LOS ANGELES, CA –While we wait with baited breath for Apple’s October 22 news presentation; we have rivals Microsoft releasing the Windows 8.1 upgrade today. Available for free, the upgrade presents a number of fixes to the problems users had with the Windows 8 OS system which launched in August 2012 and public use in October of that year.
So what is Windows 8.1 packing this time around? It is still geared towards a touch interface similar to what you would see with tablets. If you’re without a touch enabled computer, Windows 8 offered the classic desktop mode where navigation with mouse and keyboard is required.
Windows 8.1 brings more finger and gesture shortcuts for touch oriented parts of the interface. Desktop mode gets some love as well, but with PC and laptop sales continuing to dip don’t expect a ton of attention to be given to that element of the interface.
Months ago we reported that the iconic Start Button would return to Windows 8.1 and there it is—although it doesn’t do what the classic Start Button does. Whereas pre-Windows 8 version Start Buttons would see the Start Menu pop up and lay out various folders and programs, this one takes you back to the tile-based interface of Windows 8.
From these tiles you can open programs with a regular touch while a long press brings up the Control Panel and other settings. So while it’s back and it kind of does what we all have known Start Button to do—albeit in a roundabout way—the addition of the Start Button is more of a cosmetic one.
No Touch Screen Monitor? Boot to Desktop Mode
While touch screen capability for smartphones are common place, touch screen monitors have been slow to catch on and aren’t as common place as one would think they should be. Windows 8.1 offers the option to boot to Desktop Mode so that you don’t have to either get a touch monitor or just stick with Windows XP or Windows 7.
Gesture and Touch Additions
Now we move on to the meat of the upgrade: gestures and touch features. The first of the two sees gesture oriented apps comes into Windows 8.1. For example waving your hand in front of the front camera of the monitor will garner a reaction from the interface.
This allows for things such as turning pages on a virtual book or scrolling through page—just to name some simple gestures.
There is also the onscreen keyboard swipe function where users can type without having to toggle between different layouts on the keyboard.
Apps and Tiles
Users can now organize their Windows tiles and move them around faster by holding and dragging. It is also possible to resize the Window tiles in four different sizes with a few taps. This is different from Windows 8 where users had to use the mouse or touchpad to accomplish this. Also in Windows 8 you had two fewer size options.
Keeping with quick and easy use of your Windows 8.1 apps, you can simply swipe on the start screen without even bothering with the bottom. In Windows 8 users had to swipe from the bottom then use the “All Apps” button which added more unnecessary steps.
Notable Extras and Functionality
As is common on mobile devices and tablets, apps update automatically. This eliminates notifying users to hop over to the Windows Store and download the new update.
In Windows 8 answering Skype calls, snapping photos, and using other apps in the lock screen was a no-go. You simply had to sign in. This was the case prior to Windows 8 as well. Now you can simply swipe down and use whatever apps you have set when the screen is locked.
The stock Mail app comes with a pane on the left side that has your folders and updates from Facebook, Twitter, newsletters, messages—basically stuff you would run into in your full email anyway. It should be noted that a couple of the features only work in Microsoft’s Outlook.com.
While Internet Explorer still doesn’t get love when you have browsers like Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, Windows 8.1 has made Internet Explorer a little less of a bother. The ten tab limit being eliminated is the main thing here.
As far as navigating from the start screen with search, now you get a variety of search results spanning your computer or tablet, the internet, and the app store. The best example is looking for a particular artist. If you have their album on your computer, search will show that, internet results, and whatever might be in the app store that fits your query.
Videos, audio, news, and general information will all pop up in your search. This upgrade to search is somewhat of a jump from the pretty dated search we’ve had for some time where users had to choose where to search from. Now it all just pops up. It might be a bit cluttered to some who are use to being able to narrow the field.
Nice To Have
Do you enjoy being able to edit photos? Of course you do. Windows 8.1 has a picture editor that comes with standard stock editor features such as pre-set effects, touch up, cropping, brightness and contrast editing and so on. It keeps things very basic while keeping it above Paint.
Minor Xbox Bonuses
If you have an Xbox 360 or you’re getting an Xbox One, Windows 8.1 comes with features geared towards Microsoft’s video gaming and all purpose gaming machine.
While they’re definitely minor features and not at all gaming related, they’re sure to be welcome to Xbox owners. With the Xbox One, Windows 8.1 you can pick up where you left off in any video purchased from Xbox Video on a tablet or PC—if you were watching it on the Xbox One.
As far as music is concerned, the Xbox Music app now allows for users to make playlists from websites with a few taps and share that playlist via the Share button then the Music button. A playlist will be generated with songs from artists included and can be streamed for free.
Windows 8.1 is definitely a step up from Windows 8. There’s a good deal of bells and whistles and cosmetic stuff, but there are some actual updates to functionality that makes this free upgrade worth the hype and worth the wait for those who haven’t decided to bail on it.
The question that remains to be answered is if the upgrade is enough to lure Windows XP and Windows 7 holdouts from their loved and trusted OS versions.