Windows 8.1 follows Windows 8 in typical Microsoft "version 2.0" fashion, changing a bit of eye candy and dangling several worthwhile improvements -- but hardly solving the underlying problem. Touch-loving tablet users are still saddled with a touch-hostile Windows desktop, while point-and-clickers who live and breathe the Windows desktop still can't make Metro go away.
Windows 8.1 also installs the worst privacy-busting feature Windows has ever seen, and it nukes several key Windows 7 features in its headlong pursuit of SkyDrive profits. The best improvements for desktop users dismantle Windows 8's pushy ways -- a fact that speaks volumes. The best improvements for developers sweep away some infantile restrictions. And the only reasonable way to use the old-fashioned desktop still requires a third-party Start menu utility.
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This review covers Windows 8.1 as we see it right now -- with the official bits available, as of yesterday, on TechNet and MSDN. You can bet your bottom dollar that the Microsoft devs are working overtime to zap a few outstanding bugs (I've hit a few) and to spiff up the still-laggardly Metro apps. What will happen between now and General Availability on Oct. 18 is anybody's guess, but it's likely that several of the Microsoft-written Metro apps will sprout much-needed features. We'll review the new Microsoft-originated Metro apps as they become available.
Think of Windows 8.1 as a few steps forward and a few steps back. In the forward direction we have a little more flexibility in Metro with live tiles, more "discoverability" for inscrutable settings and actions, and a Metro Photos app that largely eliminates the need for a free photo editing package. Yowza. On the old-fashioned desktop, we have the ersatz Start button that merely dumps you back into Metro, the ability to boot to the desktop, and a way to disable all the infuriating and intrusive hot corners inherited from Metro.
Experienced Windows users who like to run on the Metro side -- all 10 of you -- will also appreciate the migration of settings and options from the legacy Control Panel over to the full-screen Metro PC Settings window. Alas, that migration is not yet complete.
In the backward direction, we have lamentable changes related to Smart Search, Libraries, and SkyDrive. Smart Search is plenty smart for Microsoft and its advertising ambitions, but for Windows customers, it's the worst privacy intrusion in the history of Windows. Libraries, introduced in Windows 7 and extended in Windows 8, have been decapitated -- although several Microsoft apps use them. I guess somebody on the Metro apps team didn't get the memo. And SkyDrive? Baking SkyDrive into Windows is long overdue, but the intrusive way it's implemented by default makes SkyDrive work more like a straitjacket and less like an option.
Improvements to Metro
Microsoft added a few don't-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot improvements to the Metro Start screen, primarily imposing a Customize mode that keeps you from dragging or deleting a tile unless you really want to. Tiles now come in four sizes: The two sizes in Windows 8, regular square and double-wide, are now augmented by a tiny quarter-size and a big four-times size. Not all tiles can appear in all sizes. (See Figure 1.)
Hover your mouse in the lower-left corner, or tap, and you see a down arrow that leads to the All Apps list (shown in Figure 2). The All Apps list is an unwieldy collection of "dead" tiles, organized in a way that mimics the way Windows 7 puts programs in the Start menu. If you install a legacy Windows 7 desktop program in Windows 8.1, this is where its tile appears. The All Apps collection is strictly two-dimensional -- there are no cascading groups -- so the tiles keep going and going.
Microsoft ships some new colors and wallpaper for use on the Metro Start screen, as well as the ability to run a slideshow on your Lock screen (based on pictures in a local folder of your choosing, or on SkyDrive). Note that the wallpaper customization happens on the Metro Start screen's Settings > Personalize menu, while Start screen customization sits in the Settings > Metro PC Settings > PC and Settings > Lock screen section -- no idea why.
With the right setting in Metro PC Settings, you can also get to the computer's camera from the Lock screen without any intervening steps.
Metro Snap no longer confines the snapped pane to a fixed 320-pixel stripe. You can now adjust the width of each snapped pane individually, although the panes tend to disappear when they get too narrow. Instead of limiting the number of panes to two, you can fit as many panes on the display as you like, with the maximum number of panes calculated by dividing the horizontal resolution of the screen by 500. Thus, a 1,920-pixel-wide screen can hold three panes. Metro Snap still doesn't have the overlapping/stacking window capability we've known since, oh, Windows 2.0.
The Metro PC Settings app has bulked up considerably. For example, you can actually add a new user to your PC while staying on the Metro side. But Metro PC Settings still lacks the ability to make the new user an administrator.
The Charms bar has the same old Charms, with a few new tricks. For example, the Devices charm now includes options to Play, Print, and Project (on a projector). Unfortunately, if you click on the Play icon, you invariably get the notice that you can only Play from apps. And when you're in a Metro app that should be able to Play, you may find that the app isn't smart enough to connect to the Charm and will use its own Play button. The Charms themselves do almost nothing on the old-fashioned desktop. For example, choosing Devices > Print while in legacy Word doesn't do a thing.
Improvements to the desktop
I still get ill every time I read reviews about the Windows 8.1 ersatz Start button. "It's back where it belongs on the left side of the taskbar!" Well, yes, there's a Start button on the left side of the taskbar, but it doesn't do anything other than swing you back to the Metro Start screen -- just as you can click in the lower-left corner of the current Windows 8 desktop and get rocketed back to the future. The only difference is the icon.
That said, there are some improvements on the desktop side of the fence -- and they have more to do with getting Metro to back off than any long-sought old-fashioned features. All the significant improvements to the desktop appear in a solitary dialog box, shown in Figure 3.
To bring up the Taskbar and Navigation Properties dialog box, right-click an empty spot on the desktop Taskbar (or tap and hold), choose Properties, then click or tap the Navigation tab. Here's what the settings actually do:
Turn off the annoying behavior where, if you hover in the upper-right corner of the screen (you know, where the "X" icon is on any full screen window), Windows 8 decides you want to see the Charms. Pro tip: Use Win-C if you absolutely must see the Charms.
Turn off the annoying behavior where, if you hover in the upper-right corner of the screen (say, near Word's File menu), you suddenly see currently running programs. Pro tip: Use Alt-Tab, the "Coolswitch" that's worked for more than a decade.
For PowerShell junkies only; see the next section.
Boot to desktop.
Some people find it less jarring to put the desktop wallpaper on the Metro Start screen. I prefer to leave them different. (Details in a forthcoming article on adapting Windows 8.1.)
Multimonitor folks only. Debatable.
Apps View (see Figure 2) isn't anything at all like the Windows Start menu, but it's the closest substitute available. I let Windows 8.1 search everywhere and have it show the desktop apps first.
The Win-X menu -- the one that appears when you right-click on the new Start button, either on the desktop or on the Metro Start screen -- now has the ability to log off, shut down, or restart the machine. I have no idea why Microsoft makes you choose between the Windows PowerShell and the Command Prompt entries on the Win-X menu (see Figure 3). I guess the programmers ran out of time. They only had a year.
Searching through the Search Charm used to be completely unpredictable. Some Metro apps supported it, all desktop apps ignored it, and when you ran a search through the Search charm, you had no idea what you'd get back. In Windows 8.1, most apps now have their own Search functions.
Skype is now baked in to Windows 8.1, replacing the tired, old Messenger app that's been hanging around Windows like a sick dog since the supremacy of MSN last century. While the Metro Skype app doesn't have anywhere near the functionality of Internet-based Skype, it isn't bad. It's one of the few Metro apps I use from time to time.
If you sign on to Windows with a Microsoft account, SkyDrive comes along for the ride. In many situations, as long as your needs are simple, SkyDrive is a reasonable alternative to Dropbox, Box, Mega, Mozy, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud, SpiderOak, SugarSync, and a dozen others -- all of which have good and bad points. What I don't like is the way SkyDrive now locks into your system.
The bad news
Two months ago, I complained long and hard about a new Windows 8.1 "feature" called Smart Search. Microsoft didn't listen to me. This RTM version of Windows 8.1 continues to turn on Smart Search by default. Microsoft uses Smart Search as an excuse to track your local searches -- searches you make on your computer or your network -- and gathers your local search terms to sell you things. It's the ultimate desktop Scroogle.
Smart Search is smart for advertisers. For you, it's another unjustified invasion of your privacy -- and one that's not adequately explained, as it's buried in the default settings. Here's how Microsoft puts it:
Bing Ads will be an integral part of the new Windows 8.1 Smart Search experience. Now, with a single campaign setup, advertisers can connect with consumers across Bing, Yahoo, and the new Windows Search with highly relevant ads for their search queries. In addition, Bing Ads will include Web previews of websites and the latest features like site links, location, and call extensions, making it easier for consumers to complete tasks and for advertisers to drive qualified leads.
To turn off Smart Search, from the Settings Charm, choose Change PC Settings, then Search and Apps, and Search, and move the "Get search suggestions and Web results from Bing" slider to Off.
Perhaps sanity will prevail and Smart Search will be turned off by the time Windows 8.1 hits General Availability.
In another slap at experienced Windows users, Windows 8.1 starts to dismantle Libraries. Where Windows 7 and Windows 8 both ship with fully functional Libraries (the Documents Library, for example, contains the \<user>\Documents folder and the \Public\Documents folder), the Documents Library in Windows 8.1 only contains \<user>\Documents. The Music, Pictures, and Videos Libraries don't get the Public folders, either.
If you sign on with a Microsoft account, Windows 8.1 activates SkyDrive, the SkyDrive folder gets added to the Documents Library, and it's pegged as the default folder in the Library. Thus, if you save a new file in Word, WordPad, or any other word processor that wants to save to the Documents Library, your new file will go into SkyDrive -- where you get to pay for the privilege if you use enough space.
To make matters worse, where Libraries figured prominently in Windows 7's Windows Explorer and Windows 8's File Explorer, in Windows 8.1 they're hidden. You have to go through the View tab in Explorer to bring them back. And heaven help you if you need to explain to a novice how to find their Public folders.
In Windows 8.1, the treatment of Libraries is all over the place. You can't see them in Windows Explorer unless you find the right switch. But if you go into the Microsoft-made Metro Photos app, you work directly with the Photos Library. The Xbox Metro Music and Metro Video apps use the respective Music and Videos folders, not Libraries -- and it's very difficult to bring in Music and Videos from the Public folders. Windows Media Player works with the Music Library.
One word of warning: If you use a Microsoft account in Windows 8.1 that was also used in Windows 8, you'll see your old Libraries in full force. Running your Microsoft account on Windows 8.1 won't dismantle your Libraries; Windows 8.1 just won't build new Libraries for new Microsoft accounts.
The Windows 7 Backup and Restore Center -- a bit hard to find, but nonetheless extant, in Windows 8 -- is now gone. The Windows Experience Index, present in Windows 8, is also nowhere to be seen in Windows 8.1. System Restore Points, which were generated automatically in Windows 8, are now created only if you manually turn them on.
Finally, as with Windows 8, any serious desktop user will still need a third-party add-on if they want anything remotely resembling the Windows Start Menu. That hasn't changed. The ability to boot to the desktop is nice, but it doesn't obviate the need for Start8 and its ilk.
New for developers
Lest you think Windows 8.1 is all glitz and gloom, there's a silver lining on that big, ugly black cloud. Over on the developer side, Microsoft has finally -- finally! -- relaxed many of its stupid rules for Metro app development. As a result, we may actually see some usable Metro apps appearing in the next few months -- apps that are not bound by the cookie-cutter regulations that have stymied creativity among Metro app developers.
Microsoft Developer Evangelist Jerry Nixon lays out the new rules in his personal (but apparently official) blog: Windows 8.1 says, "Forget all that Design Stuff from Windows 8.0." Even if you aren't a developer, it's well worth reading.
It seems that Microsoft listened to its telemetry and decided the original Metro app design guidelines were all screwed up. There's a reason why the stuff in the Windows Store looks so intensely boring. All the apps have been hamstrung by ridiculous design rules that ensure uniformity, ridigity, as well as groupthink that are anathema to good designs and good designers.
Here are the four design criteria that Nixon singles out for change:
Search. Windows 8 users never figured out that the function of the Search Charm changes, depending on which app is running. A context-sensitive Search charm is a bad idea, and it was implemented all over the place. Just for starters, the Search charm on the desktop doesn't -- doesn't search, that is. Jerry says Microsoft is now starting to put Search boxes where the design gods intended, on the search pages inside the apps. See Figure 2 for an example.
Silhouette. This is the cookie-cutter design skeleton that forced all Metro apps to look like all other Metro apps. It's out the window. Good riddance.
Design grid. The old Windows App rules forced designers to work in a 20-by-20-pixel grid. Windows 8.1 reduces that to 5 by 5 pixels, which gives designers much more leeway in laying out screens.
Snap. In Windows 8, new apps had to be able to run in a rigidly defined 320-pixel-wide Metro Snap view. That requirement is gone.
Nixon doesn't mention one other big change: The almost pathological abhorrence for "chrome" in Windows 8 Metro apps is finally giving way to a more reasonable and less rigid approach in Windows 8.1. Metro users were supposed to know, by osmosis, that in situation "X" they had to swipe from the bottom, and in situation "Y" they had to swipe from the right. Or maybe they had to pinch, or unpinch, or tap and hold, swipe with two fingers, or click their heels and repeat, "There's no place like Start." It's all a big guessing game, especially for experienced Windows users who know there's a better way.
Phone UI designers figured out long ago that a little bit of hint goes a long way -- a bump here or a dot there can make the difference between utterly inscrutable and at least marginally discoverable. Perhaps more Windows 8.1 Metro apps will take the cue.
The bottom line
If you're using Windows 8, plan on upgrading to Windows 8.1 -- but give it a month or two for all the creepy-crawlies to shake out. When you install, make sure you turn off Smart Search, and take a minute to get your Libraries back.
If you're using Windows XP or Windows 7 (still my favorite OS), there's nothing to see here. Move along.
In the past few weeks we've witnessed the entire Windows chain of command self-implode. Whether the turmoil will bring improvements to the desktop side of Windows 9 remains to be seen. I still favor the Windows Red approach, which draws a sharp line between Metro and desktop, allowing fans of each side to live within their own comfort zone, and to draw on the advantages of their tablet or desktop-oriented hardware, respectively.
Nobody knows what the next version of Windows will look like or when it will appear, but it's a sure bet it's going to be quite different from Windows 8.1 -- at least, one can hope.
This story, "Windows 8.1 review: New version, same mess," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
Woody Leonhard writes computer books, primarily about Windows and Office; his latest is "Windows 8 All-in-One for Dummies." He's senior editor at Windows Secrets Newsletter and a frequent contributor to InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. A self-described "Windows victim," Woody specializes in telling the truth about Windows in a way that won't put you to sleep.