Windows 8.1 review
Microsoft's latest update brings the worlds of touch and desktop together more successfully than before, although there's still plenty of work to do
This is our preliminary verdict on the Windows 8.1 Preview released in late June 2013
When Steve Ballmer introduced Windows 8.1 at Microsoft’s Build conference, he used the word "blend" so often that you wondered whether this was an operating system or a new brand of coffee.
Clearly stung by the criticism that Windows 8 focused on tablets at the expense of non-touch PCs, Microsoft has attempted to make the new Modern interface and the old-fashioned desktop "blend" more cohesively. It's also worked hard to shrink Windows 8 for the hot devices of the moment: compact tablets.
Have these two, seemingly contradictory, goals been achieved? Or is Windows 8.1 still the awkward hybrid of tablet and desktop OS that its predecessor was? Here's our initial verdict on the Windows 8.1 Preview.
Changes to the Windows 8.1 UI are apparent right from the moment you install the Preview. The Start screen has been given a considerable revamp. There are two new tile sizes: "small", which is a quarter of the size of the previous square tiles, and "large", which doubles the size of the previous large tiles.
The new large tiles aren't only easier to strike on a touchscreen – especially 8in tablets – but deliver more Live Tile information. Switch the Weather app to "large", for example, and you get tomorrow's forecast in addition to today's; the revamped Mail app will deliver three message previews instead of only one.
It's also much easier to keep the Start screen tidy and manageable in Windows 8.1. Apps are no longer installed on the Start screen by default; instead, they’re sent straight to the All Apps menu, which can now be accessed simply by swiping upwards on the Start screen. From there, you can decide to pin newly installed apps on the Start screen. It's a much neater way of giving you quick access to a directory of everything installed on the device, leaving the Start screen for essential apps, or those that deliver extra value via their Live Tiles.
App handling has also been much improved. Windows 8 only allowed users to open two apps at a time, and imposed the bizarre restriction that one of them had to squeeze into a sliver down one side of the screen. With Windows 8.1, users can resize apps to whatever width they prefer, allowing you to devote half the screen to Internet Explorer, say, and the other half to a video you’re watching. It’s even possible to have two windows of the same app running side by side.
Sometimes the split-screen mode is invoked automatically. Click on a link in an email, for example, and the OS automatically opens a browser window on the right-hand side of the screen, meaning you’re not rudely thrown out of your inbox as you were previously.