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Acer Iconia Tab 8W hands-on review

05 Sep 2014

Windows 8.1 hasn't really taken off in the PC market, let alone the tablet one. Despite its lack of widespread adoption manufacturers around the globe have been experimenting with new sizes, hoping to better show off the touch-focused operating system's finer points.

The Acer Iconia Tab 8W is the latest step in the Windows 8.1 experiment and is designed to entice users to the OS by offering them an affordable, travel-friendly alternative to the sea of more popular 8in Android and iOS tablets.

Design and build
The Iconia Tab 8W has a slightly different design to past Android-powered Iconia tablets. The most noticeable difference is that the Iconia Tab 8W features a grooved, as opposed to smooth, textured polycarbonate backplate and metallic sides. It also features a reasonable selection of ports, including MicroSD, MicroHDMI and MicroUSB inputs.Acer Iconia Tab W8 home

While some may argue the white demo unit we tested looks cheap, we were fairly impressed with the design. As well as looking different to most tablets, thanks to its 9.8mm thickness and light 370g weight, the Iconia Tab 8W felt comfortable to hold and is suitably bag friendly.

We were also reasonably impressed with the tablet's build quality. It felt reasonably scratch and dirt resistant and left us reasonably assured it could survive regular wear and tear.

Display
Acer has loaded the Iconia Tab 8W with an 8in 1280x800 HD in-plane switching (IPS) display. While the display's resolution isn't anything to write home about when compared with competing 8in Android or iOS tablets, we were reasonably impressed.

Thanks to the IPS tech – which works to improve the display's colours and whites by organising the liquid crystals used to create them on a fixed plate that's charged at a consistent rate – the Iconia Tab 8W's screen was pleasant to use. Colours were suitably vibrant and the display was fairly bright.Acer Iconia Tab W8 ports

Text and icons were also crisp and generally readable. The only issue we noticed was that in certain situations text displayed on the Iconia Tab 8's screen could look slightly squashed. This was particularly true when viewing webpages in Windows 8.1's desktop mode, though being fair to Acer this is an issue for all 8in Windows 8.1 devices.

Operating system
Acer Iconia Tab W8 OSFor businesses and people with productivity in mind, the inclusion of Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system will be a bonus. As well as having the ability to run legacy Windows applications, the OS also comes preloaded with a one-year complimentary subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal, granting users access to key productivity services such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook.

Performance
The Iconia Tab 8W isn't a powerhouse on paper and comes loaded with a quad-core, BayTrail-based 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735G processor and 1GB of RAM.

This means those looking to carry out demanding tasks on the Iconia Tab 8W, such as 3D gaming, will be disappointed, though considering its low price of £125 this isn't all that surprising.

That said, when faced with basic text-editing and web-browsing tasks, we didn't notice any performance issues, meaning it could still be a good choice for buyers who want a basic productivity aid or internet access point for when they are on the move.

Storage and battery
The Acer Iconia comes loaded with 32GB of internal storage, which can thankfully be upgraded using its MicroSD card slot and is powered by an unspecified battery Acer claims will offer users eight hours of multimedia use off one charge. We didn't get a chance to test the tablet's battery life during our hands on, but if Acer's projection is correct it'll be fairly standard.

Overall
While we're still not convinced Windows 8.1 works on small form-factor tablets, considering the Acer Iconia Tab 8W's low cost, it does definitely have potential and could hold some allure to buyers on a budget when it is released later this year.Acer Iconia Tab W8 back

Featuring a good display for its price, and what appears to be reasonable performance, coupled with one year's free access to Office 365, we can see the Iconia Tab 8W being a great choice for business buyers looking for an affordable travel companion for web access and document editing on the move. However, a big factor determining if the Iconia Tab 8W will make good on this promise is its battery life, one key thing we didn't get a chance to test during our hands on.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Acer Iconia Tab 8W.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2

09 Jul 2014

Since Microsoft first entered the tablet hardware market in 2012 it has been promising users the world, claiming its Surface series of devices would be able to function equally well as both tablet and laptop.

But because of a number of niggling flaws in the first two Surface Pro tablets' design and software, they fell somewhere between the two categories and didn't fully deliver on Microsoft's promise.

As a result, when Microsoft returned to the stage earlier in May to unveil its latest Surface Pro 3 shouting the same message as before, some buyers were justifiably skeptical.

Since then these doubts have grown and many buyers have been wondering exactly what changes have been made to differentiate the Surface Pro 3 from its predecessor, the Surface Pro 2, to let it deliver on Microsoft's "one device to rule them all" promise.

Design and build
The Surface Pro 3 features a completely reworked design to previous Surface devices, with Microsoft having worked to make its new tablet as light and thin as possible.

During our tests we were impressed with the Surface Pro 3's design and found the light aluminium tablet-laptop hybrid looks a lot sharper than its predecessor. Despite featuring a larger display the Surface Pro 3 is significantly lighter and thinner than the Surface Pro 2, measuring in at 292x201x9.1mm and weighing 800g.Microsoft Surface Pro 3 three-quarter

The Surface Pro 3

We found the thinner and lighter design makes the Surface Pro 3 feel significantly more travel friendly and comfortable to use as a tablet than the 274x173x13.5mm, 907g Surface Pro 2.

What's more impressive, though, is that even though the Surface Pro 3 has less real estate along its sides, Microsoft has still managed to load it with USB 3.0 micro SD and Mini DisplayPort inputs.

Adding the new Type Cover and putting the Surface Pro 3 in laptop mode, we were equally impressed during our early tests. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, which has a kickstand that only features two standing options, the Surface Pro 3 can be manually adjusted to stand at custom angles.

While this sounds small, it's a serious upgrade. The ability to set which angle the Surface Pro 3 stands at not only makes it easier to rest and use the device on your lap, this also makes it more pleasant to use when doing tasks such as digital painting with the device's stylus. This is because the new kickstand let us set the Surface Pro 3 to sit at the same angle as a proper drawing board or Wacom tablet PC when doodling.

Microsoft has done some good work to improve the Surface Pro 3 Type Cover's trackpad. The Surface Pro 2 Type Cover's trackpad was one of its worst features, being too small for comfortable use and featuring unresponsive capacitive right and left click buttons. Microsoft has worked hard to fix this on the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover and has made the trackpad significantly larger and added physical left- and right-click buttons.Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 overall

The Surface Pro 2

During our hands on we were impressed by how much more responsive the Surface Pro 3's Type Cover was than the Pro 2's, making it easier to use as a laptop replacement when editing Word documents or loading copy into a content management system, for example.

Display
Microsoft made a lot of fuss about the Surface Pro 3's 12in ClearType Full HD 2160x1440 resolution screen at the device's launch. Specifically Microsoft claims that, as well as being 38 percent bigger than the Surface Pro 2's 10.6in ClearType Full HD 1920x1080 resolution screen, the Surface Pro 3's 12in display is able to display twice as many pixels.

During our hands on, we did notice a clear difference in quality between the two tablets' displays and found the Surface Pro 3 is significantly sharper and clearer. That said, we did notice, like the Surface Pro 2, the Surface Pro 3's display is still slightly prone to picking up stray light.

Software
Both the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 2 run using the latest version of Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system. This means users will have access to key Microsoft security and productivity services, such as Office, OneDrive, OneNote and Lync.

But thanks to the inclusion of the Surface Pro 3's upgraded digital stylus, it is easier and more pleasant to take advantage of the services than it is on Microsoft's previous tablet. Unlike the Surface Pro 2's polycarbonate digitiser stylus, the Surface Pro 3 is made of metal and features a number of improved shortcut features.Microsoft Surface Pro 3 flat

OneNote is a good example of this. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, OneNote can be activated at any time, even when the tablet is in sleep mode, simply by pressing down on the stylus's rear button. Once activated the app offers a blank page for Surface Pro users to scribble notes on, and a second push of the rear button will save the notes to the user's OneDrive cloud storage account. Little touches like this made the Surface Pro 3 feel slightly slicker and easier to use than its predecessor. Hopefully we'll find more nice touches when we write our full review.

Processor
Unlike the Surface Pro 3, which is available in Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 options, the Surface Pro 2 is only available with an i5 chip. Microsoft claims that the top Intel Core i7 Surface Pro 3 option will offer 10 percent better performance than the Surface Pro 2. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test Microsoft's claim as the demo unit we tested was powered by an Intel i5 Haswell processor. We didn't get a chance to see how the Surface Pro 3 performed with demanding tasks, such as large digital painting projects or 3D gaming, but found it was nippy and responsive when doing basic tasks such as word processing.

Camera
Microsoft claims the Surface Pro 3's upgraded 5MP rear-facing camera will offer radically better imaging performance than the Surface Pro 2's 3.5MP unit. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test the Surface Pro 3's camera during our hands on, but will be sure to in our full review.

Storage and battery
Both Surfaces feature the same 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB internal storage options, though Microsoft lists the Surface Pro 3 as being able to last a full hour longer than its predecessor, listing it as offering up to nine hours of web browsing off one charge.Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 kickstand angle one

Price
Thanks to its more varied chip offering the Surface Pro 3 is the more affordable option, with prices starting at £639 for the 64GB Intel Core i3 model. By comparison the 64GB Surface Pro 2 costs £720.

Overall
Having had an opening look at the Surface Pro 3 we are very impressed. Featuring a radically improved, slimmer and lighter design, a more varied array of processor options and a larger and clearer display the Surface Pro 3 feels like a serious step up from previous Microsoft tablets.

From what we've seen the Surface Pro 3 has the potential to finally make good on Microsoft's "one device to rule them all" promise. Hopefully our positive impressions will ring true once we put the Surface Pro 3 more thoroughly through its paces in our full review later this year.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Surface Pro 3 hands-on review

06 Jun 2014

TAIPEI: Microsoft unveiled its long-rumoured Surface Pro 3 tablet last month with a bigger and better 12in HD screen, touting it as "the tablet that can replace your laptop".

The Surface Pro 3 follows in the footsteps of its predecessor with an Intel Haswell processor, and is set to be made available in Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 chip variants.

Intel, which has worked closely with Microsoft, gave us a close look at the tablet at the Computex trade show in Taiwan this week, powered by a Core i5 CPU and running Windows 8.1.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - kickstand

Design and build
Measuring 9.1mm thick, the Surface Pro 3 is the thinnest Intel Core product "ever made", according to Microsoft, which it credits to the device's "fanless build". It might not sound like a vast improvement over the Surface Pro 2, which was 13.5mm thick, but you'll immediately notice a huge difference in aesthetics. It is much nicer to hold owing to the thinner design, and it's apparent that Microsoft has made an effort to make the device much more attractive to consumers.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - comparison with Surface Pro 2

The Surface Pro 3's aluminium chassis feels robust and this makes the device feel expensive, probably because it is. It will retail from £849 for the Core i5 model when Microsoft launches it on 31 August. However, it's reassuring to think that you're getting premium kit for your money.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - stylus

Picking up the tablet we noticed that it feels much lighter compared with the Surface Pro 2, despite its larger screen size. Unfortunately, one thing that hasn't changed with the Surface Pro 3 is the keyboard dock. We are simply not fans of this, especially the coloured version that we saw in our hands-on review. Not only does it cheapen the overall look of the device but we found that it makes it difficult to use because of the odd layout of the trackpad and cheap-feeling keys, which have poor travel.

Although Microsoft has updated the trackpad, which we can confirm works much better than the previous version, it feels more akin to those found on full-size clamshell laptops.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - side

On first impression we were rather impressed with the overall design of the Surface Pro 3. Its best feature is the display upgrade. This is the first time we've seen a Surface device with a form factor that actually makes us want to use it.

Screen
The Surface Pro 3's 2160x1440 resolution HD display is the tablet's biggest overhaul since the previous iteration and is also now its nicest feature.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - tablet

While it's around 1.5in bigger than the Surface Pro 2, it feels much bigger in the hand, which is probably accentuated owing to the slimmer design. It's quite bright and the resolution doesn't lie - images displayed are impeccably detailed with no jagged text and with deep colour representation. It also proved very responsive to touch in our tests, in the same way the Surface Pro 2 did before. The updated screen is a welcome improvement over the Surface Pro 2's 1920x1080 display.

Kickstand
The Surface Pro 3's kickstand is also an improvement over the last version, which had only two angles to choose from. The Surface Pro 3's "full friction" kickstand allows the tablet to sit in almost any position, and in our tests it rested well at any angle without slipping, even when applying pressure to the screen.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - back

Microsoft has said that an optional docking station will also be available at or sometime after launch, allowing users to hook the tablet up to a 4K display. It will ship with a Digitizer Stylus, too, which we can confirm works accurately.

Performance
Unfortunately we didn't have long enough with the Surface Pro 3 to really put it through its paces, but we did have a quick play around. Operations were fluid and the Windows 8.1 operating system proved very responsive. However, we are looking forward to testing the Surface Pro 3 thoroughly in a full review.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hands-on - overall

The Core i5-powered Surface Pro 3 will hit the UK sometime towards the end of August, priced at £849 and £1,109 for 128GB and 256GB storage options respectively.

The cheapest, an Intel Core i3-powered Surface Pro 3 model, has already gone up for pre-order in the UK, priced at £639. The most powerful and expensive Core i7 model will set users back an eye-watering £1,649.

Surface Pro vs Macbook Air

22 May 2014

Microsoft made some pretty bold claims when it unveiled its latest Surface Pro 3 tablet-laptop hybrid on Tuesday. Without a doubt one of the biggest claims was that the Surface Pro 3 will outperform Apple's Macbook Air 13in laptop in close to every way.

Considering the popularity and very recent refresh of the Macbook Air line, many buyers have been left wondering whether the Surface Pro 3 has the on-paper specifications to make good on Microsoft's claim.

Dimensions
Surface Pro 3: 292x201x9.1mm, 800g
Macbook Air 13in: 320x227x17mm, 1.35kg

Apple has constantly prided itself on the Macbook Air designs, claiming that they are among the lightest and most elegant laptops in in the world. Aware of this, Microsoft has looked to outdo Apple, designing the Surface Pro 3 to be lighter and thinner than the Macbook Air 13in.Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Display
Surface Pro 3: 12in ClearType Full HD screen with 2160x1440 resolution
Macbook Air 13in: 13.3in LED-backlit glossy widescreen with 1440x900 resolution

Microsoft has made a lot of claims about the Surface Pro 3's 12in screen, one of the most interesting of which is that, despite being smaller, it will let users view and interact with "six percent more content than they can on a 13in Macbook Air". This is apparently due to its custom 3:2 aspect ratio and, if true, will make the Surface Pro 3's display one of the best currently available on a laptop-tablet hybrid.

Software
Surface Pro 3: Windows 8.1
Macbook Air 13in: Mac OS X Maverick

Both the Surface Pro 3 and Macbook Air 13in run on the latest version of their respective companies' operating systems. This makes picking which is better difficult as the answer is determined mainly by user preference and the ecosystem in which they are already embedded.

Processor
Surface Pro 3: Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 options
Macbook Air 13in: Intel Core i5 and i7 options

The Surface Pro 3 comes with more varied chip options than the Macbook Air, being the only one of the two currently available running Intel's affordable Core i3 as well as its more premium Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

Camera
Surface Pro 3: 5MP and 1080p HD front- and rear-facing
Macbook Air 13in: 720p FaceTime HD front-facing

The Surface Pro 3 is the only one of the two devices to come with a rear camera. However, considering our experience using previous tablet cameras, we're not holding out high hopes regarding the Surface Pro 3's imaging quality.New Apple Macbook Air line-up 13in model

Storage
Surface Pro 3: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB internal storage options
Macbook Air 13in: 128GB or 256GB internal storage options

The Surface Pro 3 comes with a more diverse range of storage options than the Macbook Air 13in. The two devices are also evenly matched when it comes to price, with the 128GB Core i5 model of the Surface Pro 3 and Macbook Air 13in both costing £850. However, for those willing to sacrifice a bit on storage and performance, the Surface Pro 3 is the more affordable option, with the 64GB Intel Core i3 model costing a more modest £639.

Battery
Surface Pro 3: Up to nine hours
Macbook Air 13in: Up to 12 hours

On paper the Macbook 13in easily beats the Surface Pro 3 and will last a full three hours longer on one charge.

Overall
On paper there is a lot to like about the Surface Pro 3, even when compared with Apple's ever popular Macbook 13in. However, being powered by Windows 8.1, an operating system that is far from universally loved even by diehard Microsoft fans, many may still opt for Apple's current flagship Air laptop irrespective of the two devices' hardware when the Surface Pro 3 is released this August.

Check back with V3 later this year for a full review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Surface Pro 3 vs Surface Pro 2 spec by spec

21 May 2014

Microsoft's entry into the hardware market was a slightly bumpy one. While taken as a game changer, Microsoft's first ever own-brand Surface Pro featured a number of niggling flaws that hampered its overall appeal, chief of which was its poor battery life.

Luckily, one year on Microsoft learned from its mistakes and released what in many people's eyes, including us here at V3, was one of the finest tablet-laptop hybrids, the Surface Pro 2. As a result, with Microsoft having once again chosen to radically rework the design of its latest Surface Pro 3, many have justifiably wondered how the new hybrid compares with its predecessor.

Measurements
Surface Pro 3: 292x201x9.1mm, 800g
Surface Pro 2: 274x173x13.5mm, 907g

Despite featuring a similar magnesium chassis and set of port options, the Surface Pro 3 is significantly bigger than its predecessor. Making up for this, though, unlike the Surface Pro 2, the Surface Pro 3's Kickstand isn't limited to two standing options and can be set to a variety of angles, meaning it should be more pleasant to use as a laptop.Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Display
Surface Pro 3: 12in ClearType Full HD screen with 2160x1440 resolution
Surface Pro 2: 10.6in ClearType Full HD screen with 1920x1080 resolution

Microsoft claims that, as well as being 38 per cent bigger than the Surface Pro 2's, the Surface Pro 3's 12in display is able to display twice as many pixels. If true the display will be one of the best seen on any Windows 8.1 tablet.

Software
Surface Pro 3: Windows 8.1
Surface Pro 2: Windows 8.1

Both of Microsoft's Surface Pro tablets run the latest Windows 8.1 software version. However, the Surface Pro 3's larger display is likely to make using Windows 8.1 in the desktop mode more pleasant than it is on the Surface Pro 2.

Processor
Surface Pro 3: Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 options
Surface Pro 2: Intel Haswell 1.6 GHz Core i5-4200U

The Surface Pro 3 is available with a variety of chip models. Microsoft claims that the top Intel Core i7 Surface Pro 3 option will offer 10 percent better performance than the Surface Pro 2.

Camera
Surface Pro 3: 5MP and 1080p HD front- and rear-facing
Surface Pro 2: 3.5MP 1080p rear-facing and 720p front-facing

Taking photos on tablets is never a pleasant experience but, as we noted in our review, the Surface Pro 2 was particularly bad at it. Coming with a higher megapixel rear camera, the Surface Pro 3 will hopefully offer better imaging performance.

Storage
Surface Pro 3: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB internal storage options
Surface Pro 2: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB internal storage options

Despite offering the same set of storage options, the Surface Pro 3 is the more affordable option thanks to its more varied chip offering, with prices starting at for £639 for the 64GB Intel Core i3 model. By comparison the 64GB Surface Pro 2 costs £720.

Microsoft Surface Pro 2

Battery
Surface Pro 3: Up to nine hours' web browsing
Surface Pro 2: Up to eight hours in our tests

Microsoft claims that the Surface Pro 3 will offer superior battery life to its predecessor and will last up to nine hours from one charge. During our tests, the Surface Pro 2 generally lasted around seven to eight hours.

Overall
On paper the Surface Pro 3 is a significant step-up from the Surface Pro 2, offering a more diverse range of chip options, larger and crisper display, and significantly lower starting price.

Hopefully, the Surface Pro 3 will make good on its on-paper promise when it arrives in the UK this August. Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Surface Pro 3 vs iPad Air spec by spec

20 May 2014

Microsoft made a big deal about its Surface Pro 3 when it unveiled it at its New York press event on Tuesday, claiming it will easily outperform all of its key rivals as both a tablet and a laptop. This has led many buyers to wonder how the new productivity focused Surface Pro 3 compares to the current ruler of the tablet market, the Apple iPad Air.

Dimensions
Surface Pro 3: 292x201x9.1mm, 800g
iPad Air: 240x170x7.5mm, 468g

Packing a sizable 12in display and robust magnesium chassis, the Surface Pro 3 is significantly heavier than the iPad Air. That said, it does have more connectivity options than the iPad Air, coming loaded with full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a microSD card slot and a mini Displayport. By comparison the iPad Air only has a Lightning port.Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Display
Surface Pro 3: 12in ClearType Full HD screen with 2160x1440 resolution
iPad Air: 9.7in 1536x2048, 263ppi in-plane switching (IPS) LCD Retina display

Microsoft made a big deal about the Surface Pro 3's 12in display claiming that as well as being 38 per cent larger than the previous Surface Pro screen it is also able to display twice as many pixels.

That said, it will still have a tough time dethroning the iPad Air, as its 9in Retina Display remains one of the sharpest and crispest seen on a large tablet.

Software
Surface Pro 3: Windows 8.1
iPad Air: iOS 7

Microsoft designed the Surface Pro to function as a laptop as well as tablet and has loaded it with its full Windows 8.1 operating system. This means that on paper it could offer better productivity services and applications than the iPad Air, which runs the latest version of Apple's iOS mobile operating system.

Processor
Surface Pro 3: Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 options
iPad Air: A7

The Surface Pro is available with fourth generation Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 chip options. This means, despite Apple iOS being significantly less demanding to run than Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 3 should offer superior performance to the iPad Air, which is powered by an A7 mobile processor.Apple's iPad Air has a 9.7in Retina display

Camera
Surface Pro 3: 5MP and 1080p HD front- and rear-facing
iPad Air: 5MP iSight rear and HD Facetime front

Both the Surface Pro 3 and iPad Air come loaded with 5MP rear cameras. This means we won't be able to call which is better until we've had some hands on time with the new Microsoft tablet.

Storage
Surface Pro 3: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB and 512GB internal storage options
iPad Air: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB internal storage options

The Surface Pro 3 comes with a more robust set of internal storage options. It also competes with the iPad Air on price, with the cheapest 64GB model costing $799 (£475). Pricing of the equivalent 64GB iPad Air model starts at £479.

Battery
Surface Pro 3: Nine hours
iPad Air: 10 hours

On paper the iPad Air will last an hour longer than the Surface Pro 3, though we won't be able to tell if this is true until we've had a chance to battery burn the two tablets.

Overall
When viewed purely from a specification standpoint, the Surface Pro 3 is a seriously impressive device that does beat the Apple iPad Air. However, as we've seen with past Surface tablets, its focus on working as a laptop replacement could lead to some issues that make it less pleasant to use as a tablet than the iPad Air.

The Surface Pro 3 is set for release in the UK "by August." Check back with V3 closer to the time for a full review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Windows 8.1 Update hands-on review

11 Apr 2014

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Update was made generally available for users to download on 8 April, a week after it was officially announced and released to subscribers of Microsoft's MSDN service.

As detailed by Microsoft, the update adds a number of changes to improve usability for desktop and laptop users working with a mouse and keyboard instead of a touchscreen. In doing so, the Windows 8.1 Update more successfully integrates the Desktop and Start screen environments than earlier builds of Microsoft's platform, though possibly not enough to please those hungering for the return of the Start menu.

We downloaded the Windows 8.1 Update by checking for it via Windows Update, but it only appeared once we had installed all other pending updates to bring our Windows 8.1 system completely up to date. Users who are not in a hurry do not need to do anything, as it will be distributed via Windows Update the usual way over the coming weeks. The update itself was over 800MB in size, and took some time to download and install.

Windows 8.1 Update Start screenFor those using a tablet, the changes may not be too apparent at first. The Start screen and its array of tiles look pretty much the same, save for the addition of a Search tool shortcut and a power button, tapping which enables you to shutdown, restart or put the system to sleep directly from the home screen (shown left).

Perhaps the most noticeable change on our test system was that Windows goes straight to the Desktop rather than the Modern UI Start screen after signing in, though this can be configured by the user.

However, users still need to go to the Start screen in order to open any applications, apart from Internet Explorer and the Windows Store, both of which are now pinned to the taskbar on the Desktop by default.

For those users with a desktop or laptop that lacks a touchscreen, it is fair to say that Windows 8 has been a bit unwieldy to use. In an attempt to address this, the Windows 8.1 Update adds minimise and close buttons that appear at top right if you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen in any Modern UI app. Likewise, the Windows taskbar now pops up if you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen (see below), even on the Start screen, and context-sensitive menus appear if you right-click on tiles.

Windows 8.1 Update showing taskbar

One interesting change is that Modern UI apps such as the built-in Mail or Weather tools now show on the taskbar (see below), allowing you to switch between them from the Desktop environment. Although the Modern UI apps still look the same, taking up the entire screen rather than running in a Window, this small change starts to make the Start screen and Desktop environments feel more integrated rather than two distinctly separate spaces.

Windows 8.1 Update desktop

One feature we did not test out is Enterprise Mode for IE11, which renders websites as if the user were running an older version of the browser, to handle compatibility issues with corporate websites and apps. This feature is hidden by default and must be enabled via an administrator using Group Policy.

Overall, the Windows 8.1 Update shows that Microsoft has been hearing the complaints of Windows users and is moving to address them. The software giant has perhaps not gone quite far enough yet to satisfy those users distraught over the loss of the traditional Start button and menus, but it does offer a greatly improved experience over the original Windows 8 and perhaps offers hints of what we can expect to see in Windows 9 next year.

For a full list of what's new in Windows 8.1 Update, see Microsoft's Windows website.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta hands-on review

04 Mar 2014

Mozilla recently released the latest beta of its Firefox browser for Windows 8, and we downloaded it to a Windows 8.1 tablet to take it for a spin.

As this is a beta, it is available to download directly from Mozilla's website, rather than from the Microsoft Store. That said, we found the beta remarkably stable and polished – much more so than many of the release versions of apps we have tried from Microsoft's Store.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta

Our other first impressions of Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta are also positive; the browser is responsive, even on a relatively low-powered 8in tablet based on an Atom processor, and looks slick and modern when viewed in the Modern UI or "Metro-style" environment.

When used in Metro mode, Firefox follows the design conventions that Microsoft has dictated, using as much of the screen real estate for content as possible, while menus and controls are accessed by sliding in from the edges of the screen. Here, users will find an option to relaunch Firefox in the legacy Windows desktop instead, which keeps all your current tabs open.

In Metro mode, Firefox opens with a tile-based start screen giving one-tap access to recent or frequently accessed sites. The left and right edges of the screen also feature overlaid buttons to go back a screen and open a new tab.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta

Relaunching Firefox in desktop mode shows off a look and feel that will be familiar to existing users of Firefox for other versions of Windows, and provides access to all of the standard menus, including bookmarks, options and access to Add-ons.

Mozilla warned that the Windows 8 mode version of the browser does not share bookmarks, history or passwords with the desktop version at present. However, as a workaround, users can sign into the Firefox Sync service.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta

We ran Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta through the HTML5 compliance test website, which produced a score of 466 out of 555 points, compared with 372 for Microsoft's IE11 on the same system.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta

We also ran both browsers through Futurmark's Peacekeeper browser performance test. Firefox produced a score of 924 with 7 out of 7 for HTML5 capabilities, while IE11 produced a score of 680 with 5 out of 7 for HTML5 capabilities.

Firefox for Windows 8 Touch Beta

Overall, Mozilla's touch-based Firefox project is shaping up nicely, and looks set to be a viable alternative to IE for Windows 8 users when ready. We would be happy enough to use it as it stands, thanks to its responsiveness, ease of use and slick user interface.

 

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