I’m sure no one who is remotely interested in computing have missed the fact that a beta version of Windows 8.1 was released as a preview to the general audience last week. Unfortunately Microsoft botched up the update download that was first released and which would not install on a great many machines due to silly language issues. That update file should really have never gone out the door in that state but later they released an ISO image which you could install on any machine. It is the latter one which I installed on one of my (older) laptops just to see how much of an improvement (if any) this version really was.
First of all the usual disclaimers: I have only played with this release for a few days. Also it is a beta release after all. Another thing worth pointing out is that I have not been using it on a touch screen. Then, most of my serious work I do on a desktop computer without touch so how it works on a non-touch computer is as important to me as how it works on a touch device.
My first impressions are really a mixed bag. There are plenty of things to like, some things have not improved or have changed but I do not find it an improvement. Some things are downright worse than before.
Sometimes the small things in life are the ones that give you the most enjoyment and I am very happy that you can finally user your own background image in the start menu. It was such a silly omission in the first release. It actually has a greater impact than you might believe since, by synchronizing the desktop wallpaper with the start menu background, the flipping between the two feels much more seamless now.
More tile sizes…yes! This is another one of those small things that should have been in there from the start. I do not need or want those big blobs for a lot of my apps but I still want those apps readily available on the start menu. Thus the new small tile sizes where you can wham four apps into the space of a single one of the old square tiles are a real improvement.
We also got a start button back…kind of. Actually it is not really the start button and it is rather “Meh was that all?” but it is better than nothing I guess. In reality it is just the start menu as a pre-pinned app in the start-bar of the desktop. Clicking on it behaves like pushing the windows button. If you have synched your start menu and desktop backgrounds it gives you the illusion of a start button since the start menu seems to appear above the desktop but it really is nothing more than an illusion. It works rather well though but the return of the start button, that it is not.
The integration with SkyDrive is now much deeper and you automatically (unless you choose to not use SkyDrive at all) get a SkyDrive folder on your file system without having to install the Desktop app. By default your files are off-line but Windows creates a local thumbnail for you so it really looks like the files are local. Clicking on one of them will of course cause Windows to go off and fetch the actual file from SkyDrive. The modern UI (Metro) SkyDrive app also doubles as a file browser for your local drive. That was another one of those unbelievable omissions in Windows 8.0. It has to be said that it feels a bit unintuitive to have to open the SkyDrive app to browse your local drive though.
There are a number of other small improvements and I have most certainly not found them all yet. For instance the browser can now show the open tabs above the address bar at all times without you having to swipe to get to either the tabs or the address bar. It is not so easy to accidentally move tiles around anymore. There are some new apps, like the food and drink one, which are not too bad.
First my standard gripe. Where is my combined email inbox? It is just crap that the built-in email app still does not provide this. It is available on Windows Phone for Christ sake! Why not on Windows 8?
Some of the apps do not seem to work fully yet. I have a clock tile that does not update its tile reliably any more. Neither does the built in calendar. I also have 6 of the built in apps that simply reports a failure to update in the store app. Speaking of the store app. This is perhaps more personal taste than anything else but I do not think this update was an improvement. I liked the old layout better. I would really like to get rid of the “Picks for you” crap as well. Not only do I not really care for that but it suggests apps that I have already installed. Sloppy Microsoft!
Although SkyDrive is deeper integrated into Windows 8.1 it is still lacking some things and we appear to have lost some features. You still cannot browse other PC’s having the SkyDrive app installed like you can do with the web interface. Worse, your Windows 8.1 computer does not show up in the SkyDrive web interface. Granted, I have not installed the desktop version of the SkyDrive app but given the out-of-the-box integration of SkyDrive one would assume that installing the desktop version of the sync would conflict.
Although the on-line feature of SkyDrive works quite well it is quite slow to get files on-demand from SkyDrive even if you have a otherwise fast connection. You can however ask to have your files off-line meaning that SkyDrive will download and sync the files locally. I have not tried this yet but I see one big issue for me. There appears to be no way to tell SkyDrive where to put the SkyDrive folder. That is really no good. On my desktop machine I have a rather small SSD which I boot from. I do not want SkyDrive to put all my SkyDrive content on this drive which it now does by default without asking me. I seriously hope that Microsoft is not taking the arrogant we-know-what-is-best-for-you attitude on this one. If they do, SkyDrive is not really usable for me. At least not in the way it is meant to be.
Since I am a photo amateur one of the apps that I was somewhat disappointed over in Windows 8.0 was the Photo app. Unfortunately this app as not improved in Windows 8.1. Rather the inverse actually. The general layout have improved so it looks more like the SkyDrive app with folders to the left and folder content to the right. This is a much more usable layout than those huge tiles you have in the Windows 8.0 version. Unfortunately some other changes have made the app more or less totally unusable. When it opens up it shows you the content of the pre-created Pictures folder on your boot drive. That is it! There is no way, that I have found, to make it show anything else. It ignores any settings that you make to your Pictures library and you cannot navigate anywhere else. Despite the much advertised SkyDrive integration you cannot even make it show your SkyDrive photos. This is just utter nonsense! I sincerely hope that this is because the apps is in beta (I would say alpha actually) but I really think they should not have shoved such useless crud out the door.
Bottom line, some things are needed improvements but they really need to work on this update. Some things are such a step backwards that I really think the overall result is not really an improvement…yet.