Windows 8.1 Preview was released last week and my plan was to try it out on my Surface RT but couldn’t (see why) so instead I installed it on my trusty old HP Tablet PC. After installing the patch from preview.windows.com and then getting the 2.1 GB worth of update from the Windows Store I installed Windows 8.1 Preview. It seems to take a long time and there were plenty of reboots and when it finished I was promoted to log in with my Windows account. After a few more updates I was back at the familiar Windows start screen and everything just about looked the same.
The first hint that there are changes is a little down arrow pointing down inviting me to try the new apps screen. In Windows 8 just could swipe up to get a menu with just the one App button on it, in Windows 8.1 you now get the new designed apps list.
The list can be sorted by Name, date installed, most used and by category. The new views make it easier to find apps, I like the category view which is good if you can’t exactly remember the app name. Customising the start screen is very easy with the new customize button, you can select multiple apps at once and do things like changing the size and group them together into a named section. This is a big improvement from Windows 8 which I found the process or arranging of moving apps very fiddley.
There is an expanded right click menu where the start tip is that now has a Shutdown option which includes Sleep, Shutdown and Restart options. Also PowerShell replaces command prompt options (but you can switch it back).
Boot to desktop returns in the Windows 8.1, you can now select Windows to go to the desktop at start up. You can set Windows to show the all apps view I talked about above when you hit the start button. Also you can set the desktop image to be the background image of the start screen, a move that should make it easier for new users to understand the new Windows start screen. You can also set the all apps list to show when you press the start button and have it show desktop apps first.
Most of the time to find an app I just hit the Windows key and start typing the app name, in Window 8.1 you can still do that but it now overlays the search screen on top of the Windows screen and displays the results in a list down the right rather than taking over the screen and there is a dropdown to if you want to search for a specific file type. As well as searching locally it uses Bing and you get suggested keywords. I really like the new combined results, there is no need to open up a browser to get search results.
Side by Side apps
In Windows 8 you could have Windows split 80/20 but now you can resize the windows to any ratio you like, you can even have 50% metro and 50% desktop. The mail app makes good use of the split screens by opening attachment and links side by side. So if you click on a link in an email it opens IE on the right hand side, if you click on a picture the picture app opens on the right.
In Windows 8.1 many of the settings only available from the desktop control panel are now in the new modern settings section. This should means less trips to the desktop which will be great on smaller devices. The devices charge on the taskbar is now split into Play, Print and Project.
New and Updated Apps
In Windows 8.1 there are news app. There is an alarm app which can be used as an alarm clock, timer or stopwatch, there is also a Calculator. There is a new Food and Bring app powered by Bing where you can add recipes, shopping lists and plan means. Also from Bing is a Health and Fitness app which has diet and exercise trackers.
There is a sound recorder app that is a simple audio recording app and a scanning app. One new app that looks useful is the reading app. The idea being that you can share things like web pages for reading later. Lists can be shared between Windows devices. I use Pocket for reading lists and while the Windows list looks good its Windows only and Pocket suites me better as there are apps for multiple platforms. Internet Explorer is up to IE11, the browser does feel a little faster but
The photos app now has basic editing features, there are filters, lighting and cropping options.
Music has a new UI, I am not a big fan of the app I found it a bit slow and buggy. It’s going to take some time playing around with it to work out if the new apps is any better.
The Windows Store has been redesigned and the new app has more detailed information of the apps and there details on apps by the same developer and related apps. Right clicking (or swiping down) bring a new toolbar with store categories.
SkyDrive now has an offline mode where you can take files or folders offline and you can save directly to a Skydrive folder from Windows Explorer or anywhere in the OS.
Libraries have dropped from Windows Explorer’s sidebar, now you just gave favourites, SkyDrive, Homegroup, Network and This PC. When you click on This PC you see the libraries and the local drivers. I noticed the Messaging app has gone, Microsoft are pushing uses to Skype.
Overall I like the improvements in Windows 8.1, the changes will help users transitioning from Windows 7 to the Windows 8.1, you can set it up to be pretty close to the Windows 7 way of working. Personally I like Windows 8 and some of the changes do make it work better. I can’t say if it works any faster, my old machine is pretty slow anyway so it’s hard to say if there is any difference. Also my test machine doesn’t have Windows Media Center installed but I believe there are no changes in this release.
I am sure I will come across more changes but so far I have been impressed.