Microsoft's Windows 8.1 update is finally available to install for those already running Windows 8 on their tablet or PC, and judging by the length of time it takes to download, there is quite a high demand for the new version.
The first thing to note about the Windows 8.1 release is that there are no real surprises, as Microsoft has been talking about the changes to the user interface and the new features coming for some time now.
We looked over the Windows 8.1 Preview release back in June, and as far as we can tell, not much appears to have changed since then. This does not mean that users of Windows 8 won't notice anything different, as there are a slew of user interface tweaks and other enhancements that Microsoft has added since the original release last year.
As we wrote back in June, the main changes users will notice are that you can now customise the Start screen, that you can resize tiles, and you can opt to boot straight to the old-school Desktop environment.
The Bing app has now disappeared, with its search function subsumed into the search Charm accessible from the Charm bar you bring up with a swipe form the right side of the screen.
Meanwhile, Windows 8.1 makes greater use of Microsoft's SkyDrive service to ensure that user data and settings are consistent whichever device you log into, while all files can now be saved directly to a user's SkyDrive account, a feature that was introduced in Office 2013.
Some things that are new in the Windows 8.1 release include a new Help + Tips app to introduce users to what's new in this version of Windows, plus large animated on-screen hints that appear when you first use Windows to inform users about things like the Charms and that you need to swipe in from the edges of the screen to access options in the new-style user interface.
The Mail application has also been given a makeover that makes it look much slicker and adds some capabilities more in line with Microsoft's Outlook app than the rather austere app that users of Windows 8 will be familiar with.
Meanwhile, Skype is now supplied as part of Windows 8.1, but it does not seem to appear on the main Start screen by default. Instead, users must access it from the Apps screen, which is now found by swiping up from Start, and pin it to the Start screen afterwards.
One word of caution for those upgrading: Microsoft warns users to back up their data before downloading and installing Windows 8.1, and with good reason. We found that the installation lost key configuration settings on our test tablet such as the localisation, and time and date, and we also had to reconfigure devices such as the Bluetooth keyboard afterwards.
More seriously, Windows 8.1 lost all the apps we had installed on the tablet, many of which had been there through several upgrade cycles since before the first release of Windows 8 itself. However, this could be because we were running the Windows 8.1 Preview build, rather than a release version of Windows.
For most users, upgrading should be as simple as opening the Windows Store app and being presented with Windows 8.1 as an available update to download.
Our initial impression of Windows 8.1 is that it is a slicker, more user-friendly version of the platform that Microsoft launched last year. However, as we noted in our earlier look at the Preview build, it does not really fix the sad fact that it is the Metro user interface itself that puts off many buyers.
Check back on V3 later for a full review of Windows 8.1.
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