Review Windows 8.1 adds a layer of polish to the previous release, Windows 8, and fixes various annoyances. But has Microsoft done enough to rescue its OS against a background of plummeting PC sales and unimpressed customers who want Windows 7 back?
Discussion of Windows 8.1 tends to focus on the Start screen and revived Start button. This is not just a cosmetic change. Start has been "reconceived" in Windows 8.1, and the main tiled screen is now an easily customised favourites panel instead of being the sole launch menu.
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By no coincidence, it is more like the Windows Phone user interface, where you pin your favourites to the main screen and access all apps by swiping your finger right. In Windows 8.1 you swipe down instead of right, or click the down arrow.
Tiles can be small too, so you can now have a huge number to view without scrolling if you wish, though small tiles have no captions.
It is a mistake, though, to concentrate on Start - especially as many users tell me they rarely use the Start screen, with the taskbar along with desktop shortcuts handling the applications they use most often.
More instructive is to look at what Microsoft is bringing out in the companion operating system to Windows 8.1 – Windows Server 2012 R2 and the PC and server management suite System Center 2012 R2 – and how this relates to Windows 8.1. These are due to be released on Friday.
A number of business-oriented features are now exclusive to Windows 8.1 or, in some cases, third-party devices running Apple iOS or Android. They do not work on Windows 7.
These features include workplace join, which identifies a device in Microsoft’s Active Directory without full domain join; work folders, which synchronise work documents stored in a user’s directory on the server; and selective wipe, which removes company apps and makes their data inaccessible.
If administrators require encryption on work folders, selective wipe makes the data there unreadable as well. Windows 8 is also required if you want the controversial UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) Secure Boot, which will only load signed drivers at boot, making it harder for malware to load.
Windows Store apps are inherently more manageable than desktop applications, since they are isolated from one another and from the operating system. Microsoft’s aim is to reposition Windows 8 as a device operating system, with these business-oriented features working alongside the new touch-friendly user interface.
The recent deal announced with Delta Air Lines, rolling out 11,000 Surface 2 Windows RT (yes, the ARM version) to pilots, shows how this can work.
Finally, Microsoft offers touch newbs a lifeline
There are signs too that Microsoft’s OEM partners are beginning to make sense of Windows 8. Talking to Toshiba at a trade show, I discovered – to no surprise – that the first wave of hybrid laptops with twisty screens had flopped, being too heavy and awkward to work as tablets, and too expensive to appeal as laptops. The new wave of devices has removable keyboards, more in the style of Surface. They work well as tablets, with the keyboard as a backup option when you need it.
None of this is any comfort to existing Windows desktop users who just want to get on their work and find that the Windows 8 user interface changes get in the way. That said, Windows 8.1 is an easier transition.
The restored Start button on the desktop is excellent for keyboard and mouse users, not just for getting to the menu, but also for its right-click administrative options, including Shutdown. Whereas only the boldest system administrator would roll out Windows 8.0, Windows 8.1 with boot to desktop enabled is not likely to be too painful. Microsoft even has a Help and Tips app that is a rather good introduction; why this kind of thing was not in the first release is a mystery.
Despite these improvements, Microsoft’s problems with Windows 8 are not over. One of the incongruities is that most of the effort has gone into the Windows Runtime and the tablet-friendly user interface, whereas users live mostly on the desktop, since there are so few compelling Windows Store apps.
"Error 0x80040A41: No error description available" - shoot the messenger
Tablet mode is not a complete dead loss. Mail is usable now, the Weather app is still great, Internet Explorer mostly works fine for browsing, and some third-party apps like Adobe Photoshop Express are nicely done. The general selection in the Store though remains poor, much worse than that for Windows Phone.
I also have doubts about the design principles of Windows Store apps. The blocky SkyDrive app, for example, is less usable, with its blocky appearance and endless horizontal scrolling, than the Explorer view on the desktop. This means you tend to use the desktop even when a first-party Store app is available.
Another concern is that Microsoft still has not gone far enough to foster a culture of usability. This hit me with force when I encountered a SkyDrive error while working with a poor internet connection on a train. You cannot blame SkyDrive for struggling in those circumstances; but you can blame whoever decided to throw up a message saying “Error 0x80040A41: No error description available”. Users should not see this kind of message, and there is still too much of it in Windows, which sends business users straight to their support desks and home users straight to their iPads.
The SkyDrive integration, which makes cloud storage the default for saving documents, is a key change towards making Windows more like a Google Chromebook, where you could lose your device, buy a new one and get everything back just as it was on your old device, through the magic of the cloud. Many settings, including Internet Explorer favourites and many passwords, also roam via SkyDrive.
Work Folders synchronize with a shared folder on the server, and can be wiped by the system administrator
It is mostly good, but this integration can also cause problems. The way document synchronisation works is an amalgam of direct chatter to the online service and offline storage with background sync, and the end result is not as smooth as it should be. A dreadful thing called the Office Upload Center pops up regularly, in my experience, to inform of some problem uploading a document.
Another oddity is in network connections. When you connect to a network, Windows offers public or private profiles, with the public profile hiding your PC and any shared folders from others on the network. How do you change a network connection from private to public? In Windows 8.0 you right-click, or press and hold, a network connection to pop up a menu including “Turn sharing on or off.” In Windows 8.1, that has gone.
You are meant to go to Charms (the right-hand vertical menu), Settings, Change PC Settings, then Network, then click or tap the network connection; though in my experience the sharing option does not turn up here either. In any case, should not this be part of the Network and Sharing Center on the desktop, where the profile is shown but is read-only? These are minor points in themselves, but show how bewildering Windows still can be.
The question of how Microsoft will fare in the wider tablet market remains open. The signs are that it will eventually unify Windows Phone and Windows RT and offer developers a single mobile platform, but it is taking too long. Business-friendly features and the strength of Microsoft Office ensure some role for Windows 8.1 tablets, but price versus Android devices, the weak app ecosystem, and usability flaws will hold it back among consumers.
Nevertheless, Windows 8.1 is a step forward and a worthwhile upgrade over Windows 7 even for those sticking with desktop, keyboard and mouse. ®