you use Windows’ search function. For some searches, look for “hero” results that contain basic info as well as compatible web pages.
  • Figure 6 Smart web searches with “hero” results are integrated into Windows 8.1’s search function

  • Support for 3D printers.
  • Support for Miracast-enabled TVs and projectors.
  • The ability to turn off system notifications at certain times of the day. (In case you sleep next to your PC, I suppose.)
  • You can now shut down Windows by right-clicking the Start button. (In Windows 8, you had to open the Charms bar and click Power to get the shutdown options.)

Should You Upgrade?

Bottom line, Windows 8.1 is a little more than a standard service pack but far from a full numeral upgrade. It fixes a lot of what people don’t like about Windows 8, but doesn’t completely overhaul the operating system. It’s a good step, but not the full step beyond Windows 8 that many users were looking for.

If you’re a current Windows 8 user, you’ll be able to upgrade to Windows 8.1 for free, via the Windows Store. Should be an easy process. If you use an older version of Windows, you can purchase the Windows 8.1 upgrade software.

For current Windows 8 users, Windows 8.1 is a necessary and no-brainer upgrade. It’s free and adds functionality you need. Just do it.

For users of Windows 7, Vista, or XP, Windows 8.1 is still an iffy proposition. If your current computer is running fine and you like the way your version of Windows works, don’t upgrade. The interface and usability changes, even those moderated in Windows 8.1, are just too extreme for most users to deal with.

Of course, if you buy a new PC you don’t have much choice. You can’t buy a new PC within Windows 7 installed, so you’re forced into using Windows 8 (or Windows 8.1). While the new Modern interface takes a lot of getting used to, at least the Windows 8.1 update makes things a little less inefficient.

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