Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Windows 8.1 - The good, the bad, and the missing.

Little over a year after Windows 8, it gets an upgrade with the release of 8.1. Is this just a Service Pack by any other name or does it provide real improvement over it's predecessor that makes it worthy being a numbered release?

 First, the good.

 Real effort has been made in 8.1 to reduce the jarring effect of moving between Windows' Classic and Modern UIs. Here are the main improvements:

  • Search has been altered so that when you search, the search window and initial results appear as a flyout on the right side of the screen rather than taking over the entire screen.
  • The desktop background is now used as the background of the start screen. I though this sounded a lot like a gimmick when I first heard about it, but it genuinely does reduce the cognitive dissonance experienced when moving between the two UIs.
  • The Start button is back. I don't personally care as I've gotten used to it not being there, but hopefully it's return will go some way towards appeasing the masses. 
  • Better help on install. When you first installed Windows 8, it was very much a "go and figure it out" experience. Beyond the brief tutorial that appeared when starting for the first time and which I'm fairly sure no one ever paid any attention to, you were on your own when it came to learning the new UI. Windows 8.1 adds in some nice big helper blocks that point out things like the hot corners and how you can use drag/swipe to perform certain actions. If you've been using Windows 8 already, these will probably be a bit annoying as it's just telling you things you already now, but to new users they will go a long way in improving the transition to Windows 8 Modern UI.
  • More freedom when using multiple applications. You can now pick the amount of space each app takes up on your screen and have more than 2 of them. This is really such a basic feature that it should have been there from the beginning, better late than never I suppose.

I haven't played with it much yet, but I really like the new aggregated search view which brings up results from lots of difference sources all in a single very usable view.
 The Windows store was beyond poor in Windows 8. It was fine if you were looking for something specific but it was absolutely useless for discovering apps. This has been remedied in Windows 8.1, I'm hoping this will allow existing developers to make more money out of their apps and encourage more developers to get writing Windows 8 apps.

 There are a load of other features added, such as 3D printing support which isn't that big a deal currently but I think Microsoft have made a sly move in baking in OS level support for what is a growing technology.

The bad
The start button is back. Wait, didn't I just do this one? Yes I did, but in a prime example of "you can't please everyone all of the time", in the last year of using Windows 8 I've gotten used to having that extra slot on the taskbar and haven't remotely missed the venerable start button that used to occupy that number one slot. I completely agree with Microsoft's move of bringing it back, but they could've at least made it an option to not have it.

That's pretty much it for the bad, there really isn't that much to moan about in this release. It genuinely seems like Microsoft have taken the time to listen to users and fix the problems that have really plagued them. Some would say they should have listened to users during the Beta and Preview periods, and they're probably right. Hopefully, Microsoft have been a little humbled by their grand UI plans not being embraced as they had hoped. The concessions made in this release certainly seem to suggest that is the case.

The missing
WEI is gone! I'd really love to know the argument behind getting rid of the Windows Experience Index. It was a great tool that allowed your average user to easily see where the bottleneck was in their system without having to understand the various benchmarks or install software on their computer to perform tests against those benchmarks. I genuinely don't understand why this has been removed, perhaps Microsoft will come out with an explanation in the coming months.

Experience on my Dell Mini 9
I have a little Dell Mini 9 which I decided to use a tester for how Windows 8 ran on low powered hardware. For reference, it has a 1.6Ghz Atom, 1Gb of RAM, and a 14Gb hard disk. Windows 8 ran okay on this at first but suffered the inevitable slow down as time wore on to the point where it was pretty much unusable for anything serious. IE10 was not even worth starting. Also, I only had a couple of Gb change on the 14Gb hard disk.
 After doing a fresh install of 8.1, I had 5.2Gb free space on the hard disk, which astonished me and this little device suddenly seems a lot nippier than it was with a fresh Windows 8 install. IE11 is a lot faster than it's predecessor and I now use the Mini for email and Campfire on a daily basis.
 Time will tell if it keeps this speed boost or if it falls away with continued use, but you can see that some effort has gone in to improving performance for this release.

 So is it worthy of being a .1 release? Yes, I think it is. There are lots of small improvements here, if it only had half of them it would probably be SP1 in my eyes, but there are enough improvements and extra features here that make this more than a Service Pack.

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