So Windows 8.1 has been out for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been using it and nothing else both here and at home and thought I’d give my opinions and an overview of the changes for anyone still on the fence.


The single biggest change that has been hyped up is the return of the Start button. It’s very important to point out here that this isn’t a return to the old style Start Menu as clicking the Start button still takes you to the Start Screen the same as pressing the Windows key on your keyboard always has done. And this is fine. I’ve long thought that the traditional Start Menu was increasingly irrelevant, as everything I tend to use regularly is pinned to my taskbar anyway, so didn’t miss it when Windows 8 came around, and for me the biggest draw of the button is that it gives a more defined space to right click on for the Start context menu.


Speaking of the context menu, this too has been updated with the ability to shut down or restart the computer added. One of the strangest things about the original Windows 8 was how the shutdown option had been completely removed from the desktop, as it was the only thing that I regularly had to use the Charms bar to access. Oddly, even though it’s now more or less where it used to be with the Start Menu I still find myself shutting down from Charms, as a force of habit I guess.


The rest of the desktop is largely the same, with the clean minimalistic design unaffected.
The Charms bar is mostly unchanged, though now adjusts itself on taller monitors, so if you enter it at the top or bottom the buttons will all be closer to your pointer or finger instead of remaining in the middle. A few of the options such as the change PC settings section have had some more options from Control Panel added, meaning you’re less likely to have to switch from the Windows 8 UI to the desktop for some settings.


One of my main problems with Windows 8 remains here, however. I use two monitors and every now and then when going from the left screen to the right my pointer gets stuck in the Charms bar instead of keeping going across. I’d quite like an option for it to just appear on my right hand screen or some slightly more intelligent detection of what I’m trying to do with the mouse – it doesn’t happen often enough that it’s a major issue, but enough that I’ve noticed it.


Visually, the Start Screen is the most changed part of the OS, and one of my favourites. It now is able to pull your desktop wallpaper as the background instead of the Windows 8 patterned backgrounds and this simple change makes it feel much more integrated with the rest of the operating system as before I always felt it was almost like switching between two different programs.


The Live tiles now have some extra scaling options, and can be resized to the new small size allowing many more tiles in the same space. New programs installed are now not automatically pinned to the Start Screen, and are instead added to the Apps screen which is accessed by a toggle arrow at the bottom of the screen. Despite appearances this screen actually has a lot in common with the Start Menu of old, as all the program folders with shortcuts that you would get are present here.


Snapping has been greatly updated, allowing scaling so that you can have one app taking up most of the screen with another as just a sidebar or an even split, whatever you want. You can even snap Windows 8 apps with the desktop so that you can work on a desktop program with a full screen app open next to it.


The search Charm has now been updated so that it no longer filters results into categories. Previously results for apps, files and settings would all be separated but these how show in the same list making it much easier to find what you’re looking for. Searching for particular places will also bring you to a page for that place, with each major city or town having a page with current weather, news, maps and so on.


The Windows store has also had a visual overhaul to liven it up a little and make things much easier to browse. The categories seem better organised, it kind of reminds me of the Google Play Store now. Suggestions based on your purchased and downloaded apps are also made and generally seem to be things I’d actually be interested in which is nice.


For those who completely hate the Windows 8 interface there is now an option to boot directly to the desktop, and you can also select for the Start Screen to display the apps view instead of the Live tiles when clicking the Start button or pressing the Windows key.

 
Under the hood there have also been quite a few tweaks including some increased support for virtualisation that Tom was quite interested in, and everything is generally much more efficient and quicker, but a lot of these aren’t changes that most people will notice so I’ll avoid going into them in detail here. Skydrive has now been fully integrated instead of being a separate program and comes built in, it appears as a storage device that you can simply save to from anywhere. The familiar description of ‘Computer’ in Windows Explorer has now been renamed This PC, presumably to better differentiate your local system from network machines.


Upgrading from Windows 8 couldn’t be easier: a huge Windows 8.1 icon appears in the Store that you simply click and follow the instructions, the update will be downloaded and applied and your computer will go through the standard restarting process and you’re good to go. Any installed programs and apps will be kept and you can carry on from where you were as soon as it’s done. If you’re already running Windows 8 and haven’t upgraded already there’s no good reason (bandwidth notwithstanding) not to have done so, and I’d recommend going to the Windows Store straight away.


It isn’t quite as seamless an upgrade from previous versions of Windows, as it now carries over less previous install information so upgrading from 7 no longer carries over all your installed programs – if you’re considering upgrading from 7 from 8.1 and have the option of doing so by way of a vanilla 8 install this will allow you to keep everything however.


I very much like Windows 8.1. It builds on the base of Windows 8, which I was fond of in the first place, and adding a bit more polish. Frankly the return of the Start button is worth the update alone with everything else being a very welcome bonus. I can’t help but think Windows 8 would have been a bit more warmly received if this had been the initial version.

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