Hands on with Windows 8.1 Preview: Time to uprade from Windows 7

By Vamien McKalin | Jul 02, 2013 12:09 PM EDT

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When Microsoft launched Windows 8 back in 2012, it was like Windows Vista all over again. The changes the company made to the operating system alienated some users, it took them from their comfort zone and forced them into using the new Modern UI, formally known as Metro. However, with Windows 8.1, Microsoft is attempting to fix all complaints, and from what we can tell so far, a fine job has been done on that front.

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The experience on Windows 8.1 is a drastic improvement over Windows 8, though the mouse, keyboard, and desktop are still second-class citizens in this touch screen focused operating system. But that's not exactly a bad thing, because steps have been taken to give those who prefer the desktop more freedom, just don't expect to completely escape from the Modern UI.

The return of the Start Button

Microsoft's biggest change to Windows 8.1 is the return of the Start Button, this is something users have been asking for ever since the operating system was in preview form. The new Start Button takes the shape of a flat Windows flag at the bottom left corner of the display. Clicking the new button takes you directly to the Start Menu, so right away you have the sense that Microsoft changed nothing here, but that is not correct.

The main reason many users rallied for the Start Button is because it allowed them to find what they wanted easily without much hassle. At first glance, this it might seem quite the opposite here, but with a few tweaks, things should be even better than before. By clicking on Taskbar>Properties>Navigation, the option should present itself where users can choose to show the list of desktop and modern apps in an alphabetical order when the Start Button is clicked. For those who want to see desktop apps first, that can be arranged, the same can be done if a user want to see most used apps first.

It's basically a full screen version of the Windows 7 Start Menu, so no more sorting through a million folders to find what you want, everything can be sorted here in one place.

Boot to Desktop

Finally Microsoft made this an option, because if you don't have a touch screen device, it would be better off booting to the desktop as the Modern UI is a pain with mouse and keyboard. Another great thing is the ability to disable the Charms Bar at the corner, this give you an almost 100 percent desktop experience.

Internet Explorer 11

The modern version of Internet Explorer 10 did not allow for creating bookmarks, one has to wonder what Microsoft was thinking on that front. Furthermore, users were limited to opening only 10 tabs, another strange set thing to do. However, those problems are gone with Internet Explorer 11, users can now open as many tabs they want in the modern setting, along with creating bookmarks. It should be noted that bookmarks saved in modern Internet Explorer 11 does not show up in the desktop, but bookmarks saved on the desktop shows up in the modern version of the browser.

Other improvements include the addition of WebGL support, and a few JavaScript and HTML5 performance tweaks.

The apps old and new

Microsoft's default Modern UI apps were extremely underpowered and lacking in key features, however, the company is attempting to fix this in Windows 8.1. One of the new apps is called Bing Food and Drinks, with this app, you basically search for recipes on how to cook, bake, or make a simple drink. We can see this being useful for parents and the few people who enjoy being in the kitchen.

The new photo app is no longer just a glorified tool to view photos, it now has some decent editing features. Don't come expecting it to be as powerful as Photoshop though, you will be extremely disappointed.

In addition, Microsoft vastly improved the Xbox Music app, it is now better designed and seem to come off as a desktop app at times. Still, it is a buggy mess right now as streaming songs don't always play, but that's alright, you can always stream your content via the Xbox Music web player.

SkyDrive deep integration

Microsoft is putting a lot of focus on the cloud, so it comes as no surprise to see SkyDrive being implemented deeper into Windows 8.1. Remember that SkyDrive app for the desktop? You won't need it anymore, this integration does everything you want. Furthermore, installed Metro apps and data are now backed up into the cloud, so when you move to a new computer, there won't be a need to re-download content manually.

Conclusion

Windows 8.1 is exactly what Windows 8 should have been, it took the screams of PC users to get Microsoft to realize what it has done was not consumer friendly. Recently, this has been a thing for Microsoft, just look closely at the Xbox One DRM fiasco for the perfect example. Microsoft needs to realize the consumer comes first before everything else, give them what they want, and they'll throw their money at your feet, it's that simple.

So, should you finally upgrade from Windows 7? Yes you should, as Windows 8.1 is the operating system you have been looking for.

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