This is our preliminary verdict on the Windows 8.1 Preview released in late June 2013
When Steve Ballmer introduced Windows 8.1 at Microsoft’s Build conference, he used the word "blend" so often that you wondered whether this was an operating system or a new brand of coffee.
Clearly stung by the criticism that Windows 8 focused on tablets at the expense of non-touch PCs, Microsoft has attempted to make the new Modern interface and the old-fashioned desktop "blend" more cohesively. It's also worked hard to shrink Windows 8 for the hot devices of the moment: compact tablets.
Have these two, seemingly contradictory, goals been achieved? Or is Windows 8.1 still the awkward hybrid of tablet and desktop OS that its predecessor was? Here's our initial verdict on the Windows 8.1 Preview.
Changes to the Windows 8.1 UI are apparent right from the moment you install the Preview. The Start screen has been given a considerable revamp. There are two new tile sizes: "small", which is a quarter of the size of the previous square tiles, and "large", which doubles the size of the previous large tiles.
The new large tiles aren't only easier to strike on a touchscreen – especially 8in tablets – but deliver more Live Tile information. Switch the Weather app to "large", for example, and you get tomorrow's forecast in addition to today's; the revamped Mail app will deliver three message previews instead of only one.
It's also much easier to keep the Start screen tidy and manageable in Windows 8.1. Apps are no longer installed on the Start screen by default; instead, they’re sent straight to the All Apps menu, which can now be accessed simply by swiping upwards on the Start screen. From there, you can decide to pin newly installed apps on the Start screen. It's a much neater way of giving you quick access to a directory of everything installed on the device, leaving the Start screen for essential apps, or those that deliver extra value via their Live Tiles.
App handling has also been much improved. Windows 8 only allowed users to open two apps at a time, and imposed the bizarre restriction that one of them had to squeeze into a sliver down one side of the screen. With Windows 8.1, users can resize apps to whatever width they prefer, allowing you to devote half the screen to Internet Explorer, say, and the other half to a video you’re watching. It’s even possible to have two windows of the same app running side by side.
Sometimes the split-screen mode is invoked automatically. Click on a link in an email, for example, and the OS automatically opens a browser window on the right-hand side of the screen, meaning you’re not rudely thrown out of your inbox as you were previously.
Larger screens can have up to four apps running simultaneously, but things start to get a little weird once you have more than two apps on the go. Attempt to open a third when you already have two running in split-screen mode, and an enlarged version of the app’s icon will appear on the dividing line between the two previously opened apps.
The first time this happens you may assume the machine's crashed, but this is actually Windows 8.1's way of asking which app you want to elbow out of the way for the newcomer: drag the icon left to replace the left-hand app, or right to swap out the other.
We suspect the average user would struggle to work this out for themselves, in much the same way that many Windows 8 users never uncovered the Charms, but Microsoft has learned its lesson: Windows 8.1's Start screen comes with a Help & Tips tile installed to guide users through the OS (although this is merely a placeholder in the Preview build).
App handling is entirely different when you flip into the much more natural portrait mode on compact tablets. Sensibly, Windows 8.1 only allows full-screen apps in portrait mode, rather than trying to divide the screen into narrow columns.
In-app behaviour is also different: where clicking on an email in landscape mode opens a reading pane on the right, in portrait mode the message itself opens full-screen. Altering views depending on screen orientation may sound confusing, but the decisions Microsoft has made are generally sound, and make Windows 8.1 a surprisingly pleasurable experience on smaller devices.
Search is much improved, too. As before, you can start searching simply by typing on the Start screen, but it now searches everything on the device – apps, settings, files, documents, the web – rather than merely apps. Clicking on a result other than a preinstalled app, setting or system file, takes you to a new app-like screen that presents web search results alongside Wikipedia entries, News, Maps and Photo results for that term, offering a much richer experience than the ten-deep list of links provided by the average Google search.
The search results are, of course, provided by Microsoft Bing, and there's no option to change the default search provider. (Note that the more visual search results are yet to appear in the Public Preview, but were demonstrated on more advanced builds at Build 2013.) It's still possible to search by category – apps or settings, say, if you require more specific results.
One final thing to note on the touchscreen experience is that the Settings menus have been massively improved, requiring far fewer visits to the desktop control panel, which was always awkward on pure touchscreen devices. New Personalisation options include animated wallpapers, although once again, these don't appear in the Preview build.
Windows 8.1 for desktop
Windows 8 has been widely accused of sacrificing desktop usability in favour of pushing the new tablet-focused side of the OS – and some of its most glaring issues have been addressed in Windows 8.1.
The immediately visible climbdown is the return of the Start button, which retakes its familiar place at the bottom left of the screen. This makes a lot of sense, in terms both of consistency and of discoverability.
Clicking it merely opens the Windows 8 Start screen, but the effect needn't be quite as jarring as it was before. This is thanks to the new option of using a dimmed version of your desktop wallpaper as the Start screen background, with windows and icons fading away whenever your tiles are visible.
Happily, there is now another way to find apps, files and Control Panel items: the Search charm, when accessed from the desktop, now pops open from the right-hand edge, leaving three quarters of the workspace visible. This is as close as Windows 8.1 gets to restoring the search function of the old Start menu – and it can be conveniently accessed using the Win+S shortcut.
Right-clicking on the reinstated Start button brings up the Win+X menu, revealing a new submenu that lets you directly shut down and restart your PC – and about time too. Another long-overdue improvement is the option to boot directly to the desktop, rather than having to go through the Start screen – although this is bafflingly hidden away within the Taskbar and Navigation properties dialog.
It's also now possible to disable the "hot corners" that bring up the Charms menu and app-switcher, bringing you closer to that pure desktop experience, and to switch over to the All Apps view instead of the Start screen when you hit the Start button.
A few improvements target multimonitor and larger monitor use: you can opt for the Start screen always to appear on your main display, and a tickbox in the Screen Resolution dialog lets you apply one scaling setting to all displays, instead of having to do it on a per-screen basis.
The new split-screening features mentioned earlier also give you more flexibility when it comes to running apps alongside your desktop, letting you give more or less space to each workspace as desired. This is an undoubted improvement, but it still feels awkward in comparison to traditional desktop windowing.
Finally, Microsoft has made a subtle change to the default navigation panes in Explorer windows, quietly replacing the Libraries links with SkyDrive folders (see below for more). Fortunately, the Libraries can be reinstated.
Overall, as a desktop OS, Windows 8.1 is easier to get along with than the original release. The improvements are minor, but are nevertheless welcome.
The Windows Store, apart from lacking in the content department, hasn’t exactly helped itself when it comes to navigation. Open up the current Store and you'll see a lot of pretty pictures, some star ratings and a lot of white space, but not much in the way of information.
The old tessellated tiles arrangement has gone, to be replaced with two regimented rows of apps, complete with text descriptions and ratings, which is an improvement. In the top-right-hand corner of the screen is a search box – another welcome move that should make it easier for Windows 8 novices to get to grips with the app.
Right now, however, we're still unimpressed. The Store may make well better use of screen real estate, but what it chooses to surface is, to put it bluntly, not very helpful. By default, there are six apps featured under the heading "Popular now", six more under "New releases", following which you’ll find a series of smaller thumbnails to the right listing 12 "Top paid" and six "Top free" apps.
At first glance, it would appear the ability to drill down by category has been removed. In fact, it hasn't - a simple swipe down from the top of the screen or a right click of the mouse slides down a category-based panel, allowing you to quickly browse by theme.
Search results pages follow a similar pattern. Microsoft has retained the category, price and sort dropdowns and moved away from the grid of tiny, meaningless rectangular icons that used to result from a keyword search. This is a good thing, but Microsoft has gone too far the other way, replacing them with a horizontally scrolling, single row of apps. Why not two rows of apps? There was plenty of room on the screen of our 1080p laptop screen for another.
One area we can give the thumbs up to are the app pages themselves, which are far less stark and much more informative than before. The pages now scroll sideways, which is less confusing and more in keeping with the way the rest of Windows 8’s Modern UI works, and they come complete with a new Related Apps section on the far right of the scroll. All in all, though, we think more work still needs to be done.
The new apps look a little more promising. We like the look of the new Xbox Music. Sensibly, it now opens on a view that places locally stored music front and centre, with a navigation panel to the left allowing you to quickly switch between locally stored music, the “Radio” dynamic playlists and an Explore view. It’s far more approachable and accessible than before.
The revamped Photos app looks to be big improvement, too, adding a clutch of editing tools, including crop, red-eye removal and some handy effects such as vignetting and selective focus, to what was purely a slideshow tool. However, the online picture integration, which previously allowed you to browse your Flickr, SkyDrive and Facebook pictures has gone missing. Hopefully this will be reinstated in the final version.
We’re most interested in the new Mail app – a replacement for the current Mail app. Alas, that won’t appear until later in the year.
Internet Explorer 11
To corroborate these results, we attempted to run the Peacekeeper HTML5 benchmark before and after, but IE11 got stuck on one of the 3D tests, part way through. Hopefully, an update will fix this problem before too long.
There’s an improvement to the way IE11 handles memory and CPU resources, with tabs making fewer demands on your PC’s resources when they haven’t been used for a while. Pinned sites can take advantage of the larger tile size now available, and will display a preview on the Start screen.
Less impressive is the new Reading List app, which lets you "save" web content to read later. This presents articles in an attractive manner, but as there's no offline mode, it's little more than a temporary bookmarks facility; it's fairly cumbersome to use, too, taking four steps to save each article you want to read.
In the meantime, there appears to be little change in everyday performance: both on touchscreens and in use with a mouse and keyboard, the new browser works as before, and is just as responsive to prods, taps and flicks of the scroll wheel.
Otherwise, it's largely business as usual, with one key difference. It's now possible to sync not only settings, history and favourites, but also open tabs across multiple devices. Multiple instances of the browser can now be snapped side by side using the new, customisable snapping feature. In all – a small update, but one very much worth having.
Another area that has come in for some subtle, yet extremely useful improvements is SkyDrive. Unlike in the original version of Windows 8, you’re given the option to establish SkyDrive integration on setup, and integration thereafter is altogether deeper than before.
The option to be able to view your SkyDrive storage status directly from the Settings menu is a boon. More important, however, are the new options to automatically save all documents to and from SkyDrive, ensuring they're always available, whichever PC you happen to be using. The option is also there to save all photos and videos to your SkyDrive camera roll.
Our favourite new SkyDrive feature, mentioned above, is that, once integration is turned on, all your SkyDrive files become available from the desktop explorer window. SkyDrive also gets its very own entry in the navigation pane - like Dropbox, but with expanding folders. It's early days yet, but we can see this encouraging users to use their 7GB of SkyDrive storage much more intensively than before.
Before the final release, though, we’d like to see some kind of indication in the Explorer window as to whether files are online or offline. Currently, it’s by no means clear. We'd also like to see the reinstatement of the removed Libraries link.
Microsoft has not only achieved a much better "blend" between the Modern, touch-focused UI and the desktop than in the original Windows 8, but it has also expanded its scope, making it usable on smaller screens as well.
It's an impressive feat, and coupled with improved SkyDrive integration and the upgrade to Internet Explorer, it should provide a significant boost for existing customers when the official update appears later this year.
Whether it's enough to persuade desktop diehards to switch remains to be seen – we'd like to see more evidence of new, innovative desktop features before we're completely convinced. But so far, it's a cautious thumbs up for Windows 8.1.