Improved multitasking; Universal search; Better preloaded apps; Better multi-monitor support
Still no Start Menu; Low information density; Still better for touch than keyboard / mouse
Windows 8.1 is a much improved operating system with enhanced multitasking, smarter search and a better selection of pre-loaded apps, but it's still better for touch than desktop use.
When Windows 8 launched last fall, millions of long-time PC users were reluctant to upgrade their existing computers or purchase new systems with the new OS. Even though it promised better performance at an initial upgrade price of just $40, many were turned off by Windows 8's "Modern UI," which removed the Start menu and introduced a tile-based Start screen, filled with touch-friendly, full-screen apps. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft made some significant improvements, including a multitasking- friendly split-screen mode, new Bing apps and a helpful universal search feature. However, if you have a version of Windows prior to 8, it will now cost at least $119 to upgrade. Should users make the jump to Windows 8.1 or stay put?
When you install a new app, it doesn't automatically appear on the Start screen, but rather only on the all-apps menu, which is now available if you click the down arrow from the Start screen or swipe up. As with Windows 8, you can add any Modern or desktop app to the Start screen by right- clicking (or long-pressing) it and selecting Pin to Start.
Desktop and Start Button
Microsoft has brought back the much-missed Start button, but not the Start menu it launched in Windows 7 and previous versions of the OS. Instead, when you hit the button, you are transported back to the Start screen just the same as you were when you clicked in the lower left corner of the screen -- the same location -- in Windows 8.
You can configure the Start button to take you to the all-apps menu instead of the Start screen, but we miss the old-fashioned Windows 7 Start menu, which appeared as an overlay on top of the screen rather than taking you away from your work. Of course, you can always install a third-party Start menu replacement such as Start8 ($5) or Classic Shell (free), both of which work in Windows 8.1.
Though it still wants to force the Start screen on you, Microsoft does allow you to boot straight to desktop mode in Windows 8.1, if you change a taskbar setting. You can also configure the Start screen to use the same wallpaper as the desktop, making it look like the tiles are floating on top of the desktop, even though you're in a completely different mode.
However, Windows 8.1 only allows you to open one window for every 590 pixels of horizontal screen real estate. That means you need a full HD screen to open three windows and at least a 2560 x 1440 display to get four windows. In some cases, you may have enough pixels but the OS still limits your number of windows by default, because of your screen size. For example, the 1920 x 1080 Surface Pro tablet only allows two windows, unless you change an option in the Ease of Access section of the PC settings. We wish there was more flexibility, but overall split-screen mode is a great feature.
Instead of presenting the results as a simple vertical or horizontal list, search often subdivides the list by types of content. For example, when we searched for our own name, Windows 8.1 showed a column with a local Excel file we authored, another with a link to our people app profile, and a montage of Web images associated with our name. As we scrolled farther right, a list of Web results appeared for our name, each with a thumbnail preview.
Microsoft has also preprogrammed the results to show additional information for famous people, places and things. For example, when we searched for "Manhattan," we got a map that showed the location of New York City in North America, some quick facts such as the population and square footage, a link directly into the Manhattan page of the Wikipedia app and a list of local attractions such as Central Park and the Empire State Building.
Unfortunately, like prior versions of Windows, Windows 8.1 doesn't search all of your files and folders by default, only looking for files under the \Users\ folder, which includes the desktop, music, pictures and documents libraries. However, if you create a folder called C:\mp3s and copy your music there, search won't find it unless you add it to the index in control panel or make it part of one of your libraries.
To keep you from having your SkyDrive files eat up on local storage, SkyDrive has a feature called "smart files," which stores only a small percentage of your files locally while holding the others in the cloud. When you browse your folders, all of your files look like they are available with photos even showing their thumbnails. However, if you are offline, those thumbnails will appear gray, indicating that you can't access the files. On the bright side, any files you've opened previously on your computer will be stored offline and you can always make a folder of all of your SkyDrive available offline by right-clicking on it and selecting "Make available offline."
However, if you want to make serious changes, such as actually changing the power plan rather than just the amount of time your computer takes to go to sleep or enabling and disabling services, you'll still need the old desktop control panel.
Improved Lock Screen
Windows 8.1's lock screen does offer a few conveniences that Android users are accustomed to, including the ability to launch the camera with a quick swipe upward and answer incoming Skype calls without logging in. In another slight improvement over Windows 8, the lock screen can now cycle through your photos, creating a slideshow out of them.
MORE: Top Windows 8.1 Apps
The People app has been redesigned to put your social networking notifications front-and-center. Now you can actually see previews of your most recent messages on the first screen. Instead of making you horizontally scroll through all your contacts in alphabetical order, the home screen now has shortcuts to each letter, so you can jump to S if you're looking for John Smith's entry.
Xbox Music has been dramatically improved with the addition of a new, free radio feature that, like Slacker or Pandora, creates streaming stations based on the artists you like. When we created a station based on Donna Summer, the service played a number of 1970s and disco tunes, with commercial interruptions only appearing after we'd played at least five songs .
Reading List allows you to save Web pages or articles from one of the Bing apps (Bing News, Bing Sports, Bing Finance) for later, but unfortunately it doesn't work offline, making it little more than IE Favorites by another name.
Windows Store and Third-Party Apps
While the Windows store now has more than 100,000 apps, it lacks 75 percent of the most popular apps on Android and iOS (according to our research). As of October 2013, there is finally a Facebook app, and you can also get Twitter and Netflix. However, you can't get official Modern UI apps for Gmail, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pandora and "Candy Crush Saga." However, there are more than 2 million desktop programs, including everything from Microsoft Office to Adobe Photoshop and "World of Warcraft."
Configurations and Value
Users who have Windows 8 already can upgrade to Windows 8.1 for free, just by visiting the Windows Store on their PCs. However, Windows 7, Vista or XP users looking to upgrade will have to pay $119.99 for an upgrade to Windows 8 or $199.99 to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. Students can grab the pro update for $69.99, while those who are willing to install the OEM version of Windows 8.1 for home can find it for $99.99 on third-party sites like NewEgg.com.
If you have a Windows 8 system, upgrading to Windows 8.1 is both free and a no-brainer. The improved multitasking and search, along with the new and improved preloaded apps, add up to a more satisfying experience. If you are purchasing a new PC or tablet, Windows 8.1 offers enough improvements over its predecessor to make using it pleasant, even with a keyboard and mouse.
If you have a Windows 7 system without a touch screen, the $119 or $199 upgrade price is a much harder sell. But if you want to run Modern apps, take advantage of tight SkyDrive integration and save time with a really helpful universal search feature, Windows 8.1 is worth the premium.
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