Last week saw the preview release of the latest in Windows Operating Systems, Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1. We’ve been hearing about both for a while under the code name Windows Blue, and saw some of our first glimpses at TechEd, but now it was time to get our hands dirty and dig in. Being a bit impatient when it comes to new shiny things, I, like many of the Mirazon engineers, dove into both feet first. First up, I’d like to share my impressions of Windows 8.1. We’ll look at what’s new and awesome with the latest iteration as well as the pitfalls and where things can use a little more refinement.
I ride with a Surface Pro at my side as my main workstation, which is a blog post in and of itself, so installation of 8.1 was pretty easy. All that had to be done was to download an update from Microsoft and then hit the store for the 8.1 preview. This was true of laptops running Windows 8 Pro as well, but those running 8 Enterprise were required to wipe and reinstall. It is likely that an Enterprise edition of 8.1 will drop later, probably with an RTM.
The New, the Nitty, and the Gritty
As far as features, we’ll start at the beginning as it were, with the Start button. It’s back! Or a reasonable facsimile, at least. The familiar Windows logo down in the task bar has returned, but it still sends you to the Start screen rather than a Start menu just like its mouse-over cousin from Windows 8. There are some neat features added to the menu when you right-click the prodigal button, chief of them being the option to shut down/restart. It’s still possible to use the charms bar for shutdown, but now you can do what once took a swipe and three clicks in two.
I say the Start screen remains like it’s a bad thing, but there’s been significant improvement there as well. First off, it is now possible to edit multiple apps at a time by holding control as you right-click them. This gives you the ability to uninstall apps you don’t use in one fell swoop. You can also change sizes of multiple apps at a time and have additionally been given more size options. Worried about every program you install cluttering up your newly cleaned Start screen? Worry no more, as general apps are now found on a special app screen accessed via a down arrow on the Start screen. Apps are organized by name and category there, reducing clutter on the main screen but allowing things to be found easily. One of my favorite features, however, is the ability to customize the background of the Start screen to show your wallpaper which allows me to relive the glory of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory.
Search also got a glance by the development team and a lot of the unlikable things were done away with. For one, it no longer takes over your whole screen with your results. It slides in from the side, as before, but now your results appear right below the search box. The search results are no longer split into categories, allowing you quick access to everything whether you’re questing for a program, a setting, or a file. OneNote fans will be disappointed to note that Search has taken over the ever popular Windows+S combo though.
And now for a few odds and ends. As far as display options go, you can now scale your monitors separately. The snap-to feature also saw some changes, it now allows a 50-50 view in addition to the 70-30 we saw in the previous versions. Libraries are gone now, returning to the individual folder structure for your User data that we saw in days of yore. This has proven to be a controversial decision amongst those I’ve talked to, with some saying it was a great move and others using the library system to its fullest.
Looking at some other changes, I think libraries were actually discarded in favor of the better SkyDrive integration seen in Windows 8.1. SkyDrive is now available right in Windows Explorer and provides what appears to be true cloud storage if configured as such. The files you see in Explorer are actually just local links, showing a minuscule size on disk. This is definitely a feature I’ll be playing with more.
Caveats (there are a few)
Before you start wiping your hard drive in preparation for 8.1, I should remind you that this is a preview release, AKA a beta, and does have a few drawbacks. There are some compatibility issues found within the release, for the obvious reasons. Some products don’t have drivers yet and some web apps aren’t compatible with Internet Explorer 11, which also comes with 8.1. This can lead to hiccups and undesired results when you attempt to run 8.1 as your main operating system. My advice is to either run it in a VM or be prepared for these pitfalls beforehand by finding workarounds.
There are many more features to cover, such as IE 11’s native HTML5 support for media including Netflix streaming, or the improvements you can utilize in Hyper-V when running an 8.1 VM. There’s also new slideshow features with the Lock screen, allowing you to use it as a digital picture frame. I encourage those who are interested in seeing what’s coming around the bend from Microsoft to give 8.1 a try. For those reluctant to switch to Windows 8 due to the various changes made, stick it out for 8.1 and you’ll see a lot of your concerns and reluctance addressed, or just switch now; 8.1 will be a free upgrade. As for me, I’ll be running it and waiting for RTM with bated breath.