Microsoft is betting that Windows 8.1 will be enough to jumpstart stalled sales of new Windows PCs and to coax reluctant Windows 7 users into making the leap. After using Windows 8.1 RTM (essentially the version that will ship with machines when it is officially released) for several days on several different types of machines, I’m impressed by its many subtle improvements over Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 Preview, but it hasn’t addressed any of the fundamental issues slowing Windows 8′s adoption.
I’ve installed Windows 8.1 Pro RTM on three of my daily-use machines: a laptop and a desktop running Windows 8, and a tablet running Windows 8.1 Preview. All three upgrades went flawlessly, although as promised the upgrade from Preview required re-installing all my applications. Except for small differences, like the return of the neutered Start button — without a Start menu — and a small down arrow on the Start screen pointing to where you can find your applications, there aren’t a lot of visual changes from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.
In general, the changes Microsoft has made are fairly subtle and non-controversial. App bars have been made a little more consistent — with Internet Explorer placing both of its at the bottom of the screen now, for example. Many more settings are available from the Metro version of PC Settings, although not enough to do away with the traditional Control Panel entirely. Having also helped someone else upgrade directly from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1 RTM, I can truly empathize with IT professionals in that position. Explaining all the various changes in the UI is time-consuming and — worst of all — most of the changes only make life harder or more confusing for users of traditional desktops and laptops
The good news is that Windows 8.1 RTM feels faster and more stable than either the Preview version or Windows 8. Like Windows 8, it also uses less memory than Windows 7, and boots faster. The niggling bugs that kept various pieces of the Preview from working correctly seem to be fixed. Without a doubt, it is the best version of Windows 8 that I’ve used. So for Windows 8 users, the update is likely a no-brainer.
Windows 8.1 for diehard Desktop fans
Key for Windows Desktop traditionalists are the new Navigation settings. They allow you to boot directly to the Desktop, and change the way the Start screen acts to make it less intrusive. These settings, shown in the dialog box below, are found by right-clicking on an empty area of the taskbar and bringing up its Properties:
The most-asked-for option of the bunch is the “go to the Desktop instead of Start” capability. Checking this box causes your machine to bypass the Start screen and go straight to Desktop mode when you log in. Options to turn off Charms and the list of Metro-friendly apps seem much less useful. Matching your Desktop background and Start screen background also seems like more of a sop than any type of real increase in usability. The option to show the Start screen on the display you’re currently using is nice, although it didn’t always work correctly when I tried it.
Note that none of these options eliminate the need for the various-Start-menu-replacing accessories. So if you use one of those, you’re probably better off just keeping it and not trying to fiddle with the new Windows 8.1 settings — especially since the new options only provide a placebo Start button, and not a true replacement for the Windows 7 Start menu.
Searching for a usable Search UI
Search finally works well. Whether or not you’re a fan of the default blending-in of Bing results, Search does a much better job of finding files and applications on your computer than it did in Windows 8 or in the Windows 8.1 Preview. Unlike in the Preview, you also don’t need to flip down to the Application screen to search for applications. My only gripe is that Search doesn’t seem to work identically between machines. On one of the machines I upgraded, for example, Windows Update pops up nicely in Search, while on two others it is impossible to find without going to the Control Panel first.
There are also lots of little gee-gaws Microsoft has found the time to add to Windows 8.1, like using slideshows on your lock screen, keeping the same background for your desktop and Start screen, and more tile size choices for your Start screen. While all of these are certainly pleasant, it’s hard to see them changing the game as far as whether you’ll buy a new Windows computer or upgrade your existing model.