My Windows 8.1 Mini-Review
After installing the prerequisite update I proceeded to install the Windows 8.1 update via the Store. This proceeded seemingly smoothly but upon booting into Windows for the first time I was greeted with a BSOD, at which point my Windows install was automatically rolled back to the previous version. For what it's worth, this process was all seamless and all my data remained intact so Microsoft deserves some credit for having a robust install procedure. After the release of the .ISO from Microsoft I tried again to update my existing Windows 8 install but encountered the exact same problem. The only solution was to opt for a clean install, at which point everything proceeded smoothly.
Booting into Windows 8.1 I was greeted with the Windows betta fish, something that would be nice to see made a permanent inclusion. During setup I was given new options for customisation but I have to admit they were more limited than I was expecting and don't go far enough to providing users with customisation options.
The first issue I encountered with the clean install was that there were no nVidia drivers available through official channels - only via Windows Update. Not being adverse to change I proceeded to update my drivers through Windows Update but encountered a major issue - they didn't include the nVidia Control Panel, meaning I couldn't enable SLI. In the end I had to wait for an installer to be released unofficially, after which everything appeared functional. I had a few issues with stability at the beginning—right-clicking the desktop would sometimes cause the desktop to hang—but that seems to have stopped now. Using an external soundcard I installed the latest drivers from the manufacturer's website and configured them as usual. However, during gaming—and occasionally on the desktop—I experienced dropouts that required me to restart the unit, something which wasn't an issue in Windows 8.
The Start Screen
The new Start Screen is a definite improvement, especially the auto-colouring of desktop tiles - it's such a small detail but it makes such a big difference. The customisation options for the Start Screen have been expanded to include setting a different highlight colour to the background, though in order to see the results of this you can to keep going back and forth between the Start Screen and Charm Bar options. The biggest addition is the ability to use your desktop wallpaper as your background, which provides a greater degree of consistency but is not something I'd want to use on a permanent basis.
Organising multiple tiles has been made through the multi-select functionality and the group naming feature has been brought to the forefront, meaning it is now more likely to be used by your average user. Unsurprisingly this new functionality is not without usability issues, in this case right-clicking a tile will enter edit mode but unselecting it (by either left-clicking or right-clicking the same time) or clicking the empty space won't exit it - an extra click is required. The ability to rearrange groups is still hidden behind the Ctrl-Mousewheel Down command or tiny little '-' sign in the bottom right corner, meaning that most users will end up selecting and dragging multiple apps instead. While these are obviously relatively trivial issues they sour the overall experience.
Below is a comparison between the Start Screen in Windows 8 and Windows 8.1.
Just in case it isn't obvious there is a considerable difference in the size of the tiles. I've made a comparison to highlight the difference:
I think this might be related to monitor scaling, as in Windows 8 it defaulted to 125% scale (which is larger than previous Windows versions) whereas in Windows 8.1 it shows as 'smaller' (it's not shown as a percentage as the scales have changed). If anyone could shed any light on this it would be appreciated.
The new Store now takes advantage of high resolution displays (in my case 2560x1600), making it a notable improvement over the Windows 8 Store. Previously about a third of the screen was unused, which not only looked terrible but impeded usability. The entire user experience has been redesigned and this is a definite success story. It may take a few moments for users to adjust to the changes but once they have they should find it a much more rewarding experience.
Hot Corners And The Charm Bar
Minor tweaks have been made to the hot corners. As well as the ability to customise their functionality the Charm Bar icons now appear relative to the corner that you trigger it from, meaning that you don't have to move your mouse as far to get to the options. The boundary box has also been extending, meaning that on multi-monitor setups it is no longer as easy for the mouse to disappear onto another monitor. As someone who experienced this issue frequently with Windows 8 it is an improvement that I wholeheartedly welcome.
Hot Corner options:
Included is the option to boot directly to the desktop, another minor addition that makes a big difference.
Below you can see the new Charm Bar, in this case triggered from the bottom-right corner (the icons appear at the top when trigger from the top-right corner).
The modified Charm Bar:
This wasn't intended to be a comprehensive review, so there is a lot of functionality that I haven't mentioned. Overall Windows 8.1 is a step in the right direction but it certainly isn't a magical fix to the problems with Windows 8. It still annoys me that snapping a Metro app leaves the majority of the screen completely blank and that clicking it takes you back to the Start Screen. And now with the variable resizing of Metro apps there's the issue that expanding a Metro app on top of the desktop will resize desktop apps and won't restore them upon close - that is horrible functionality. Hopefully Microsoft will continue to improve functionality and features before the final release.
Overall Score: C+