on 2 April 2014
For anybody who is using any previous version of Windows and considering upgrading to Windows 8.1, i hope you find this useful.
I am taking the time to write it because I am really tired of reading comments on tech sites that are deliberate attempts to deter people from upgrading to Windows 8.1 because they have an unhealthy level of brand loyalty to fruit, robot or penguin branded gadgets or software. This just creates `noise' that makes it difficult for genuine Windows users to see the real picture and make informed decisions about whether the upgrade is worth their money. I am sure my review will attract a considerable number of downvotes as a result.
I am an IT pro, I have used every version of Windows since the very beginning and along the way I have supported a variety of other Server and Desktop OS including OS/2, Linux, Unix and Mac. Currently I have to use Windows 7 at work every day and to be honest, I have grown tired of using it, it was great when it came out but now looks and feels dull, dated, slow and limited in comparison to Windows 8.1 (Never thought i would say that). It also lacks many features I now use everyday in Windows 8.1 and I often find myself attempting Windows 8.1 gestures, only to realise the gestures don't work because its Windows 7 I am using at work. By the way, my company (an Enterprise sized global company) only migrated to Windows 7 around 18 months ago so consequently would have no immediate plans to upgrade so soon afterwards and like many other enterprises will likely skip Windows 8/8.1 possibly even 9.
Since its debut in October 2012, my main desktop pc at home was set up to dualboot between Windows 8 x64 Pro and Windows 7 x64 Ultimate. However... from that date, I didn't boot into Windows 7 at home ever and just a couple of months later, I removed Windows 7 entirely. I installed the free 8.1 update as soon as it became available. My partners desktop and the media center in the lounge have been purely Windows 8, then 8.1 since the same time. We also have 2 Microsoft Surface tablets (Surface RT & Surface 2) and 2 Nokia Lumia phones with WP8.
Windows 8.1 works with all of my existing applications and games that run on Windows 7. I have zero compatibility issues with software. It also works with all of my hardware, however as with any new version of Windows, some manufacturers choose not to provide driver/software compatibility for products that are of a certain age on new operating systems. I recommend you check the hardware vendors websites before to see if your hardware has drivers/software available rather than be disappointed. Don't just rely on the "Windows Upgrade Assistant" that Microsoft provides.
The OS itself works great with Mouse/Keyboard just as well as Windows 7, it also works great with a touchscreen if you have one or are interested in purchasing one. If you are used to using keyboard shortcuts, don't panic, they have not gone away. It also works great with multiple screens.
Windows 8.1 has a great new user interface called "Start Screen" that is very easy to understand, it comprises tiles that provide you with dynamic information such as emails, news summary, weather, social media updates, photos etc. It requires very little time to understand the handful of gestures/keys/shortcuts you can use to interact with it. If you are mouse/keyboard only, I recommend a mouse with a scroll wheel so you can scroll the start screen and scroll or turn page on any scrolling/page turning modern apps without having to drag the scrollbar. For a very large percentage of people who are not IT experts, this is ideal for their use and if like my parents, many will not need to use the desktop at all. The Start Screen is customisable so you can group different tiles together (e.g. group all your news/interest sites/apps together or all your social apps together), you can label each group and you can resize tiles (5 different sizes). I tend to have the tiles that have the most useful dynamic content larger than the others, it gives a little more real estate for useful information I can catch at a glance. Customisation of the OS was a little coarse in Windows 8, but with some of the improvements in 8.1, that process became far more intuitive and refined. Apps that work in the Modern UI are sourced from the Windows Store (An app is pre-installed that allows you to browse, download and purchase free/paid apps). For people who use a pc for basic stuff (email etc) but also like reading news.. I think the News App and other alternatives available in the App store (Flipboard, News Bento etc) make reading about your interests and News much more convenient and much better than if you had setup RSS feeds. By default 8.1 is configured to boot to the start screen so for many users (less advanced users that do more consumption than creation/productivity) this is likely to be the best choice.
For anybody more advanced, IT professionals or people who use productivity software in their job, the new UI also has benefits. In my case I use this UI mostly for consumption of digital content, browsing web etc and for the other things I mentioned above. I particularly like seeing the weather, any new emails, news headlines and social updates at a glance before I head into my news app to see whats happening in the world, all whilst enjoying a nice cup of tea, it has become part of my morning and evening routine. There is also the added benefit that my Surface 2 tablet and Lumia phone has the same interface and all my stuff is syncd across all my devices without me lifting a finger.
As I am an IT Professional and user of productivity software, I spend most of my time on the classic desktop. Just like Windows 7 you can add shortcuts on the taskbar or desktop to your most frequently accessed stuff, if you choose, you can also `pin' shortcuts them to your modern start screen. Windows 8.1 enables you to boot directly to the desktop (instead of start screen) if you prefer. So if you don't like the new UI, you never have to see/use it. I prefer to boot to the Start Screen and click on the desktop tile when I am ready.
Now there is one element that has been entirely changed. That is the Start Button which was omitted from Windows 8, reintroduced in 8.1 but with different behaviour. If left click it in 8.1, it will by default take you to the "Start Screen". If right clicked it will present you with a list of power user options. What it doesn't do if you left click it is present you with the "Start Menu" which was the scrolling list of stuff you have installed and other options that was present in Windows 95 through to Windows 7. This is apparently what most of the negativity has been about and to some extent I can understand some genuine Windows users who like this method of launching applications would have preferred to have a choice. To cut to the chase, the Start Screen does provide an alternative `launcher' that is flexible to allow mouse/keyboard or touch input. For those that cannot survive without the start menu or feel it will take them longer to adapt, there are wide range of "Start Menu" software packages you can install free or buy for a small fee. "Classic Shell" is an excellent free start menu package and another very highly rated package is "Start8" by Stardock @ £4.99. That's right, like always, with Windows there are still multiple ways of doing the same thing so you can always find one that suits your usage style. Unfortunately though a significant % of the complaints about this are not from Windows users, they are from people who on tech sites are positively commenting everything from Apple, Google or Linux and attacking any article related to Microsoft. Quite a lot of other improvements have been made to Windows, the most beneficial new features for home users small business users are:
1. Improved Security - Baked in Antivirus, improved Smartscreen filter (to prevent phishing attacks), Secureboot (prevents bootkits infecting your bootsector that can re-infect your pc after removal of malicious software) and modern apps from the Windows Store - These run in a sandbox so are inherently more secure than traditional desktop apps.
2. Family Safety - Baked into the OS allowing parents to have control over what their children can see online and ability to limit use to certain applications and within certain time periods. Previous versions required separate download and it was part of a Windows Live package. Not something that I use, but I am pretty sure responsible parents would want to restrict their children from accessing porn or other inappropriate content. In older versions I think this was part of Windows Live Essentials which was an optional download, I don't have kids so somebody may correct me on that point.
3. Windows Store - Simple and safe method for acquiring free apps and purchasing paid apps.
4. Continuity of Support from Windows Updates - This is now particularly important for users who are still using Windows XP (about 38% according to analysts).
5. Continuity of Application support, many publishers have cut or will cut support for XP. For home users this can be an annoyance and also a security risk. For business users, its both a security risk and a business risk.
6. Modern Start Screen - Whilst this is the most controversial point I list, I see it is a significant benefit. It provides a starting point where at a glance, you can see useful dynamic information from things such as... News headlines, Weather, Whats on TV, Emails/Skype/Social Media updates & Messages, Whats on online TV or added to streaming services you may have subscribed to.. this is without having to even launch any of those programs.. so it could be considered to provide a kind of dashboard functionality. It also is the modern starting point from where you can launch your most used apps (modern apps from Windows Store and classic desktop applications) as well as grouping them into logical categories, all without the unnecessary clutter of the old Start Menu. If you want to quickly see every app... one click or a downwards swipe and you can see and interact with the full list that can be sorted alphabetically or by other filters. In complete contrast, I find the old Start Menu in previous versions of windows to be horrendous for organisation and after installing quite a lot of applications or games, would quickly deteriorate into an unwieldy scrolling mess. What was particularly annoying about it was the fact it deemed it necessary to not only create folders for each program and insert the program launcher, but it also inserted Uninstaller, help, weblinks, registration into each. In my view help, weblinks and registration would have been better if accessed through the applications themselves and as Uninstaller is duplication of control panel/uninstall programs function, these things that caused this clutter were wholly unnecessary and could have been avoided. I also hated the fact that publishers would create duplicate folders... so for example.. instead of every game from Electronic Arts being in one folder called "EA" or "Electronic Arts", with each EA game I installed, I would get multiple folders such as "EA", "EA Sports", "Electronic Arts", "EA Games" and many more variations. Then inside each would be the single player program, sometimes multiplayer program launcher, uninstaller, help, weblinks, sometimes configuration utility, sometimes registration. This greatly multiplied the unnecessary clutter and required constant cleaning up to merge these folders and delete all the junk. I am so happy that this was removed, but I do understand we are not all the same and accept that some people were used to it and would have liked a choice to continue its use or if/when they choose to change to the modern Start Screen. If Microsoft deserves any criticism, it is for not allowing these choices.
7. Modern Apps (from the Windows Store) - not only inherently more secure, but certain apps like news readers like Bing News, News Bento and Flipboard (amongst many others) provide a much clearer, much more intuitive and much less complicated way for many users to access and consume the news or read about their interests.. visually they are like reading a newspaper or magazine where you scroll or swipe to change page/flip page over. I feel that this really lowers the barrier to usage of PC's for things that people care about and use. I accept that some apps have better Desktop versions that have far more options, settings, but for many home users, these things can be daunting to use, overcomplicated and unnecessary. My personal use is a mixture of both... at the beginning I was probably 95% : 5% usage in favour of desktop apps, after 18 months of Windows 8/8.1 and Windows tablets, I am more like 65% : 35% with my tablet use responsible for most of the increase although the steadily growing number of modern apps and some of the better quality ones is a factor too. Without the tablet use, I guess it would be about 80% : 20%.
8. Compatibility with new peripherals and better future proofing for compatibility - Many hardware vendors use End of Support Life of an OS as a catalyst for ending support of an OS, any new products they release often do not have drivers written for them.
9. Lower resource footprint than Windows 7 - OS, Apps and Games run faster on the same hardware.
10. Much faster boot, sleep, hibernate and resume times. My media center in particular.. resumes from sleep in about 1 second and faster than my 60" TV resumes from standby. Boot time from POST on Maximus VI Hero/i7-4770K/32gb Ram with SSD RAID0 is about 7 seconds until I am typing in my password, this is with quickboot options in UEFI Bios all enabled.
11. Microsoft Account Integration - Sign into your pc once and you don't have to sign into each service separately. The account is tied to your Skydrive (now called OneDrive), People/contacts, Mail, Skype, Xbox Video, Xbox Music, Xbox Games and App Store. You can also associate your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Email accounts (Outlook, hotmail, yahoo, gmail etc) and the result is you only ever have to sign in once, It has a little bit of linking to do the first time, it is very straightforward to do and takes only a couple of minutes but after that, you don't have to think about it again. Why is this a benefit? I am certain that less computer literate users find having so many different account credentials to remember is very `offputting' and is a barrier to many who would like to use PC's and online services.
12. Baked in Cloud storage.. You now have "OneDrive" (Previously called "SkyDrive") as a storage location just like your local or network storage. This storage is accessible anywhere from your pc (after logging in with your MS account) or on any PC via a browser or app (by logging in with your MS account). Same for your WP8 smartphone. I am not certain but I expect there are iOS and Android apps for Skydrive/OneDrive too. This is completely free. I personally like this because it is free but the main reason is because my data is not being scanned to serve me ads.
13. Deeper integration with Social - Whilst social isn't everybody's cup of tea.. it would be disingenuous to argue that hardly anybody would want this.
14. Vastly improved built in Browser.. IE11 is much faster, has hardware acceleration, is much more secure and supporting W3 standards.. This is coming from somebody who never used IE (until IE10).. except to download Netscape and later Firefox. I am almost embarrassed to say it, but i now use IE11 more than i use Firefox. I especially like the sync'd tabs across my devices and when I choose not to be tracked or to clear my data, It really does mean my data is deleted and I am not being tracked. Microsoft's business is based on selling software and services and in the enterprise, security and privacy is paramount. It is not based on monetisation from datamining to serve you ads.
15. Much improved search capability.. "Integrated Search" displays content from multiple sources... local storage, remote/cloud storage, web, apps all from one query. Something that google is now rushing to mimic with Android.
16. Much improved File copy although I still wish that it had gone further by providing functional parity with Teracopy, albeit with a simple toggle "More" to expand and reveal options allowing more control and "Less" to hide those options for people who don't want it. I see this as an opportunity missed, but hope it comes in Windows 9. Until then, I recommend anybody to take a look at Teracopy if you regularly shift large amounts of data and want more granular control.
17. Baked in Email thats easy to setup once with existing Hotmail, Outlook, Yahoo, Gmail etc email accounts.. It also is very clean and doesn't post ads all over your app or sneak what look like emails in your inbox (but are actually ads/spam) like Google does.
18. New Refresh and Reinstall features allow you to refresh the installation without affecting your files should you ever have the want or need to do so.
19. Settings to control data over metered connections - Great news If you have a download cap on your broadband or are using a device with built in 4G.
20. Flight mode - great for when you take your notebook or tablet - almost expected feature these days, its new to Windows 8.
21. Much improved stability and reliability.. To be fair, Windows 7 was never known for unreliability or instability but like every OS when it was first released, was subject to early teething problems. Whilst i am not suggesting that i had a lot of Blue Screen of Death events, i did have some. In contrast, in my experience of Windows 8/8.1.. I've had one BSOD, that was shortly after Windows 8 launch. What is noticeably better though is how i have not had to reinstall Windows since October 2012 when i first installed retail WIndows 8. This is the first operating system i haven't had to reinstall after several months constant/heavy usage.
22. Same experience across all devices.. Its not only about having the same UI on desktop pc, laptop, tablet, smartphone... but it really benefits in situations like when you buy a new pc, instead of having to set everything up again from ground zero, you only need to login to your microsoft account on first boot and hey presto... your settings that were stored in the cloud are now on that device. Same benefit in the unlikely event you want or need to reinstall windows. In my example, after purchasing the Surface RT tablet when it launched in the UK, I signed into my Microsoft account and my preferences from my desktop PC stored in the cloud were downloaded to my tablet, when I replaced that with a Surface 2, same thing again.. on first boot, logged in with my MS account and voila.. saved myself a lot of time having to do it all manually and only required a minimum of device specific settings to be adjusted according to taste. If anybody is also considering buying a Windows 8.1 tablet (whether it be Intel x86 or Arm based), keep this point in mind... you will see the bigger picture a lot quicker than just using Windows 8.1 on a notebook or desktop only.
23. Works fantastically well with Touch devices and Touch Screens, but works just as well with a mouse and keyboard, although I would suggest you use a mouse with a scroll-wheel.
Less universally beneficial or less known but there nonetheless...
24. Much more informative and useful Task Manager.
25. Native support for USB3.0 - i accept that most users won't notice this benefit they will just use it. Its simply providing accessibility to USB3.0 peripherals.. what's the point in investing in slower USB2.0 peripherals? After all, USB3.0 peripherals are slowly becoming default.
26. Baked in support for NFC, Miracast, WiFi Direct & 3D Printing - not everybody is going to use them today, but i certainly use WiFi direct sometimes and over the coming years I expect i will use the others.
27. Storage Spaces.. improved way for adding more disk space (use up your spare disks from old PC's) combining your physical disks into one logical disk in Windows that grows as you add more disks to it. My parents have no idea what C: Drive is and if I gave them a D: drive and an E: drive, they would be even further confused. I don't wish to appear condescending, I just think my parents are no different from a lot of people.
28. Automatic Forced Restart following Windows updates - Absolutely annoying in Windows XP, Vista, 7.. automatic updates would install whilst you were away from your desk, you would come back and find that Windows had restarted your pc. If you had been at your desk, you may have noticed a message telling you it would auto-restart in 10 minutes, but that you would have the option to postpone it for up to 4 hours. This was not good enough and numerous times has resulted in me (and countless other people worldwide) from losing work. Windows 8.1 completely fixes this issue by adopting a much more flexible approach to restarts after windows updates. It will now auto restart only after 2 days by default.. if you do not restart before then. I have never lost work due to this issue since installing windows 8, although I continue to have it periodically on my notebook at work (Windows 7) often on Patch Tuesday.
29. Support for DirectX 12 - Certainly a benefit for PC gamers and they are a very large user group, Stats from Steam indicate an already huge and fast growing userbase. DX12 will rollout to Windows 8.1 via an update sometime in 2015 - it will enable significantly higher graphic performance on the same hardware, it hasn't been confirmed whether this will be available for Windows 7, but my expectation is that it is unlikely. My opinion is based on previous Microsoft decisions on availability of DX10 and DX11.
For Enterprise IT Sys Admins, Power Users, the list is also very significant.
The only features that I used that have been removed in Windows 8/8.1 were:
Windows Media Center
These were removed as the use of Optical Media has deteriorated very quickly and the use of cloud services including storage and streaming services has grown at a staggering rate. The issue with including these for legacy purposes was the royalties that would need to be paid to the patent holders. Microsoft elected to remove this cost from everybody, but provided the option that for those that wanted to continue to use DVD etc, they could pay a small fee for an upgrade pack (cost is something like £7 - £10 and upgrade/purchase is online and initiated from within Windows 8.1). However, I took advantage of the free offer by registering Windows 8 before the free upgrade offer expired.
Admittedly, like every previous release of Windows or any other OS, there were some rough edges or missing features from Windows 8 on day 1. Most of these have already been refined or added in the Windows 8.1 update and there will be more updates that further add features and refine existing ones. These updates will be available for free in the Windows Store App.
All things considered, Windows 8.1 gets my highest recommendation.