Microsoft's preview of Windows 8.1 is available to download and test now, but many users will be hard pushed to notice any difference at first glance, as a post-upgrade system presents the same tiled Start screen as before.
However, start to use Windows 8.1, and the changes start to crop up. These include tweaks to the user interface designed to improve the experience, an enhanced Internet Explorer 11, and one feature many professionals will have been waiting for: the ability to boot straight to the desktop.
On the user interface side, you can now customise the Start screen by swiping up from the bottom edge, which allows you to reposition tiles and create named groups of tiles.
You can also resize tiles, with new large (see image above) and small size tiles supported. Oddly, not all tiles support all of the sizes; we found that the mail app could not be switched to a large tile, for example.
Swiping up anywhere else on the Start screen now pulls up the Apps screen. This is reminiscent of swiping between multiple home screens on Android devices, and may have been implemented to make smartphone users feel more at home.
The lock screen can also now be customised via the Settings Charm (see below), allowing users the option to show notifications such as new emails and calendar entries. In addition, users can now choose to display a slide show of their photographs as the background.
The Apps screen shows a number of newly added apps in Windows 8.1, such as an Alarms tool, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, and Sound Recorder. These are not all consumer-oriented, with new admin tools such as a Windows Memory Diagnostic, and pretty much all the apps found in Windows 8 have also been given an update.
For those with legacy Windows applications, you can set Windows 8.1 to boot direct to the Desktop. This is enabled from the Desktop itself, by selecting "Properties" from the taskbar. Under the Navigation tab, checking "go to the desktop instead of Start when I sign in" enables this (see below).
Windows 8.1 comes with IE11, which Microsoft claims has enhanced performance. It also enables you to have an unlimited number of tabs open, which you can simply tap between instantly (see below). However, this is still not as convenient as the tabs on a desktop browser as you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen in order to see the available tabs.
IE11 also includes support for WebGL, enabling hardware support for 3D graphics acceleration in web content. We tried this out with a few WebGL-enabled sites (see example site below), and found that some worked, but not all of them.
Much has been made of the supposed reappearance of the Start button in Windows 8.1, but in reality, Microsoft has just added a Windows logo to the left edge of the taskbar, where the Start button was placed in older versions of Windows. However, tapping this just takes you to the Start screen, and does not bring up the old-style menus.
While many of the changes made to the user interface in Windows 8.1 are cosmetic, we found the overall effect is to make it feel a bit more "grown up" and less like a platform designed for kindergarten use, as the overhauled Windows Store (below) demonstrates. In fact, we would go as far as to say that Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been in the first place.
However, like with the original Windows 8 release, we found that many of the new features are not especially intuitive. For example, IE11 allows you to have two browser tabs open side by side on the screen, but it is not at all clear how you are supposed to do this. After much trial and error, we discovered you have to swipe up to show the available tabs, then hold down your finger on the one you want to appear alongside the already visible one.
In other words, while the changes in Windows 8.1 are useful and very welcome, we do not believe they are enough to convert anyone with a violent dislike for the radical user changes that Microsoft introduced with the release of Windows 8 last year.
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